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This review is taken from PN Review 162, Volume 31 Number 4, March - April 2005.

BRIGHTENING AT BRIGHTON LEE HARWOOD, Collected Poems (Shearsman) £17.50

It can be difficult to say what draws you back to a poet again and again. In Lee Harwood's case a lot of it is simply the charm of his outlook. Now here it all is in one handsome, chunky volume: an epic browse with someone capable of making even life's worst difficulties seem bearable, necessary, even beneficial - at any rate inescapable - and so we lumber off through the ice-field, towards the south coast, where, as always, there is a brightening over the sea at Brighton - to conflate a couple of his best poems. It's difficult not to start sounding like him. 'I imitate you,' he writes in an early poem to John Ashbery, one of his poetic mentors (another was Tristan Tzara, whom he translated and gained approval from while still in his twenties) and there is in those early, defining poems, a sense of being pulled along willy-nilly through experiences, and of trying to allegorise them, to turn them into useful stories, as one goes along. That is another striking quality of Harwood's poetry: reading it is a highly literary experience, yet there is a strong sense that this is the ordinary person's account of such things, and that this person is making it up as he goes along, as a bedtime tale for children:


In the pop-up alphabet book
the rabbit postman strides on
in a faded blue uniform, cap on his head,
bag over his shoulder, a letter in his paw.

A latter in his paw...?      For who?
And where is he anyway? The setting
is vague, if not non existent.
Remote as those landscapes
seen on old postage stamps.
Violet islands, ochre oak trees.

At times this make-it-up-as-you-go-along quality combined with high literary culture can seem a bit absurd, as when he instructs 'Plato, Dante, Pound and Co.' to 'give up - but try' or urges 'Mr Jung' to 'forget your symbols' - in favour of a return to common experience which I expect they might have thought of and valued too. But it is also this 'absurd' mock-modest arrogance that somehow allows his poetry to achieve take off, again and again, all part of the charm, so that you can read his work in bulk as the spellbinding life-novel of someone who is telling you, in a fairly sensible way, what to value and how to live - some-body whose values are old-fashioned but incontrovertible ones - of friendship, sexual love, dignity - and honest self-examination:

Lying on the edge of sleep
sliding sideways, it feels,
back to - again and again -
those memories visited too often.

The past and what-might-have-been
Like layers peeled back
the shifting strata, not bedrock,
that bring heavy pain.
                                'Take a Card. Any Card'

These quotations from a recent sequence point to a central tension in Harwood's work between the everyday and the fabular - or fabulous. An almost confessional poet tries to deal honestly with life's vicissitudes and regrets; a compulsive fabulist seeks respite from these in a storybook world that - as well as rabbits bearing letters - contains bits from the Journals of André Gide and much other cultural freight and remembered bric-a-brac. Out of Ashbery's reflections on the uses we are forced to make of inherited narratives in great poems like 'Sortes Vergilianae', Harwood has winnowed a view of narrative that is his own. His stories are splintered, often breaking off, pregnantly incomplete, their oracular ellipses pointing back to the skating consciousness that has conjured them, whistling in the dark perhaps - to immediate sensual experience. In his perfect poem 'Animal Days' it is the beat of a young rabbit's heart that remains long after haunting refrains of love songs embedded in half-remembered colonial narratives have faded.

Frank O'Hara's doctrine of personism - that the personal in poetry is achieved by 'placing the poem between two persons', making of the poem a kind of instant notational letter charting relationships, resulting in his inclusion of a lot of proper names in his poetry and a sense of the whole work as the ongoing record of a headlong life, becomes in Lee Harwood's use of it - among other things - a kind of conjuring with remembered names for their sounds and associations: 'Nena Venetsanou I dream of you. I kiss your sauce flavoured fingertips'. Used this way the personal becomes one more aesthetic element in his compositions, so that the fabular and the everyday are induced to change places and the poem is both a life-record and artificed object. Borges is another important writer for him - an influence felt most obviously in the twenty stories that make up Dream Quilt - oblique miniature narratives that hover somewhere between fable, anecdote, and mock-historical investigation, with perhaps touch more whimsy than the great Argentinian's fictions.

Then there is the subtle beauty of those landscapes in which a human figure is going about his or her daily grind, crossing the page and the reader's mind like the exhausted farm-boys in his poem Summer Solstice:

'Long ago and far away' a story could begin
but leaves the listeners somehow unsatisfied,
nervous on the edge of their chairs leaning forward
in contorted positions.
                        Waking up one day
they could set off in another direction, fresh and foreign.
They could but seldom do, so cluttered are they
and rightly distrustful of such snap solutions.
                        The farm boys proceed
to the fields, again, or turn to the factory towns.
There are glimpses caught in the dusky woods
or on a fresh summer dawn of unknown skies,
unforgettable and dazzling in their beauty. But then
the long day stretches ahead. The stirred dreams settle down
with the dust, beyond grasp or understanding,
The unseen night birds calling calling.

That story, begun again and again, sheered away from, approached freshly but similarly, ravelled and unravelled, could perhaps be unsatisfying; but across the ample spaces of this book such unfinished stories build and echo, picking up great resonances, until the reader is left not with a sense of their incompletion but with a feeling that far more has been thereby suggested than could otherwise have been told. Harwood is an heir of surrealism, a celebrant of the countryside, of hidden histories; a recounter of dream journeys in half-familiar countries, a poet of humour and a slightly old-fashioned socialist humanist. Collected Poems opens with his piece about remembering the battle of Cable Street. Tackled in an engagingly personal way, it is a fine overture to the work of a poet who is, I believe, by far the most interesting of those many English poets influenced by the New York School - one of the earliest, but the most singular. He is impossible to mistake for anyone else. He is, as Ashbery put it, 'one of England's best poets and best kept secrets.' I like to imagine him trotting downstairs to see what the rabbit post-man has brought. A brilliant poet.


This review is taken from PN Review 162, Volume 31 Number 4, March - April 2005.

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