David Harsent’s Loss reviewed by John Wheway
Loss by David Harsent. £14.99 (HB). Faber. 978-0571290550
‘In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.’ (F. Scott Fitzgerald, ‘The Crack-up’)
With his new book, David Harsent invites his readers to get lost. To get lost, that is, with his protagonist, an Everyman-poet, with whom we endure the ‘white nights’ of the book’s subtitle, as he sleeplessly witnesses the civilised world disintegrating before his eyes: ‘the worst already with us/dogfight politics barrel-bombs/children scorched faceless/deluge and wildfire.’ A world where we see ‘the puppet-clown virtuoso/of filibuster and farce./His teeth chatter with rage/and glee his eyes rattle/in his head’, a world where whores and demagogues are in the ascendant, in which ‘The young/are ransomed the unborn gone to waste.’
Each of the twenty sections of what is in effect one extended poem (the individual sections are numbered, and without titles) has a similar formal pattern, which perhaps might provide a haven for the reader through what is a harrowing and unrelenting exposure to the paradoxes of nurture and destruction in our individual finitude. There is a kind of prelude (in italics) in which the protagonist contemplates the city at night, and recalls fragments of a broken dream of a lone man in a white landscape. Then a fourteen-liner, (we are not granted the security of the sonnet form), giving us the man, followed by a longer segment in unrhymed short lines in which the man is addressed, or perhaps talks to himself; and to end with, a rhymed quatrain. Thus, formally, the sections are cycles of impassioned meditation returning again and again to the themes of disintegration, loss, the difficulties of love, the sense of having sinned (often by omission), the longing for redemption through pilgrimage and suffering, for meaning in a life in which the greatest loss might be the inability to make sense of things, especially of our own destructiveness.
Harsent’s ageing insomniac imagines what it would be like to live without whisky or wine, without music ‘and nothing to fill the hollow of your heart?’. There are the ‘Women of the house,’ benign figures, but somehow unavailable, leaving him to imagine ’bones drying under your skin, skin/pulling back from finger bones and cheekbones, bald at heel and toe,/your eyeballs gone to a crust, your arsehole a pinprick, all/for want of love.’
F Scott Fitzgerald describes his crack-up (quoted at the beginning) as becoming ‘an unwilling witness of an execution, the disintegration of one’s own personality’. Harsent’s Everyman is going through something very similar. As the sequence continues, he recalls ‘Heartache presenting/as heartache a sense/of unease as if something/had shifted or spoiled standing/day after day before Bacon’s/Fragment of a Crucifixion that/and Bonnard’s mysteries/of domesticity’. On the one hand, Bacon’s violence and horror which is echoed so often in the imagery of the poems, on the other, Bonnard’s domestic scenes which seem to offer consolation, ‘as if forgiveness/ might be allowed and even now.’ Yet the horror seems to prevail: ‘death/squatting still on Yemen/its children given up/to fire (and fire it will surely be/fire now and fire hereafter)’.
Images of chaos and destruction recur in a steady crescendo. At times though, the religiosity that in childhood made him glory God in song seems to offer the hope that he at least might be saved through pilgrimage and retribution. As a returning pilgrim, he is sheltered in the presence of people ‘with open smiles’ who sing, ‘eyes lit by certainty a shine/to their cheeks’, but he is conscious of ‘endless/darkness underfoot/a shift in the floorstones/shudder of something/on the rise as might have been/the same pitch that defileth/as might have been/a disturbance among the dead.’ He can’t join them in their joy and certainty, is absorbed by ‘the naked/Saviour stock-still on the cross/gone deep into his sadness/a man of sorrows/and acquainted with heartbreak.’ At the end of this section, an apocalyptic quatrain in which every line-ending resounds with ‘fire’:
The desert prophet says things will end in fire.
Men of science too. Scribes and crystal-gazers, fire
the sure prediction. Red skies, the pitch and howl of fire-
storm, barrel bombs falling through it, fire feeding on fire.
Seeming consolation repeatedly gives way to something more mysterious, mixed with darkness. At table, women leave ‘a place among them for him as if it would always be that way’. The food is blessed and passed round: ‘The ritual calmed him to the point of sadness. He learned/that all food is sacrament’, yet later he watches ‘the way/a rabbit might be hulked and jointed, the way it spilled.’ The women’s ‘soft hands’ are ‘gloved in blood/the room is a black chapel then, the song, the sacrifice.’ While the dogged or perhaps obsessional search for meaning goes on, by the penultimate section, we read:
There is no true healing
not at the well of sorrows
not at the whipping post not
at the communion rail
(Christ’s firebreak) not in
the hall of mirrors where
you are set to rights
not in the basement bar
where you sit down
to a whisky-chain
and fall and rise and fall
back into a raw dawn light…
Nor is there final consolation in this poem. The final line mimics one in the opening prelude:
00:00 and the full of the night yet to come.
as if there can be no conclusion, the continuation of the cycle of suffering and the attempt to live with it.
