Michael Hulse divides the Mariannes from the Sylvias
Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth
Not All Honey
One way of thinking about the differences and resemblances among poets is to ask whether their allegiance is primarily to the world or to the self. The Iliad is a template of attentiveness to the world; The Prelude is a template of attentiveness to the self. If we think of Marianne Moore writing of a steeplejack, a steamroller, or a pangolin, we recognize attention that is steadily on what lies outside the poet’s self, and if we think of Sylvia Plath we are conscious that, whatever her subject, she is always writing about herself. Auden, in the essay ‘Writing’, amused himself classifying writers as Alices (Montaigne, Marvell, Jane Austen, Turgenev) or Mabels (Pascal, Donne, Gide, Joyce), from Alice’s thoughts of Mabel as she falls down the rabbit-hole. In a similar spirit we might see Rilke, Richard Wilbur or Charles Simic as varieties of Marianne, and Catullus, Hugo Williams or Sharon Olds as Sylvias at heart.
A parlour game, yes. Fun, but simplistic. Still, it’s true that we become seriously involved with poets’ work when their engagements with the world and with the self interestingly defy simple disentangling. If we pull at a poem’s threads and it refuses to unravel, we know it’s a poem to keep returning to – ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’, say, or ‘At the Fishhouses’.
David Harsent’s A Bird’s Idea of Flight (1998), understood as a single poem in the way we understand the Duino Elegies or Station Island as a single poem, was excitingly satisfying in that high sense. Harsent’s first unarguable masterpiece after a highly impressive run-up covering several volumes and thirty years, it was followed by Marriage, Legion, and the magisterial Night, with a selected tucked into the sequence to document the substance and seriousness of the poet’s evolution. This mature achievement has rightly placed him among the very finest poets now writing in this country. Now we have Fire Songs.
Fire. And songs. The terms of the title promise passion, across all of its range from suffering to joy. In David Harsent’s world, joy draws the short straw. Passion comes with a gravelly, darkened beat, sounding as if a Kiplingesque long line of iambics leavened with anapaests had been broken on the rack. Anne Askew, the Protestant martyr at the centre of the opening poem, was broken thus before being burnt as a heretic (in 1546). Harsent visualizes the execution in horrific detail, gaze fixed on the facts and processes, and introduces himself into the narrative, pictured waking from a dream of Askew’s end:
what she screams from the centre, now, as her hair
goes up in a rush, as her fingers char,
as the spit on her tongue bubbles and froths, as she browns from heel
to head, as she cracks and splits, as she renders to spoil:
the only thing she can get to me through the furnace, as I lean
in to her, is yes, it will be fire it will be fire it will be fire…
This ‘I’, like all of Harsent’s first persons, is only in the loosest of senses related to the self. Like the first person of ‘Elsewhere’, the long tour de force that closed Night, it is a key to unlock mythic, larger dimensions; ‘I’m the old man of the sea if you like, the wanderer, / I can bring fish to a whistle, birds to a spinning coin’ we read in that poem; and here the ‘I’ is the bare forked human creature waiting for word of the fate that lies universally ahead. ‘There’s a thin / line you’ll find between / trick and treat as you make your second guess’ we’re told in the following poem, ‘The Fool Alone’, as if to say that looking for any answers in our forest of enigmas is a sublime waste of time.
Fire Songs is a dark set of meditations on destruction, loss, last things. Four poems titled ‘Fire’, probably once part (I’d guess) of a single projected poem, are threaded through the collection, variations on a theme. Images of burning, especially of pages and text, are leitmotifs. If ‘the words are borne up by the smoke’ in one of the ‘Fire’ poems, it is wholly in the logic of this meticulously composed book that another poem, ‘Songs from the Same Earth’, includes the line, ‘They are burning the stubble. Smoke folds into the sea’. This is a Sebaldian natural history of destruction, a vision in which processes of pain and occlusion are hardwired into a fabric of existence that offers no redemption. ‘Pain of remembrance, pain of possession, pain of the last look back’: the closing poem, its upbeat affectingly tempered by a leaning to dactylic falling, ends the collection in as uncompromising a spirit as that in which it opened:
Pain as quittance, pain as touchstone, pain as a last resort.
