It's Hard to Hold the Past in Place Using a Rope of Fog

, Harry Guest (104pp, £8.95, Anvil)
, David Harsent (95pp, £9.99, Faber)

I first came across Harry Guest's poetry around thirty years ago when his 1968 Anvil book Arrangements finally (and undeservedly) reached my local remainder bookshop. Since then, I've continued to read him and have regularly used his work to illustrate various poetic techniques wherever I've taught. In 1996, I even had the privilege of publishing his Visit to an Unknown Suburb as a chapbook. Why do I mention all this? Quite simply to declare an interest that may have a bearing on what follows.

Given this interest, it's easy to understand the sense of excitement I felt when I pulled his latest book, Some Times
, from the envelope. Could he, at nearly 80, still pull it off? Could he still demonstrate the same ability to innovate and experiment? Or had age taken the edge off what he had to say and the ways in which he said it?

The short answer, I'm delighted to report, is yes he could, yes he could and no it hasn't. The poems in this collection are unmistakably Guest's - warmly human, intelligently considered, measuredly joyful, abundantly evocative and, without  pandering in the least to the current, odious trend for dumbing-down, readily accessible. Yet, there's also evidence of him not having stopped developing, of having continued to search for new ways to express the new themes he wants to express.

At Harry Guest's stage of life it's perhaps permissibly inevitable that he admits to the overriding theme in Some Times
as being memory and the tricks it plays.  Much of what he has included is retrospective in flavour. But why not? He's got many years' worth of happy, confusing, sad and celebratory experiences to draw on. However, that's not to say that it's in any way sentimental. Even the section, 'Beyond the Rim', containing poems for the dearly departed, refuses to fall into the grip of slushiness. Instead, Guest fills them with life:

     You stay in memory
     as generous and unaffected, your talk
     glinting with merriment, your work
     inventive, knotty, scrupulous.
          [from 'Thom Gunn 1929-2004']

Guest has a way of making so much of what he writes read as though it is a stream of consciousness, fresh and idiosyncratic. He is an observer, a reporter who allows the reader the space to interpret - nothing is crammed down the throat - it can simply be read or, for the more adventurous, delved into to uncover the layers of meaning.

     ...simpler than mere witnessing
     though easier as always
     to set down than decipher
          [from 'Duloe']

     We drive to our hotel past hoardings advising
     a foreigner whom to vote for, explaining
     why banks love to dish out money, proving
     how hair-spray makes a goddess, offering
     sly tips for the timeliest bargains
     and prophesying when each one of us
     will get the golden fruit that is our due.
          [from 'Palindrome: The Loire Valley']

In continuing to innovate, Guest has taken the stream of consciousness concept to its extreme with 'As Far as Angkor Wat' in which the punctuation even becomes part of the flow of words...

     what's been derived from yellowed pamphlets helps
     only in part dash even photographs
     must cheat because you have to pace the thing
     out for yourselves and sense uneven steps
     comma a mediaeval play of sun
     down far symmetric cloisters comma see
     firsthand the blackening waste of rain along
     those crumbling arcades full stop

Of course, you might think that, after 74 lines, a feature of this type might become a little tiresome. But, no. Quite the reverse. It adds to it, providing timing to the cadences without having to interrupt the current of diction. You might think it would appear forced or manufactured. But, no. Quite the reverse. It adds to it, providing a quirkiness that makes it all the more interesting. Anyway, that, in essence, is another feature of Guest's work - nothing is forced. There's none of the forcing of terminology or name-dropping that others indulge in. With Guest, if it's the right word, it goes in. And it goes in without jarring:

     ...still ponds
     mirrored pewter
     smudges along
     the threatened sky
     while smoke drifted
     from one unseen
     cottage which could
     boast yellow walls
     not to say a
     gaudy muster
     of hollyhocks
     to interrupt
     the going scheme.
          [from 'The Poetry of Ideas']

If there must be a bad apple in this barrel, then it has to be 'Before Reflection' which, with its strict scansion and rhyming scheme, sticks out like an excruciatingly sore thumb. It's so un-typically Guest that I fail to understand why it made the final cut, but for the fact, perhaps, that it is so un-typically Guest:

     If thought is thunder
     All ideas are ice
     Glaciers will sunder
     While white peaks entice

     When peril beckons
     Intrepid desire
     A wise wife reckons
     On curbing the fire

Beyond that though, this collection holds no disappointments, not even to a seasoned Guest-reader like me, and shows he can still pull it off, splendidly, right through to the Meldrewesque ire of 'An Open Letter to Librarians with Closed Minds', a selection of translations of the likes of Verlaine, Haufs and Serafini, and the pathos of a sequence of love poems looking back on a relationship that became 'unclasped without a wan pretence / of plagency'.

I certainly hope I have more opportunities in the years ahead to pull many other new collections from Harry Guest from their envelopes. His will be a hard act for anyone to follow.

