23 June 2022, The Tablet

How poetry and sacrament help us stay with the contradictions of Catholicism

Faith and literature

How poetry and sacrament help us stay with the contradictions of Catholicism

Lady Godiva puppet figure at the Queen's Platinum Jubilee Pageant parade in The Mall, London, UK. Female caricature by Imagineer from Coventry.
Avpics / Alamy


In a world defined by speed, anger and resentment, poetry revealing God hidden in all things drew a professor of literature into the Church

ONE OF MY first in-person teaching moments post-lockdown was a public workshop discussion of Cathy Galvin’s poem “Walking the Coventry Ring Road with Lady Godiva”, for the Coventry City of Culture celebrations. We discussed how the poem’s Lady Godiva (referred to by Galvin as the Old English “Godgifu”) guides the narrator and her listeners around a spiritual map of the ring road,
past its Benedictine monastery (later St Mary’s Priory), Carmelite Friary Whitefriars, and London Road memorial cemetery.

Those who attended the workshop reminisced about the spaces Galvin described, only recently re-opened to them and newly evoking memories and reflections that had been closed off for so many months. This retrospective, almost elegiac, focus befitted the moment, so many of us having experienced death and grief during the pandemic.

I had reread Galvin’s poem the summer before the workshop and found myself entranced by her Godiva as a Marian figure who was lauded by her contemporaries for her religious commitment to Catholic people and institutions. The poem lightly brings together a Godiva who embodies redemption, beauty, purity, and holiness with the brutalist architecture of the 1960s: Godiva blesses the
infamous concrete and steel collar of the city as a holy and sacred site that shines candlelike at the centre of the city. Galvin’s line “A single candle shows the way” (canto V) is illustrated in the print version of the poem by a circling, abstract image of the road that flames out of the page like a stream of incense.


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