With acknowledgement to the editors of Edinburgh Review, where this review first appeared in issue 133, Dark Things as Bright. Go to their new website:
Night by David Harsent (Faber and Faber: London, 2011)
Faber published David Harsent’s Selected Poems 1969-2005 in 2007, updating (and replacing) the O.U.P. Selected Poems of 1989. Night is the first new collection from Harsent since Legion in 2005 and represents a departure from it. Dramatic monologue was the primary method of Legion (‘Toffee’ and ‘Sniper’ are among Harsent’s finest poems), but Night is primarily a book of lyric poems, written through a male first-person. The unnamed war zones of his previous collection have given way to a suburban garden and a grimy city. Broadsheet reviews of Night have been uniformly appreciative. The TLS was less so (‘logorrhoea’, as the reviewer called it).
Nothing is safe from darkness in this collection: only the three versions from Cavafy offer tenderness. There are poems on blood, Mark Rothko, Cain, and gardens are not peaceful places: every turn on the lawn leads to despair. ‘The Garden in Dream’ finds some consolation in naming the “cicatrice of lichen” and the orchid colloquially known as “mountain lady’s slipper”, only for the spell to be broken: these flowers are “so rare that everything else must slip and sicken”. Other orchids have a “sense of sin”. Lovers reading on the lawn descend into “Stockholm Syndrome”, while the “garden’s weather” is reduced to “nothing at all”. By the end of ‘The Long Walk to the End of the Garden’ self-portrait becomes a self-loathing practice, “a clumsy sketch// of yourself as pseudocide, a frantic silhouette/ soon smudged to shadow by incoming rain”.
From the opening poem ‘Rota Fortunae’, there is a sense of dread and fatalism. There is no room for fortune on this wheel, where only fate and fatalistic statements reside. Considering what was at stake in Legion (real annihilation, the disaster zones of the world, genocide) there is a remarkable contrast here in finding so much fault within peacetime, and with being at home and in the garden: “God help the merely fortunate: lives lived in shades of grey – // let’s leave them to contentment … yes … and let’s agree/ luck is a different darling”. Halfway through, ‘Rota Fortunae’ turns to 17 ways of looking at ‘death’: “that lofty inch-by-inch/ is simply the way of death, is death/ as shiftless shadow, death as that hint in the air…” In contrast, ‘Arena’, from Legion, showed how life continues within the survivor, and in those remembering lives lost to war, the first line “Not everything dead is buried” resolved by the last: “Not everything buried is dead”.
The voices in Legion are more open to hope in the worst of circumstances. The voice of Night is overwhelmed by death, negativity, pessimism, a pervading nihilism one hopes the speaker will eventually cure. It calls to mind the aspiration of Czesław Miłosz, in his ‘Ars Poetica?’, to write poems that “would let us understand each other without exposing/ the author or reader to sublime agonies”. One risk of writing pessimistically throughout a collection of poems is that both author and reader are exposed to the agony of having no contrary view. While Legion is a collection sensitive to this issue, there is the sense that Night would have benefited from more contrast between death and life, despair and hope, fatalism and free will. The solution is Blake: “Without Contraries is no progression”.
Relationships are strained in Night. In the title poem, the female figure is seen through “broken images the best of which inflicts/ a rich reward on that faithless bitch he’d more than half-forgotten”. The vehemence with which the male character views the female dispels the idea he has half-forgotten her, which gives way to some semi-improvised lines, “the naked rage, the face-off with fate, the shaken cage”, splenetic outbursts: “Maybe she’ll star/ in Sluts I’d love to hump or MILF gets ripped, a tell-tale stain// curdling the white of her eye. We’ll see.”, and further pessimism: “accept that everything is more or less what it seems”, “traffic in the city of ashes, city of lies and loss”, “Here is the news. Whatever you most despise will have its day”. When the speaker asks “Is it wrong to be so addicted to grime and grief?”, the poetry would suggest that it is, since addiction to unhappiness will only bring unhappiness. The 26-page poem ‘Elsewhere’ is a further descent into that addiction.
One might view Night as an interim book between Legion and Harsent’s versions from the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos, whose version of ‘The Crane Dance’ Harsent published in Poetry (April, 2008 – also online; there are plans for a book-length work). In this poem, Theseus has finally come out of the labyrinth, but his horse Asterios has died, and the dance is one learned in the labyrinth and danced now as an altar offering. The Harsent predilection for alliteration is still there, but the music of the lines is softer, the distance between vowels more varied, as if the volume is turned down to sympathetic reportage from a civilisation outside of time: “people still dance that dance… as if hope and heart could meet, as if they might/ even now, somehow, dance themselves out of the dark”. The balance between lamentation and hope suggests that Night is a grouse against life before the crane dance resumes.