One possible contender may be David Harsent who, according to Michael Hulse in Poetry Review, has filled the shoes left vacant by Ted Hughes. His latest collection, Night, is his follow up to the widely acclaimed and Forward Prize-winning collection Legion. To quote the jacket notes, it is, 'a book in which the sureties of daylight become uncertain: dark, unsettling narratives about what wakes in us when we escape our day-lit selves to visit a place where the dream-like and the nightmarish are never far apart.'

     Out by the woodpile at three a.m., knock-kneed and shitfaced,
     Lost in your own backyard,
     You pour a libation that comes straight from the dregs and she drinks it.
          [from 'The Garden Goddess']

Dark and unsettling? No, those jacket notes are, at best, misleading. The language used throughout is colloquial and, at times, vernacular and, in being so, lends the collection an everyday feel that is far from what it would have us believe. So much so, it is often light and pleasant to read, rather than dark and full of foreboding. Yes, there are many mentions of death, but that, in itself, doesn't make for dark, unsettling writing.

So, if the collection's quality is to be gauged using its own criteria, then it fails, has not succeeded in attaining what it set out to achieve. But this would be to do it a great disservice. There is much more to these poems than the neo-gothic claptrap on the cover.

For a start, as with Guest, Harsent's poems flow as though written from streams of consciousness, allowing alliterations and repetitions to form the rhythms that carry them along:

     ...See where the doomed and damned
     look up to the sky as it trembles and tears, each lashed
     to a spar or spoke...
          [from 'Rota Fortunae']

     ...with distances fading fast,
     with the road I travelled by a thinning smudge,
     with all that lay between us bagged and sold,
     with voices in under the door that are nothing more nor less
     than voices of those I loved, or said I did,
     with nothing at all to mark
     fear or fault, nothing to govern loss,
     and limitless memory starting up in the dark.
          [from 'The Hut in Question']

Another technique used to add to this is parenthesis. In poetry? Why not? How many of us speak in definite, straightforward sentences without adding information or doubting what we've just said (and looking for affirmation) as we go? Nobody. We all do it, it's part of our normal speech patterns. In these pieces, then, the purposes are exactly the same - added information and self-doubt - and the result equally so - natural flow.

Here are a few, taken out of context and at random:

     (is it?)
     (I think it is)
     (not mine)
     (not together, of course)
     (maybe soon, maybe not)
     (you might guess)
     (face-up till you tingle, then flip)
     (or grandmother's)
     (or so she said)

All in all, then, although there's nothing particularly high-brow about the diction, the uses Harsent makes of his language is what makes it work in producing very readable poems brimming with many wonderfully well-turned phrases.

     This is a lesson, I think, in how to feel:
     the bloom, the woman, her wound, that the chair is set

     slightly to one side, that my hands now fall
     slack to my lap... and, of course, love in the guise

     of a skull licked clean, the dome chock-full
      of darkness, of errant music, of thoughts of me.
          [from 'Vanitas']

But it's not just a collection of well-turned phrases either. There's a richness of meaning working away on different levels: narrative, metaphoric etc. The opening lines of 'Scene One: A Beach', for instance:

     And this is where I've got to, pitched up on some shoreline
     like any piece of wreckage, like something
     once adrift, now simply lost, no given purpose,
     no way of knowing where from, where to, no sense of direction...

...form the basis of the narrative of the poem, but can also be taken as a metaphor for life itself. And, between the lines in 'Spatchcock' and 'Abstracts', there is even much of interest to the carni-erotic fetishists amongst you.

The centrepiece of the collection, though, must be the long, concluding piece entitled 'Elsewhere'. Taking up some 26 pages with its dense, unfolding narrative it has all the hallmarks of a quest-poem in which 'the protagonist is drawn ever onward through a series of encounters and reflections like an after-hours Orpheus, hard-bitten and harried by memory'. It's form gives the impression of cinematic scenes, each populated by variously unhinged characters going about their unhinged lives, offering up searching questions, simple advice or unfathomable conundrums to our hero.

     The music is soupy blues, she in her patchy satin
     working her way through the clientele - a dance
     for a double-and-chaser, with (I guess) a pretty fair chance
     of better later - and this booze-blind cretin
     confusing me with someone he once met in
     another bar another time, so I'm just getting set to coast
     towards the door I came in by, as her glance

     slaps the back of my head and when I turn
     we're standing nose-to-nose
     and hip-to-hip, the curve of her lip, the slow burn
     as she lifts her eyes to mine, and dips, and flows
     out onto the floor, myself in tow, her civet-and-myrrh
     drawing me on, 'Fine and Mellow' on the turntable, her mouth
     close to my ear as she whispers, 'There's a dearth

     of men like you and that's the truth...'

So, has he filled Ted Hughes' shoes? Does he have it in him to take up where Harry Guest will one day leave off? Maybe. More importantly, however, is whether or not Harsent has his own voice, his own style, his own concerns. I feel the answer to these must be a resounding yes. Of course, the only way for you to find out is to fork out the tenner for the book and see for yourself. And, if you ask me, you really should.

          © John Mingay 2011