Fire Songs, David Harsent, Faber and Faber, 2014, 80pp, £12.99 (hardback)
Sailing the Forest – Selected Poems, Robin Robertson, Picador, 2014, 272pp, £20 (hardback)
There’s a nice literary irony in the fact David Harsent was encouraged to move towards even greater narrative in his work by Ian Hamilton, high priest of English minimalist poetry. It was Hamilton who gave Harsent his literary break in the pages of the Review in the late 1960s. But after reading Harsent’s News from the Front(1993), the famed champion of poetic intensity pressed his old friend to pursue longer-lined lyrical amplitude. (In 2006, Harsent told The Independent: ‘Ian wrote me a letter about it. He said ‘this book is impeccable, you know how to do it, but why don’t you try lengthening your line? So I did.’) But in truth, Harsent was drawn towards more extended, if oblique poetic storytelling from the start. Tonight’s Lover, his 1968 pamphlet debut from the Review, included ‘The Woman and the Roses,’ a poem in three sections, which seemed wildly ambitious for the parsimonious house style of Hamilton’s magazine. A Violent Country (1969), Harsent’s first collection, pushed the boat out even further in the eight-part sequence ‘The Woman’s Soliloquies,’ while even his more spartan Hamiltonian second book, After Dark(1973), contained several poems which bravely went over the page. But the big leap forward, in terms of full-blown narrative, came with the book-length collection, Mister Punch (1984.) Building on three poems in his previous book, Dreams of the Dead (1977), Mister Punch represented a Grand Guignol poetic tour de force, the book’s priapic eponymous central character being both victim and aggressor, projecting his desires and psychic pain on everyone he encountered, particularly women, as in ‘Punch on the Boul’ Mich’:
Girls in the Luxembourg Gardens, girls on the boulevard.
The appalling tyranny of unfoxed loveliness.
By eschewing purely lyric autobiography, Roger Garfitt in the TLS felt Mister Punchshowed Harsent becoming ‘the master of more voices than the first person,’ in a collection demonstrating ‘the complex resonances of a novel.’ But Harsent has enjoyed more than one string to his literary bow for years, writing crime novels under the pseudonyms Jack Curtis and David Lawrence, being the librettist-of-choice for leading English composer Harrison Birtwistle, while also earning a crust as a TV scriptwriter. This authorial variousness is perhaps reflected in the move towards greater narrative content and book-length poetic fictions in his work. Half ofMarriage (2002), for example, explored the relationship between the painter Pierre Bonnard and his muse and later wife, Marthe de Meligny, the sequence’s twenty-seven poems charting the mysteries and half-truths of the marriage bed. What Larkin called ‘The anaesthetic from which none come round’ was the chief thematic concern of A Bird’s Idea of Flight (1998). An exploration of thanatology, or the science of death, the book seemed to impress and puzzle critics in equal measure. Alan Brownjohn called it ‘finely crafted and fiercely ingenious poetry telescoped into a little shop of horrors’; for Ruth Padel, it was ‘an Odyssey in and out of death;’ while Robert Potts declared the influence of Paul Muldoon too pronounced. There was greater critical consensus about Legion (2005), a series of episodic poetic dispatches from an unidentified war zone. The book, which won the 2005 Forward prize, underlined Harsent’s ability to adapt his incisive, dark lyricism for a larger canvas. WhileLegion’s violent mise en scène could be Bosnia, the imagery captures the brutal universality of war. Like Eliot’s Webster, Harsent is ‘much possessed by death.’ Death and loss stalked Harsent’s next book, Night (2011), the poet exploring disturbing raw material in unsettling, often suburban settings, using layered leitmotifs and mythical archetypes. Apart from what Harsent himself called ‘observable pick-ups in image and language,’ Night was also distinguished by a propulsive, occasionally vertiginous lyric sense, driving his dark, oblique narratives forward, most notably in ‘Elsewhere,’ the 749-line quest-poem which closes the impressive collection.
Many of the stylistic features of Night are again evident in Harsent’s latest book, Fire Songs, the poet marshalling his ample poetic toolbox, including full and end-rhymes, for more extended dark tales, fuelled by thematic concerns ranging from rats to tinnitus, fire to trickster figures, war to haunted dreamscapes. The collection’s longest sequence, ‘A Dream Book,’ carries an instructive epigraph – ‘in somnis veritas’ – and a classic Harsent opening, with two typically vulnerable lovers caught ‘in a place they mistook for a place/ of safety.’ Generally obsessive meditations on the murky no-man’s-land between sleep and waking or life and death, Harsent’s poems constantly blur the edges of consciousness, inhabiting what Eliot, in ‘The Hollow Men,’ called ‘death’s dream kingdom’:
Where the dead go through in their finery, where they go
among remnants of themselves, soft jostle, slow
promenade, a torrent of whispers, and leave a terrible press
on the air, suffocation to the living, no more, no less
than weight of sorrow, weight of loss,
memory as vacuum, love unpicked, what last words allow.
