LEGION by David Harsent
(Faber, £8.99)
(Bloodaxe, £7.95)

The majority of poets seem to subscribe to either the ‘form and rhyme’ school, or the ‘only free verse means anything these days’ school. The former insist on the rigid use of the fixed forms, precise metre, and careful rhyme schemes, often to the detriment of their poetry. The latter avoid these formalities at all costs, except sometimes with the rather annoying final rhymed couplet that is so much in vogue at the moment. Not David Harsent. He is clearly very comfortable with the demands of formal verse, but makes form serve the needs of his poetry. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that there is no poet writing today that I know who uses near-rhyme, assonance and the peripheries of formal verse anything like as effectively.

This is praise of the most extreme kind, so I’d better at least try to justify it. Just saying ‘read the book’ would be a cop-out. Nor would I be forgiven for making extensive use of quotations, tempting though this is. But the third poem in the book, the first one that convinced me that this time I was holding something special, is short enough to quote in full, and I can’t resist doing it. It’s called ‘Patrol’:

     Rough ground, it seemed, as we rode through; but a last
     glance revealed rows of sleepers clabbered in dust
     that puckered and puffed as their reams erupted,
     each man cloaked and his weapon in his fist.

     We pulled over, not sure what to do for the best.
     This dead-to-the-world, this unity of breath,
     wasn’t what we’d expected,
     children stock still in the shadows,
     a rush-light behind the grille of the ‘facility for widows’.

This short poem provides an object-lesson in the heart of poetry, the use of language in general, and how to fit a wealth of meaning into a few short lines.

It’s not specifically about Iraq, by the way. This one comes from the title sequence of the book. This part takes as its subject what the cover calls ‘reports from an unnamed war zone’. ‘Reports’ are linked by ‘despatches’. The first of the despatches right at the start of the volume opens ‘shape of a man // broken legs, sit-dragging himself, knuckling the clay ...’ so that you know that what you’re going to get will be uncompromising. Not that I should give the impression that this first third of the book is unremittingly bleak. These lines are taken from what is my favourite poem in the whole collection, ‘Barlock’. Although the subject might be dark there is a satisfying lightness of tone about it:

     I had plaster in my hair that made my whole scalp itch,
     he looked like hell, lip bitten-through, a raw patch
     on the heel of his hand from hammering home the latch.
     For an hour or more we could hear the phone and the fax
     cross-ringing upstairs ...

There is a complete break with military concerns in the second part. It is called ‘Stelae’ and is centred on megaliths. The eight poems here are not specimens of concrete verse exactly, but the layout is suggestive of standing stones. You might find them to be more interesting for the tangential way they look at their subject than for anything else. Not many people, for instance, would have known that the ‘black’ in ‘Black Tor’ was derived from the Anglo-Saxon ‘bleak’ ­ pale or colourless. Oddly enough, though, the guanine from the scales of the bleak, a freshwater fish, is used to make essence d’orient
for artificial pearls.

The third, untitled, section of the book is a more general collection. I should straightaway say that the absence of a theme does not signify any absence of merit. Some of the best poetry is here. Particularly appealing to me were ‘The Player’ and ‘Tristichs’. The latter, by the way, is a term for a series of three-line stanzas. These can be in free-form; they would only have to rhyme if they were ‘triplets’. In this part the poem that I liked best was ‘At the Quayside’. The second stanza of this reads:

     Your smile is custom-built, held ready, pearly-perfect.
     Can you see from there? I’m over here by the ticket-
     office, side by side with the usual suspects.
     Now the sun is playing morse on your locket
     and I’m one of a cargo-cult.

This poem seems to me to show Harsent’s command of assonance at its very best. Have I convinced you? No? Read the book, then.

It would be unjust and more than a little pointless to try to ‘compare’ another book with Legion in the same review. David Scott’s poetry has its own rewards. He, too, is not afraid of form and makes it work for him rather than the other way around.

The opening poem is called, appropriately enough, ‘First Thing’. This one is in free verse, and concentrates on capturing a word-picture of a man’s encounter with four deer on a path to the wood. It does this very successfully, as witness the final four lines of this simple poem: ‘ Air rigid between us, / they moved first, / nobly, silently, / sensuous as waking.’ Much of Scott’s poetry is like this: on the face of things quiet and unambitious, but the concern with wider truths revealed in a small way is only just below the surface.

It comes as no surprise to learn that David Scott is a churchman, the Rector of St. Lawrence with St. Swithin in Winchester. The titles of many of the poems might be a bit off-putting for the non-believer: ‘The Priest in the Pulpit’; ‘Meeting St John of the Cross’; ‘The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem’; ‘Qumran, Cave no. 4’ and so on. If you are in this category don’t be intimidated. The last of these poems, for example, is primarily an examination of the human aspects of the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This one is also short enough to quote in full:

     Despite all the talk of the Prince of Light,
     this is the centre of the coolest darkness.
     The light which on the outside
     makes a dust of stones, here only angles in,
     and the scrolls rolled up in jars, sleep:
     sleeping and waiting for the chance eye
     of a Bedouin boy. Why now, why then:
     these scrolls about so fervently
     expected things, waiting, waiting?

This superbly captures a picture of the darkness inside the cave contrasting with the fierce heat outside. Although this is not described as such, it doesn’t take much imagination to see one of the bars of light illuminating the surprised face of the young Bedouin discoverer of the Essene texts.

Best of all in this collection is the intriguing ‘I pollarded am’. This opens ‘I pollarded am. / My elbows ancient are,’ and ends ‘I know not what I think / not having head, / for I pollarded am.’ But it is the first lines of this last stanza of this poem that hold the key to it: ‘They say in China this they do to feet, / in other countries, minds, / and others, souls...’ The slightly - only slightly - off centre language gives the poem an other-worldly feel that seems to work perfectly with its subject.        

          © Raymond Humphreys 2005