It’s a difficult way to take leave of the poem, yet is in keeping with the poet’s unflinching focus on his Everyman figure, who like the rest of us, must search for a way to deal, hope against hope, with our human predicament,
‘Loss’ is poem of high ambition, and David Harsent brings all his lyric gifts to bear on the enterprise. The result is a book which, while arduous to read, achieves thrilling heights of eloquence. For our times, it is a necessary poem.
John Wheway’s poems have appeared in New Measure, Stand, Magma, The Warwick Review, Poetry Review, the Yellow Nib, Poetry Quarterly, the Compass Magazine, South Word, Agenda, the High Window, And Other Poems His flash fiction has also been widely published. Anvil Press poetry published his chapbook The Green Table of Infinity, and Faber published his novella Poborden. He has a Creative Writing MA from Bath Spa. His collection A Bluebottle in Late October will be be published by V Press in May 2020.
Julia Copus’s Girlhood reviewed by William Bedford
Girlhood by Julia Copus, £14.99 (HB). Faber and Faber. ISBN: 978-0-571-35106-0
In the ‘Acknowledgements’ to her new collection Julia Copus offers ‘thanks to the girlhood that is Iphigenia’, an allusion as suggestive as Eliot’s ‘Notes’ on Tiresias. Going further, the first poem, ‘The Grievers,’ begins ‘At length we learned what it meant to “come to” grief,’ yet goes on to celebrate the defiance – ‘But to find we were able -/that was the miracle’ – which is at the heart of Girlhood. And the defiance is not simply the poet’s:
And when I say we . . .
Look out into the street – we are everywhere:
on bikes, at bus-stops, among the crowds
of those who have not happened yet on grief.
Girlhood is arranged in two parts. In the eponymous first part, life-changing experiences are explored using novelistic or filmic techniques. ‘A Thing Once it has Happened’ has a university tutor introducing a female student to Propertius’s Elegies, ‘the meekness he affects’ allowing him to translate ‘rumpat/ut assiduis membra libidinibus’ as ‘May his cock/be broken by insatiable lust.’ The ‘meekness’ is a pose to disguise his bullying, which the student recognises when she checks the translation and finds that it should more accurately read ‘Let his insatiate lust/break all his strength.’ In this exercise of power, the student is left feeling the ‘fungibility’ which in economics argues that individual units are essentially interchangeable. The incident is titled ‘During,’ the poem then going on to explore the ‘Before’ which led the girl into the abuse, leaving her desperately wishing ‘I want to go back, out of the bad stories,’ but knowing ‘A thing once it has happened/will always have happened.’
‘The Great Unburned’ has ‘the witches you forgot to burn’ haunting the nightmares of the ‘good, clean souls’ of the citizens who occupy ‘the city, the towers, the golf-course’. The music of the language here – ‘Ding, dong, bell, it’s lonely in hell/and only a fire will keep out the chill’ – reminds the abusers that ‘devilry skulks in the shadows’ where ‘the crack in the tea-cup opens/A lane to the land of the dead’ as ‘One by one we are gathering now, preparing to return.’ But there is no opportunity for a ‘return’ in ‘Some Questions for Later,’ where a ‘vicar-grandfather’ and a Stepfather lurk in a house where the child is ‘eight or nine’ and ‘None/of the clocks’ are turning, ‘(As in – What’s the time, Mr Wolf?/It’s NONE o’clock!)’ ‘What can I say?’ the narrator asks. ‘That bad things happened there./That they are happening still.’
For me, the longest and most powerful poem in this first part is undoubtedly ‘Acts of Anger,’ where ‘two twelve-year old girls’ decide to make a birthday cake to save themselves from the ‘ulcerated’ furies of ‘the Gaffer,’ the violent male dominating the house. The poem alternates between domestic scenes in the kitchen and quotations from Plutarch, Shakespeare and various anthropologists, theorising about the function of anger across cultures. The cake finished, the girls go to the shops to buy Smarties and ‘small jelly hands’ for decoration, but when they return, ‘the door gets sucked/back into’ the house and ‘Implodes.’ The ‘girls begin to protest’, but it is too late. The ‘air is already curdling/with the iron-tang of insults/and obscenities’. At this point, ‘a fissure appears in the story’, the girl who is the main victim remembering only a teatime party where ‘her eyelids were hot and puffy/from crying’ and everybody was singing ‘Happy Birthday, dear Gaffer’. She remains anonymous, like all the females in the story.