The lovers conjured up in the poem, like many others in Harsent’s work, are sensual creations of the imagination’s possessive eye: ‘She lives in his mind’s eye; he has her there, all love, all risk.’
As Fiona Sampson noted in The Independent, many of the latest poems ‘explore a dreamscape that is half memory, half prophecy,’ while also marrying personal and political concerns. But readers often have to take Harsent’s poetic fictions on trust. While the book’s extended, noirish sequences are studded with brilliant local detail, they are often not big on clarity. Protagonists are similarly often shadowy, evanescent figures, ciphers of some generally elusive reality:
They’re watching a train go by, or they’re on the train
looking out. They wave to one other. And, yes, they own
something of this: a dawn sky in Tiepolo blue
and blood-smudge, the view from the window, the view
from the hillside where they stand … except the stain
of their faces in the glass, indelible, is all that’s true.
There are also times when the reader wishes Harsent would rein in his freewheeling poetic meditations, whatever the pleasures of his pin-sharp imagery, when we encounter lines such as ‘A rearrangement of stars, the long low intergalactic groan/of light unfolding in vastness …’ At such moments, Harsent’s considerable poetic gift can feel like a self-imitative lyric engine, a fear expressed by Paul Batchelor in his less-than-favourable review of Fire Songs in the New Statesman: ‘The same cadences, vocabulary and syntactical patterns seem to be tightening their grip on Harsent’s work and there is a nagging sense that such stylistic elements are making ever more decisions for him.’ Some sections of Fire Songs also risk lapsing into an enervating, Crow-like exercise in nomenclature, as in ‘Sang the Rat’:
Some say the rat is harbinger of death some say the dead go into rats
some say rats can tell the stars that rats are star-born some say
that what rats know best was long since lost to us that what rats
know best are the soul’s dim corners …
Of course, Harsent is a master of the tensile poetic line, which he can adapt or shape at will, but such technical facility – as in the later Muldoon – does risk poetic self-indulgence. And the reader may question the value of the amplitude afforded by Harsent’s other career as a librettist, when some poetic sequences read like too much of a good thing. But when Harsent’s poetic imagination is more focused, as in the opening poem, ‘Fire: a song for Mistress Askew,’ the results are impressive. Inhabiting the body of the sixteenth-century martyr-poet Anne Askew at the very moment of death, Harsent informs his lyrical line with both poetic intensity and historical resonance:
Norfolk, Bonner, Bowes, priests, judges, one and all
the Devil’s dishwashers. Before they lit the stack,
Shaxton preached repentance. Broken, she listened.
The crowd stood round in a ring, ten deep, and felt the scorch.
Technically, Harsent has few peers. Combining great narrative drive with lyrical acuity, his best poetry is high-risk and ambitious. His work asks much of the reader, but the rewards can be great. But Fire Songs occasionally feels premature, coming just a few short years after his bravura previous collection, Night. Some may also think he should better resist the call of the commissioned poem. But David Harsent remains a poet of the first order, making all his books essential reading.
In common with Harsent’s work, Robin Robertson’s poetry can be very bleak, almost parodically so. There’s online footage of the Scots poet at the prestigious Dodge Poetry Festival in the USA. After reading ‘Ghost of a Garden’ – which ends with the lines ‘In the corner of the shed my father is weeping/ and I cannot help him because he is dead’ – Robertson tells the audience, with the faintest smile playing about his lips, ‘I haven’t got the time to read any of my long funny poems.’ The audience laughs, immediately getting the joke. There’s a clenched, austere tonal quality to most of his work, in lyrics defined in the press release to his ample and welcome selected poems Sailing the Forest as ‘brooding, dark and often ravishingly beautiful.’ The poems’ default setting is dark, Hobbesian, fatalistic. And those looking for poetic consolation in Robertson’s work should look elsewhere. But even sympathetic critic Sean O’Brien, reviewing The Wrecking Light (2010), suggested the poems’ saturnine qualities can represent ‘a beautiful nightmare, in which the illusion of choice is the accelerant of doom. There are moments … when Private Frazer in Dad’s Army comes to mind (‘we’re all doomed’.)’ While praising the carefully weighted, crafted nature of the poems, which can develop a sombre, visionary power from local detail, while repeatedly setting human relationships against harsh coastal scenes and seascapes, Ben Wilkinson in the TLS voiced a common critical reservation: ‘The problem with Robertson’s approach, however, remains in his poems’ almost Wordsworthian reflectiveness and indulgent introspection. At times, one longs for more of the dry humour so sparsely demonstrated in places, if only to offset the bleakness and isolation in poems that, when not inward-looking, depict a relentlessly brutal world …’ Nicholas Laird, meanwhile, has suggested Robertson’s poems ‘can play too safe; they are tentative about overreaching their occasion, and consequently can seem end-stopped, cut down or off. Like the objects described, the poems sometimes fall away …’ But despite such critical doubts, and the tenebrous quality of most of his work, Robertson has carved out a distinctive niche in contemporary poetry.
