Robert Lowell in noting the four musts
of oral performance as: 'humour, shock, narrative and a hypnotic voice,'
('Readings Remembered' in The Outnumbered Poet: Critical and Autobiographical
Dennis O'Driscoll, Gallery Books. 2013) could as easily have been talking
about Michael Hulse's eclectic yet cohesive Half-Life, so persistently rich in
the first three. Here, though
war, whole scale devastation and mammon are unchangeable realities, the
future generation and the natural world act as a hopeful counterbalance. The title 'Half-Life' variously
suggests nuclear fall out, poverty, moral sleep-walking or blind religious
conformity, and this prepares us for Hulse's rich and rewarding
intertextuality such as in his poems on Syria and the key sequence
'Foreknowledge Absolute'. The
blurb describes Hulse as 'an acclaimed master craftsman', but don't expect
sharp, Poundian images, but rather Eliot style open incantatory lines -
occasionally with direct echoes, such as this hint of 'Prufock': 'For I have
seen / the lotus unfolding in summer sun, the shimmer of light in the rose.'
Hulse immediately invites us to reflect on our own morality in his shocking
true account of a father ('Freeman') who threw his young daughter off a
bridge in full sight of rush hour traffic. With an awful intimacy we witness
the hypothetical preceding moments: 'When he opened the door, did he hold out
a hand and speak to her reassuringly?' Hulse then observes: 'I can imagine
it. Nothing easier. Nothing more impossible' and adds the sobering question:
'Which of us knows what we are capable of,' which discomposes us from our
natural assumption as readers, that we are the good guys.
The next two poems offer a dazzling, intertextual consideration of recent
events in Syria. 'The Return'
ranges across Carthage's annihilation during the Third Punic War, the Copiapó
mining disaster, Oppenheimer's role in the Trinity Project (the first Nuclear
test site), use of Zyklon B for mass gassing. He includes hints of Orpheus in
the underworld and Dante's Inferno for good measure. He starts by
describing Syria as the place where the dead remain as ghosts: 'They say that
the souls of the dead inhabit the place. / They say there are shifts in the
light, prints in the dust', but then shifts to a more absolute devastation:
'darkness meaning darkness only darkness, / and solitary only solitary'.
These walking dead link neatly with 'The Syrian Bride' that initially intrigues
with its two-layered associations of the Syrian ghost story that inspired
Goethe's poem 'The Bride of Corinth', but subsequently shocks us with its
harrowing contemporary images of Syria.
Religious ambivalence also dominates and Hulse describes himself as a
non-believer who wishes he wasn't: 'No, I can't suppose the Great Story true.
/ Still, I prefer to live as if it were' ('The Half-Life of Jesus').
Entertainingly, he draws our attention to religious absurdities: 'The
Catholic Church! - I've always had a soft spot for its comedy / its
hotchpotch of the silly, the rotten, the true.' ('In Sant Antonio di Padua')
He continues with the humorously accurate, crude incongruity of a chic woman
praying: 'She lip-served in
silence as if she were giving a blow-job to a lizard' but then juxtaposes
this hilarity with a powerfully emotive concluding image of one of Christ's
crucifiers (from Altichiero's Crucifixion): 'The hammer with which he drove in the nails tucked
carelessly into his belt' - a workman proud of a job well done.
The latter half of the collection includes some more nuanced introspective
poems in search of meaning such as 'Swallows' where he notes: 'Theirs is a
world without ifs' and 'Eh, Tom' with art as an affirmative compensation for
to gather all the
sunlight on the water
into a marriage of
artifice and nature,
an Amber room that might
as the idea of a tower
would outlive Pisa -
to be the air
Scheherazade was breathing,
the light by which Leonardo
The above lines and his delightful eulogy of the natural world in the lines
below, are some of the most flawless in the collection. Note the sinuous
diction here, as he argues a need to get one's priorities right. The
ludicrousness of building a white elephant of a yacht (fourth largest in the
world) is highlighted all the more when set again this river:
We walk on past the dock
to where the fleet flows into the Elbe.
The muscled waters
gather. Strong and confident and old,
the river writes no
chronicles, affords no consolation:
it has only the beauty
and might of a natural thing, no more no less.
In general, though, Hulse drive home his points more directly and in such
cases, clearly, sex sells. Note, for example, his repulsion at the grotesque
decadence of the world's tallest building: 'Filthy rich is as filthy rich
builds, / Capital giving God the finger' ('Burj Khalifa'). His sequence
'Foreknowledge Absolute' is an entertaining and shocking climax to the
personification of death motif that has filtered through the collection.
Here, we have a flirtatious femme fatale juxtaposed with a collage of voices
from a range of stories on violence, war and death. Hulse is helpful in
providing notes to all such subtexts adding to the reader's engagement. This
is really Hulse's forte: his quirky sing-along-a-death tone along with the
all-pervading presence of violent death to create a deeply unsettling mixture
of humour and shock. Take, by way of example, the opening poem of the
She's wearing the new
black. her heels are like ice-picks.
Her skirt is of charcoal
and ash. Her talk
is of body parts hung in
arms in the branches, a
torso, a head impaled -
I was there. I saw it.
She speaks of a truth
within all the
higgledy-piggledy relative anything-goes of truths,
the need to know your way
through the absolute.
Next July we collide with
Mars. Call me death, she says.
Dark as his message is, Hulse also attempts to create ploughshares from
swords and the child as the symbol of hope is repeatedly drawn on for this
purpose. We see this in the two poems that make up his concluding Section IV,
in particular, here, in the second poem:
She wants to dance to
'Singin' in the The Rain'
over and over again, my
little daughter -
splashing in puddles, she
pauses to explain,
I'm walking on the
Placing this moment of affirmation at the end of the collection suggests
Hulse is hoping for an upbeat conclusion but, given the timeless human
horrors of so many of his poems, one is left, finally, unconvinced that there
is much to be hopeful about. What he does convince us off unconditionally, is
that there are none of us out there who have the right to be complacent - yet
ironically, perhaps, his collection still gives us lots to laugh about on
this descent into Hades.
Belinda Cooke 2014