Monday, December 10, 2007

David Harsent

David Harsent is a poet who is not afraid to say things that can be used against him, as in these lines from "House of Women" (in his Selected Poems: 1969-2005, Faber and Faber, 2007):

The band
was fifes and drums, or pipes and drums, or brass
and woodwind and drums, it doesn't matter much.

That last phrase struck me, on page 60 of this 133-page collection. It was the first thing I underlined or marked at all (which means I skipped the poems included here from Harsent's first books), and I thought that it perfectly identified the problems I was having with Harsent's work: there are a lot of details, and they are often richly put, but the particular details don't seem to matter much.

I soon found myself granting that Harsent can write beautiful lines:

where a fall of snow
lies over yesterday's fall
with a night of ice between.

(from "Fylfot")

A slammed door sings
in the strings of the upright grand.

(from "House at Midnight")

But even the poems from A Bird's Idea of Flight, which I had read when it came out and which had struck me as completely singular then, did not thrill me often, though they often impressed me. In my notes to "Coverack," I wrote: "A perfect example of how singular Harsent is. It's powerful and rich, but it feels as if it never offers a way in, or that if you started heading in, you'd quickly get lost. It does not resist understanding; it resists interpretation."

And here is my next note, to "The Impostor" (originally from the same book): "Narrative poems, several pages long, funny and strikingly told, but without a sense of depth. The oddity might be compared to Kafka, but Kafka's stories make a promise that they fulfill: 'This is a strange story, but if you keep looking at it closely, it will open up for you.' Harsent's don't even seem to make that promise. They seem to say, 'I am a strange poem that will resist anything you do to me.' A fairer comparison might be to Sweeney, whose poems do promise something."

And then I am tempted to use things against him again: "Didn't we decide, right away, it was a sham?" (from section VIII of Marriage). And just when I might decide that Harsent's incredible productive work "doesn't matter much," he'll knock my socks off with an image again, as in section XV:

Next, it's your face coming free

of the summer dress, as you greet
yourself in the mirror.

Section XXVII suggests that, contrary to my claims about how Harsent's poetry makes no promise of depth, there's something there if you approach it right:

If you could just step up, if you could be lured
back from in-between, if that's where it is, I could turn
the lot over to you: the glass whatnot, the seed-

pods from your nosegay, that ludic card, the Rokeby's fat backside,
these late self-portraits where the stern
gaze, set deep in the fleshless head,

seems for all the world
—since you alone might learn
how they find us, these follies, and what they mean,
and whether to lay them up or watch them burn.

Suddenly, then, near the end of the book, things start to look up. Before going on, though, I should perhaps finally mention that if I am being quite critical of Harsent's work, I am aware of a certain paradox: I would much rather read Harsent than many other poets. The details may not matter much, but they are vividly presented in narratives that drive me right past issues of understanding or interpretation into the sheer experience of reading them. If I find myself disgruntled when I am done, that does not nullify the fury of the reading of the poems themselves.

So then there is "Toffee" (from Legion, copied here from this site):

There was a man who made toffee; he would leave it to cool
on a blue-veined marble slab by the open window
of his shop, which was little more than a tin-and-timber lean-to
in the Street of Songs. There was a man who made small
animals and the like — horses, mostly — from scraps of steel
the plough turned up: high-grade stuff he could fine-tool;
while he worked he would sing, as if he had someone to sing to.
There was a man who made paintings: portraits, as a rule,
of business-men in their best; though he made one, once, of a fool
wearing a crown of stars and pissing a bright arc, while behind him
the Devil herded souls through a vesica piscis, its holy seal
ruptured. I thought that if I could find him,
or one of the other two, or any in that street, I might know
what became of my house and those in it;
and what to do; and where to go.

"As if he had someone to sing to": a poetics sneaks into the poem, one elaborated further in the final sentence, which retrospectively suggests a purpose for all the details in all the poems on the previous 117 pages: if the poet can "find" these details, then he might "know." And it is this play between finding and knowing that could drive the poems (and drive Harsent's productivity).

"Ghost Archaelogy" also presents a possible figure for Harsent's poetry, the "data" in "buckram-bound ledgers" that "we" steal from "the admin block":

Such orthodoxies there, such wheels within wheels,
such a rich and full account of the dark desiderata.

But that "dark desiderata" is only appealed to, not fully spelled out, and "we" do not seem to do anything with the "data," which, though "a rich and full account," still remain mysterious.

Well, look, the reason
we turned to our bottling and sewing, to pot-luck and make-good,
is simple enough to tell: the rain only ever brings
music in mist or sweet bafflement or rain-dreams.

(from "Harp Strings")

'... and why such fuss,'
she continued, 'about who we are or what might have been
if it comes to this: cracked laughter, the world as shadow, nil by mouth?'

(from "At the Riverside")

And finally, this from "The Player," the poem that makes Harsent's Selected Poems (or Legion, where it first appeared) worth buying:

This is a story / you'll only get piecemeal.

1 comment:

Donald Brown said...

Thanks for the quotations from this guy. I think I'll have to pick up some of his stuff.