A Painted Field (1997), his debut, contained few of the false starts or stylistic uncertainties common to first collections. By not publishing his first book until he was in his forties – calling the poems the ‘result of about 15 years’ of accretion’ – Robertson’s hard-won, flinty lyricism seemed fully realized. The book introduced readers to a highly tensile poetic line, controlled by dark, mysterious impulses and classical imperatives which would become such a feature of his later work, as in his version from Ovid, ‘The Flaying of Marsyas’:
The sail of stretched skin thrills and snaps
in the same breeze that makes his nerves
fire, his bare lungs scream.
Again, several of the titles mark out Robertson’s bleak poetic terrain (‘After the Overdose,’Lithium,’ ‘A Decomposition’), but the book won wide critical acclaim and the Forward Poetry Prize for Best First Collection. More critical praise followed for the poet’s second book, Slow Air (2002), whose opening poem, ‘Apart,’ is a typically Robertsonian study in psychological displacement, set against a stark, natural backdrop, where characters are ‘drawn to edges, to our own/parapets and sea-walls: finding our lives/ in relief, in some forked storm.’ Rilke version ‘Fall’ captures a similar sense of lives slipping away, where ‘My hand, my heart,/stall and drift in darkness, see-sawing down.’ But even when the work occasionally moves outside its stark, Caledonian environment, the subject is, typically, the death-haunted figure of painter Mark Rothko (‘Maroon, Over Black and Red.’) Once again, Sean O’Brien suggested the poems risked underselling lyrical resonance by hardening into a kind of bleak, existential posture, ‘as if the reader approaches the poems only to find them guarded by a doorman with ‘gravitas’ tattooed on his forehead.’ But the book also saw the poet again pursuing imaginative freedoms in versions of the classics (which Robertson has called ‘a source of great nutrition’), including Ovid’s Metamorphoses(‘Asterion and the God’) and a three-line version of Pliny, ‘Natural History,’ which also name-checked the poet’s first collection:
Draw the curtain that
cannot be pulled, watch birds peck
at a painted field.
In his ‘other’ professional life, Robertson is a noted literary editor, who helped launch the careers of such significant Scottish writers as James Kelman, Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner and A. L. Kennedy. But his poetry is seemingly kept quite separate from his metropolitan, literary life, being curated and then released in short, concentrated bursts. The son of a Church of Scotland minister, Robertson grew up in Aberdeenshire, where the landscape is studded with standing stones and cloaked in myth. Such a background undoubtedly feeds into the poetry, often obsessively so, as ‘Swimming in the Woods’ explains:
Besieged by symmetries, condemned
to these patterns of love and loss.
Love and loss, particularly the latter, are central themes in Robertson’s poetry. (Slow Air reads like an extended, book-length elegy for the poet’s minister father.) A sense of familial or generational isolation also haunts the poems, in which all adults are actual or imagined orphans. ‘Crimond,’ a poem from Robertson’s last collection, Hill of Doors (2013), is both an elegy for the Scottish woman who wrote the standard musical setting for the 23rd psalm and another lament for the poet’s father, Robertson noting: ‘How far we all are from where we thought we’d be.’ The same deracinated note is struck in the beautifully modulated ‘Hammersmith Winter,’ which closes The Wrecking Light:
Through the drawn curtain
shines the snowlight I remember as a boy,
sitting up at the window watching it fall.
But you’re not here, now, to lead me back
to bed. None of you are.
Bleakly beautiful, haunted by the unrecoverable past and marked by great imaginative intensity, the poems in Sailing the Forest are the real thing.