Faber & Faber, £9.95, 96pp. £9.45 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Night, By David Harsent
Friday 28 January 2011
Truly significant poets write like no one else, and David Harsent is both sui generis and unsurpassed. Taking over where his Forward Prize-winning book Legion left off, Night conducts an examination of the human psyche that is unique in both the unflinchingness of its gaze, and the narrative metaphors it uses to explore dream-life, terror and hidden impulse.
For the reader accustomed to English lyric convention, one that proceeds from the close-at-hand to whatever can be wrung from it, this fabular technique is surprising, even shocking. Harsent has been called our most European poet; but that is to miss the profoundly British character of his dreamscapes, from "The Hut in Question", which finds Edward Thomas's writing hut "Weather-worn, half-hidden by gorse/ in full fire, it being that time of year; the window/ thick with cobwebs, clarty candyfloss", to the "terra incognita" of suburban gardens where "night /falls more readily" and whose extra-mural life is presided over by "The Garden Goddess".
She belongs with the archetypal tricksters of these islands, Sheelagh na Gig and Jack in the Green, and speaks to our disgusted fascination with what might lie beyond cosy belonging: "how the dark of her eye/ can bring you on, or the wet of her lip, how the dab of cuckoo-spit/ that fell to her thigh from some dead-head or seed-pod/ has left a trickle of glisten".
The septet of "Garden" poems, like the "Blood" lyrics spaced through the first half of this substantial collection, revisit and integrate the poet's earlier territory – the rural badlands of A Violent Country, Mister Punch and The Woman and the Hare – alongside urban anomie: the City of Dreadful Night where his title poem is set. Exceptionally a writer for whom both city and country are visceral reality, Harsent reduces neither to the image through a view-finder or on-screen. Here, this equal intensity allows him to blur their boundaries: "A quarter-moon, livid like a burn-scar. An airbus drops/ into the Heathrow corridor. A vixen yelps with pleasure-pain."
Like most of the other poems in the book, "Night" turns outdoors, as if this profoundly anti-confessional poetry intends to resist the privatisation of meaning and experience and return us to a communal territory of direct experience: "I spread my arms and howled and trod plain air". That's also the territory of the vernacular, and Harsent has acknowledged his poetic roots in ballad – Night includes one – and the Baptist hymnal, which surely informs his version of "The Death of Cain". However, this collection, by turns lyrical and terrifying, does more than merely cite these traditions. Instead it seems to pass through them, to their origins in psychodrama and rite.
The scope of this exploration can be measured by the 63 septets of the extraordinarily-sustained "Elsewhere". This long poem of escape whips from scene to scene, its momentum supplied by the characteristic half-line phrases that propel many of these poems:
[...] and a poke of silver coin
to buy their way our of hell, most with an eye on each other,
but one with an eye on me, or so it seems [...]
Working, as poetry should, on every level at once, Harsent's verse is also unified by rhyme and its variants – including alliterative chime – which fill the mouth with pleasure and beg to be read aloud. In "The skim on the surface of your soup, or the cut on your plate/ in the Café des Anges", linked sounds play back and forth like flavours. At once disciplined and wild at heart, as linguistically rich as it is visceral, Night is Harsent's finest book to date.
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