The second part of Girlhood is a thirty-five -page exchange between patient and analyst titled Marguerite. The patient is Marguerite Pantaine, admitted to Sainte-Anne psychiatric hospital after her attempted murder of the actress Huguette Duflos. The analyst is Jacques Lacan, a trainee psychoanalyst whose notes on the case established his reputation. Copus’s introductory note makes the power relations clear from the start.
The poem includes extracts from Lacan’s Casebooks, poems by Pantaine, and Consulting Room records where they both speak for themselves: interestingly, Lacan always given his proper name, Pantaine always referred to as Marguerite. There are also occasional mentions of other anonymous ‘Inpatients,’ silent witnesses. A remarkable dramatization of an entire world.
But there is one clear diagnostic issue which highlights both Lacan’s obtuseness and Pantaine’s resistance. The clues emerge slowly, like pieces of evidence in free association. Lacan’s sense of the psychoanalytic process: ‘the long, precipitous hill and the climbing of it’. Marguerite’s sense of Lacan: ‘At times he drops his voice//and talks as you might to a small, slow-witted child’. Her abrupt talk of the arrival of a son ‘as he must,/in the wake of his poor dead sister’, followed by her memory of ‘the little head/I cupped in the palm of one hand’ during breast feeding. This seems to provoke an angry ‘Doctor, indeed!’ and the perceptive ‘His pleas are all to the good/but my words are buried deep and if they rose/each one would fail///the way a precious child will also suffer/exposed too long to the company of strangers’. This is a turning point, as Marguerite talks in agonising detail about the morning ‘the telephone sang out’ and instead of ‘my baby girl’s full-throated cry’ she hears ‘the midwife’s meagre Vraiment désolée’: I am awfully sorry.
The objective medical world now appears in the text, Lacan asking about ‘the birth of your daughter’, Marguerite refusing to answer, silently offering her own view of her doctor’s intentions: ‘He is assembling a theory/and I am the proof of it.//Because I will not speak.’ The final reality comes when we learn that Marguerite’s first child was ‘a stillborn daughter,’ Lacan believing that it was after the birth of her son that she ‘fashioned the notion/that certain people – specifically, certain/women – were intent on separating you/from your son’. The attempted murder of Huguette Duflos followed from this delusion.
As the ‘Acknowledgements’ suggest, Iphigenia is clearly a significant inspiration for the imaginative landscape of Copus’s Girlhood, but her own felt life informs every word of this remarkable, undaunted collection.
William Bedford’s poetry has appeared Agenda, The Dark Horse, The Frogmore Papers, Encounter, The John Clare Society Journal, London Magazine, The New Statesman, Poetry Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, The Tablet, Temenos, The Warwick Review, The Washington Times and many others. Red Squirrel Press published The Fen Dancing in March 2014 and The Bread Horse in October 2015. He won first prize in the 2014 London Magazine International Poetry Competition. Dempsey & Windle published Chagall’s Circus in April 2019.
Don Paterson’s Zonal reviewed by Mike Farren
Zonal by Don Paterson. £14.99 (HB). Faber. ISBN: 978-0-571-33824-5.
According to Paterson’s introductory ‘Note’ for Zonal, (his sixth original collection, along with translations from Machado and Rilke), his starting point for the book was “the first season of the classic television series The Twilight Zone (1959-60)”. For some reason, the collection also reminded me of a meme doing the social media rounds, featuring a bookshop window notice to the effect that, “Post-apocalyptic fiction has been moved to the current affairs section”.
Fans of The Twilight Zone (or post-apocalyptic fiction) may object to my conflation but I feel Zonal takes a position between the pulp horror of the former and the more existential horror of the latter to produce a work that must have been zeitgeisty at time of creation – and has been rendered more so by events leading up to publication.
Paterson has the knack of being able to take off in entirely new directions – new subject matter, new forms, even a new tone – yet remain entirely himself. Zonal does all these things. For Paterson’s earlier preoccupation with ‘high art’ (Zurbarán in Rain, plus any number of poets and writers as well as Machado and Rilke) and his own musical niche (e.g. Natalie ‘Tusja’ Beridze – of whom more later), here we have late 50’s sci-fi. For the (mostly) formally constrained 40 Sonnets, there’s an expansive, long-lined, flexible free verse in play. As for the tone, there’s a laconic, hard-boiled aphoristic quality, in keeping with the collection’s source and the way the poems come at ‘big’ questions from odd angles.
