SOFTWAR OR HARDWAR


Alan Halsey, Marginalien
[£15.50, 416pp + CD, Five Seasons Press2005]


Some books you have to read right off for work so I read them and know what they are, maybe there is something there, I'm not really interested. Some books come in, you know, and get shelved, a year or two later you don't know how they got there or what they were for. They are maybe close to the list of what you should read only that list does seem to expand exponentially. But you can outlive the apparent urgency, cut off what turned out to be side shoots etc, and dump a good deal. I'm thinking functional insulation, non-remarkable decor, and maybe unforeseen resale for someone at a car boot. Then there are the books you see and go into right away knowing that you could read them for wit alone: only they are about what is of most interest, in the proper sense, and you can't afford to set them aside, which is not to say that you can take them in all once.

In writing poetry I would want to have a very few books with me for special reference, if you see what I mean, certainly among them would be Halsey's
Marginalien, concentrated and forensic wit, compression music and lights coming on as you read: the thing itself. I have had the book here at home for some time and each time I pick it up and look in I find something I hadn't really considered I'd need, but there it is, which is to say that the book imagines ways ahead in poetry quite unforeseen. It is pure intelligence of various means of departure, refined and sharpened up, exactly located, appropriately geared, and cutting right into ore as we dream. Here is a normally secret and invisible antiquarian language spy, print-mining insect, lizard watcher and dovetailed pistachio piss taker, book dealer and forger, editor and printer's devil, emblem inventor, chiastic satirist, light-fingered anti-lyricist, lingering among the keywords and search engines. It is maybe the last real sense we'll get about how we got to the late last days of New Labour and it is our poetry, in English, not at all what is usually packaged and put out around here.

     History is being done for us
     if you will, just as seeing

     bridges bombed is a kind
     of reality
. If, if you will,

     you, if you will, just as history
     is us being done for, will.

This is from 'Song-Cycle 1991' a beautiful mobilization of (then and now) current public language and the assumptions therein, turned into a music of ghastly knowingness, with real compassion and sadness, a terrific poem.

     Off the wall to wall wall
     and beyond anybody's brief
     song------universally

     redeemed or virtually
     ready, knowing one state's lot
     is another lot's state, less free-

     fall grace than mutual pre-
     ferment, where reason resigns,
     where reason carries on.

The re-use of stock phrases and the quick use of words within words, of reversals and line breaks (like the discovery of 'ferment' in 'preferment', the witty insertion of 'wall-to-wall' in 'off the wall') all this would be fun anywhere, but where else is it put to such use? Halsey is a great satirist, probably the best we have, check out 'Alien Proforma' and 'Greenhouse Effects: A Calendar'. Someone should send it to Margaret Beckett or John Prescott, but then again. . .

The book gathers up some things you might wish you'd got at the time when they were first released: I'm thinking of the wonderful 'Robin Hood Book', 'Dante's Barbershop', and 'The Art of Memory in Hay on Wye'. There is a CD included of 'Memory Screen', of which the text itself comments 'an impossible book' and who am I to argue? Colour graphics of assembled graffiti text and image with commentary shading into aphorism that takes Halsey's visual work into another dimension, well presented here to display on my little Mac, or any PC, rich colour and texture making the most of the media; I must try it projected on a really big screen. The book itself is the thing though, the poems and sequences more inventive and playful, sharper and more brilliant than anything you'll find anywhere, think about it, think about the backlist of UK poetry awards. They just don't get it. Alan Halsey is I believe alive and well, living in Sheffield, and was not even on the short list for the so-called T.S. Eliot prize. I can hear a green woodpecker calling as I write this, a bird well adapted to exploit long established and mixed suburban relic woodland: unusually vivid green and red with a call like mocking laughter going away.
 
           © Tony Lopez, 2006