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This review is taken from PN Review 227, Volume 42 Number 3, January - February 2016.

Cover of Fire SongsCover of Bright Travellers
Yvonne ReddickTravelling through the fire
DAVID HARSENT
Fire Songs (Faber, 80pp PB) £12.99







FIONA BENSON
Bright Travellers (Cape, 80pp PB) £10.00

David Harsent’s T. S. Eliot prize-winning collection reinvents a role that modern poets rarely dare to assume: that of the seer. Harsent tackles weighty issues – climate change, nuclear holocaust, global warfare – while grounding them in the personal, the particular, and the wryly humorous.

This volume makes no apologies for its erudition, and many readers will welcome its balance of historical references with contemporary details. The poems begin with Anne Askew, an early English poet burnt as a Protestant heretic, whose death suggests the global conflagrations that occur later in the collection: ‘it will be fire …’ Harsent’s elegies for women and female animals are especially poignant. ‘Bowland Beth’ commemorates one of Britain’s last breeding hen harriers, illegally shot before she could rear a brood. Harsent deploys ornithological words and a bird’s-eye view with skill. This is a martyrdom of sorts: the poem trails off with ‘That she went miles before she bled out’.

‘The Fool Alone’ counterpoises the longer, more serious pieces, and offsets their vatic tone with the slangy language of the trickster. The Fool reappears throughout the collection as an impostor Christ, a mythomane, an unkillable rat, and a Queen’s lover. This ‘seer and stumblebum’ provides a welcome dose of irony and wit – but as with Shakespeare’s Fools, even his lies are prophetic.

Four ‘Fire’ sequences punctuate the book. ‘Fire: love songs and descants’ weaves a treatise on witchcraft and fragments from Strindberg into the act of burning letters. ‘Fire: a party at the world’s end’ takes ...


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