Imagine some long-limbed creature hauled by its hocks to be flayed,
the knife set right to the whetstone, music to work by, a caught
breath as the moment unpicks between flesh and blade.
Fire Songs is a masterly book, the poetry of a desolated Orpheus. Definitely not for the faint-hearted.
David Harsent has been a wide-ranging writer, working over decades with composer Harrison Birtwistle but also turning out genre fiction and TV scripts. Ruth Padel has similarly taken an all-round professional approach to the writing life, with radio work and newspaper columns part of her generous portfolio. But poetry is the centre of that life. Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth is a first-rate collection, full of the mental agility, craft and elective affinities we associate with her. A rich set of observations on the Middle East and what was once called ‘the Holy Land’ (here, the phrase appears only in the speech of a guide to the Church of the Nativity), the book criss-crosses complex territory, showing informed understanding for all three of the Abrahamic religions but eschewing any greater commitment than comes in these words from the coda to ‘Seven Words and an Earthquake’: ‘God is what God does. You are the earth’. Her underpinning wisdom is simply put – ‘our prayer is breath’ – and the coda ends with a quality of insight that must, surely, be serene:
The mystery we call soul
is no password-protected secret
but an invitation. You’ll get there.
Padel writes about a chain preserved in the Yad Vashem Museum, a carved wooden chain made from a broom handle by a Polish Jew later to die in Auschwitz, and in the title poem about the making of a musical instrument by a dedicated, sensuous craftsman whose labours come to an end, when ‘(o)n the sixth day the soldiers came’. The quest in her collection is for meanings, even for faith, to occupy the space once occupied by the Abrahamic religions. ‘What will survive are meanings we have found / in what the world has made’, she declares in ‘Facing East’, and the poem (and the book) concludes: ‘Making is our defence against the dark’. In the world of Padel’s poetry, the conclusion seems resonant and just, and it is eloquently achieved; but in the real world we need no Orwell to point out that making, whether by poets or instrument-builders, offers no defence, only a hope for a future that may or may not come to pass. It is good to know that that wooden chain survives to bear witness to the making spirit – but Padel’s elegant rhetoric doesn’t ask whether it weighs up with the six million in the scales. Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth is a rich, mature set of deliberations, and the deft arrangement of words and attitudes often brings a Derek Mahon or Harry Clifton to mind:
I’m on the edge of a bed
watching CNN through cappuccino shades of afternoon
in the freezing cold Mövenpick Hotel, Bahrain.
100 degrees outside and the manager can’t turn off
the air conditioning. No one can.
Moral and political dismay shrinks to the watching of TV news. What were ‘new possibilities of you’ in one poem are new impossibilities here, in a realm where talk of war is as resistant to intervention as the air conditioning. Padel’s need to find meaning has an urgent rationale. It is the passion of the quest that gives this book its importance.
Ruth Padel is both a Marianne devoted to the world and a Sylvia out to locate a position for herself. Roddy Lumsden is a Sylvia to his fingertips, and in Not All Honey an autobiographical story seemingly ghosts much of the writing, apparently a story of separation, pain, and the fate of love:
Long before I forgave you, which can never happen,
long before I loved you easy, which I never did,
I found in the pit of your bag, down in the plunder,
a small snap which made the world drop through me
and I was a piglet who at last understood words
and petting me you said, you’re a silly baby I can eat. (‘A Small Photograph of the World Changing’)
The style of the naïf is immensely effective in this collection, but even better are the parodies of aphorisms grouped into ‘Farewell’ poems. These are from ‘Farewell to Couscous’: ‘I noted that others had opted for a life different to mine’. ‘I thought of how seldom you see grey on a flag’. ‘I leaned back and began to tell of the whole dreadful business’. This deadpan note feels very Central European: Karl Kraus for the text-message era. Here I was on Lumsden’s side, and discovering the names of two of my former students in his titles, both now poets, endeared him to me, but ‘The Bells of Hope’, left me sad and disillusioned. Fifty-two three-and-a-half-line poems titled ‘The Autist’, ‘The Brunt’, ‘The Canon’, and so on to ‘The Xerox’, ‘The Yore’ and ‘The Zombie’, then back through ‘The Yen’ and ‘The Ximenean’ all the way to ‘The Bore’ and ‘The Approximation’ – heavens, can that be the time?
– Michael Hulse