Of Zonal’s connection to The Twilight Zone, Paterson notes that the poems “take their imaginative cue” from the series. Mostly, my generation (the same one as Paterson’s) has perhaps always been aware of, but never immersed in, the series. Consequently, I can’t comment on whether the experience of reading is enriched by familiarity with the original. However, Paterson suggests, “They are, for the most part, experiments in science-fictional or fantastic autobiography and monologue, and take great liberties with both the source material and my own life.” My suspicion is that most readers can treat The Twilight Zone connection as a MacGuffin for the production of these poems and for their concerns.
That notion of an autobiographical element, though, is something else with which to conjure as well as a bit of a tease. Familial and close personal relationships are continually interrogated and the presence (or otherwise) in ‘Poem for my Brother on the 29th of October’ of Scott, a brother who died as an infant, takes us back at least as far as God’s Gift to Women’s ‘Addenda’ in terms of Paterson’s thematic concerns.
Indeed, for all the novelty of Zonal, resonances with earlier work abound, the pool game in ‘The Higher Hustle’ perhaps even taking us back to the table in ‘The Ferryman’s Arms’ in Nil Nil. Likewise, despite science fictional trappings, the impression left by some of these poems is close to that of an extended aphorism, linking them to three other works from Paterson’s oeuvre.
At the most aphoristic / philosophical end of the register is ‘The Deal’, where the Devil explains how he harvests souls, despite promising eternal life:
Without death, this place becomes the hell it is.
The place that only death was protecting you from.
The poem, like the rest of the collection, contains plenty of humour, with this particular Devil pulling himself up for sounding like H. P. Lovecraft and comparing souls that come his way to sub-prime mortgages.
This mixture of the theological with the grounded is carried through in other poems, such as ‘Lazarus’ and the astounding ‘A Crucifixion’. Here, the narrator mends (with glue) a broken crucifix, whose nails were originally painted on, only to find that an estranged partner had previously repaired it by hammering a real nail through the Christ figure. The many speculations about the implications of his and his ex-partner’s choices are rounded off by his saying:
Looking back, I am not sure you existed; I know you were
here only by the hole left in me,
the real scar left by the imitation of love I let you hammer
Zonal reaches its most Twilight Zone-like in poems like the opener, ‘Death’, a riff on the Death and the Maiden motif, with a salesman attempting to bargain a way out of the inevitable. ‘The Way We Were’, on the other hand leans more towards Black Mirror, with a vision of glitchy technology allowing virtual-reality access to memories.
There are very funny poems of poetic rivalry (‘You Guys’ and ‘The Old White Male Poet: an Allegory’ – the poet as fading gunslinger) and diversions into jazz obscurantism (‘The Death Mask of the Guitarist’) but the poem that best unites its source, contemporary relevance and emotional poignancy is ‘Feeling Things’. Starting with a dismissal of a particular episode of The Twilight Zone, Paterson adds:
I am genuinely grateful to now be living in the age
of superior television drama
…before going on to riff on various series, culminating in Anglo-French drama The Tunnel, which ends with a scene of sacrifice and devastating loss by which he is ‘run through’ as a foretaste of personal loss.
As for the form of the volume, Paterson used the elongated line to comic effect in his Forward Prize-winning ‘Song for Natalie ‘Tusja’ Beridze’ but here it has an immediate naturalness that gives him the anecdotal and philosophical room to manoeuvre the poems need. It struck me that you could perhaps see Zonal as a small-screen counterpart to the cinematic quality of Robin Robertson’s The Long Take. If I missed at all the formal satisfaction of earlier Paterson collections, there was more than enough to make up for it in the well-maintained narrative voice here.
Like Paterson’s best work, Zonal is funny without being trivial, discursive without being undisciplined and entirely novel while being wholly characteristic. A quirky, tangential triumph.
Mike Farren’s poems have appeared widely in journals and anthologies. He has been placed and commended in several competitions, including as ‘canto’ winner for Poem of the North (2018) and runner-up in The Blue Nib’s Chapbook Contest (2019). His debut pamphlet, Pierrot and his Mother (Templar) was published by in 2017, followed by All of the Moon’ (Yaffle) in 2019. He co-hosts Rhubarb open mic in Shipley, W.Yorks. Website: http://www.mikefarren.co.uk/