The Sweep and Tug of Language


Term as in Aftermath, Alan Halsey
(100pp, Ahadada books, c/o West House Books)


Language is energy, trapped and unstable. Poetry can remind us of its imminent creativity, bubbling and bursting out - refusing single meanings. Halsey is alive to this. He smashes words together, risks appalling puns and sometimes silly connections.

I read this collection in a fairly fragmentary way, dipping in, sampling, reading it in pubs - or when half asleep after feeding the baby. It's frequently invigorating and mostly wonderfully lacking in earnest 'poyetry' hamminess:

               If metaphor
      turns on its tap
           subtlety subdued pays the price.
                   (from 'A Looking-Glass for Logoclasts When Broken')

It's possible to enjoy the playfulness and physical texture of this work - for a while. But it works best when the reader can make some meaning; even if only as a glimpse - accepting that the after effect, the echo, is what's being created. The effect felt similar to Prynne, but without the sensational vertigo he can induce (at his best) or the stickiness of his densest stuff.

The first section - 'The Looking Glass for Logoclasts' - is the most aggressively fragmentary. It also uses the classical allusions beloved of Pound and Eliot. It could be argued, this gesture is now tired and diminishing in effect - the framing provided by long-dead civilisations seeming a reflex gesture. That said, there is some haunting work, especially a wonderful piece 'A Looking-Glass for Logoclasts from the Phoenician' which gives voice to the engravers on a tablet:

     I altered the half M/these labours of mine and nine
     others/performed without question...

This caught for me the awe and mystery of ancient texts, maybe unknown in meaning, but somehow still alive. I think the best Modernist poetry deals in simple (even heartbreakingly simple) feelings that are trapped in layers of text. Think of Eliot's 'the awful daring of a moment's surrender...' or Pound's 'Pull down thy vanity/How mean thy hates/Fostered in Falsity/Pull down they vanity...'

Later in the collection, the poem 'After the Fall Came Diazepam Dreams' (brilliant title - reminiscent of 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep') seemed to catch something the earlier work lacked - a suggestive, almost resigned, tone plus a sense of openness:

'things that are dear / to us adhere...your planet is plainly a tiny plant / and good luck to look at / window set against window / with no better view than / a burst perspective... those are Chinese clouds and the proverbs / outlaws  /questions parley...' 

In fact, this successful modulation of tone, between almost ranting and a quiet contemplation, is something Halsey's best work seems to do. The problem I have with the more fragmented pieces is their monotone effect. I think this is a general problem with 'experimental' work at the word level - it forgets how powerful and enjoyable the sweep and tug of language is - versus the constipating effects of isolated words. Again, this may differ for other readers - it's possibly dependent on how the individual
physically experiences the poem; a difficult area, which much criticism ignores.

     Paul Sutton 2009