No 59 - Spring 2004
Lucent surface, Nourishing depth
Lee Harwood Evening Star. Leafe Press 2003, £3.50, $7.00
Evening Star is Lee Harwood's first collection of new poems for some time, which in itself makes it well worth having a look at. The first poem, 'Salt Water', reminds us how good Harwood can be:
The complexity of a coral reef
the creatures sunlight
shafting down through the crystal sea
water the flicker of shadows
light wavering and fading
into the depths
This is how the poem begins. There's nothing difficult about reading
this writing. What is difficult is the poet's achievement: with deceptive
simplicity Harwood has the ability to suspend the object or the moment and allow us a clear examination of what he wants us to see. The line-breaks, the hiatuses, the control the poet exercises over the pace at which we read this - believe me, that's difficult.
The poem is two pages long, and only when it's done do we find it
dedicated to ""Joey Peirce/Harwood, who lived 11-14 March 1997". And it's then we are turned back to the poem and its significances, such as:
""Polyps" the books say coral
a tube with a mouth at the end
surrounded by tendrils to catch
A world of soft tissue
That the dedication comes after the poem, and not immediately after
the title, is indicative of the poet's characteristic restraint. I like it that,
although the poems largely possess a fidelity to the thing and don't mess around -
the mudflats and saltings shine
as the children run by
along marsh edge and the high dyke bank
egret and oystercatcher dunlin and sandpiper
(from 'Pagham Harbour Spring')
- they also are sometimes not quite as easy to "get" as they might be.
'Fragment Of An Indecipherable Inscription' seems a straightforward
enough account of a family outing until the third stanza introduces an
In the distant town can we buy food?
Like refugees. Like distant bombs.
A stumbling return. Will you still be there?
There are times I really like not knowing what's going on. I don't necessarily read poems "to understand". But there are other times I feel frustrated. 'The Wind Rises: Istvan Martha Meets Sandy Berrigan' manages this trick: naming a modern Hungarian composer ('The Wind Rises' is one of her works, by the way. Thank you, Google) and the wife of American poet Ted Berrigan in one title is fine: there are no rules about this stuff. But I'm struggling to relate them to the poem. I suspect Harwood knows something (probably a lot of things) I don't. I'm not sure I appreciate being made so blatantly aware, though. But the poem is okay, and whilst I'm not quite sure where it-s coming from I like where it goes, and I'm enjoying re-reading it.
Harwood is something of a mixed bag these days. He can still be what would once upon a time have been called quite radical (although now it doesn’t raise an eyebrow) by slipping in to one poem a hefty wedge of prose quotation from Charles Darwin’s journals, and there are plenty of instances where the rather clunky prosaic quality of the lines might be read as another example of the modern poet saying Hey, look at me, I’m a poet being determinedly non-poetic. And he can be more than a bit minimal, too: a little poem like ‘Eric Satie’ doesn’t really want to give up much of itself to you. Which makes it rather interesting.
But his real strength is on display in a poem like ‘Cwm Nantcol’:
Light slanting down on this high green valley.
Wind blowing, bending the reeds, hawthorn trees,
the scattered clumps of rowans.
Massive slabs of rock,
like ribs down the sides of the cwm,
clawed and scoured, ground and polished
by the glaciers of “Ancient Times”.
And now silver birch, oaks, tender mosses
grow in the shadows of these purple grey bluffs.
Such an emptiness. Here where sheep die
trapped in a fence or drowned in the river,
where a single track winds up into the mountains,
ends at the last farm, a stream, cattle
up to their shanks in a bog. . . . . .
But interestingly, to my ear, this poem also has a weakness that crops up several times throughout the collection. It’s what you might call ‘the poet thinking out loud’:
But why this fascination? the many returns
to this place? A comfort?
The rhetorical questions weaken the poem considerably. One is
tempted to refer to the old workshop cliché about not telling too much, just let it show. And Harwood does this kind of thing quite a lot:
Is that what getting old is?
Learning to live like this — that strength
increasingly needed. Or sink into gaga?
(‘The Wind Rises’)
Talking to you? to myself? to the “ether”?
(‘5 Rungs Up Sassongher’)
If the myths were put aside, and we...?
Would the mirrors be clear and glitter? a rainbow
flickering on their bevelled edges? I doubt it.
(‘Hampton Court Shelter’)
But this is to concentrate on the negative. There’s a lot to like in these poems. The third section of ‘5 Rungs Up Sassongher’ — ‘The Joyous Lake’ — is quite beautiful:
A sort of simplicity, not babble, to hold to
firmly but gently. Intense and. Beautiful as
a spray of moth orchids on the sunlit table.
And a lasting memory I’ve taken from reading these poems is a couple of lines from the second poem in the book:
the children running on the dyke bank
absorbed in this world
echoed (I’m sure not unwittingly) in the fifth section of ‘Five Pieces for Five Photos’:
We smile at the children
absorbed and opening their world
Which is really cool. Yes, there’s good stuff here. My initial impression had been that it was all rather dry, but the poems repay continued attention and re-reading. Definitely recommended.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The