Thursday, July 06, 2006

7. Harry Guest

The seventh in this series.

I’m not even going to try to classify Harry Guest’s poetry. Each poem has its own specific atmosphere, its own voice.

There is little of the wilful obscurity I’ve found in some of the writers in this anthology. He doesn’t twist grammar and syntax. He doesn’t try not to make normal sense. The lines in his poems set out from the left margin and rarely splash themselves around the page.

That doesn’t make him an “easy” writer. His poems have depth, both in terms of thought and of emotion, and a poet can’t afford to be superficial when dealing with complexities. Harry Guest’s poems take concentration, but there are many rewards for taking the time and energy to read them.

Seven poems are included in the anthology, and the last four can be classified as responses to art – painting (Paul Klee), music (Grieg), science fiction (Edgar Rice Burroughs), English watercolours (general). Normally I’d be worried about approaching poems like this as my knowledge of art and classical music is poor, but Harry Guest made it a pleasure.

The description at the beginning of The Sorcerer’s Squares or One Way to Read Paul Klee, illustrates how well he can describe a world, even though, in this case, it happens to be an imaginary world inspired by the abstract canvas of a Klee painting:

This grid of pastel colours could be roofs,
crooked chimney-pots, high factories, pale fields beyond them –
the raw material of bricks and sunlight for a child to organise
into a lyric city set on a tidal river.
The mudflats glisten. Fisherman berth their punts among reeds.
The cry from a tower is sung in an unknown language.
Birds dart from the tiny gardens. At night there are fireworks.


Guest builds up his picture of what is happening in the abstract painting. He offers one way to read it, but not a definitive one, and in making that plain, sets out an approach to all art, including poetry. He isn’t clear on what a blue patch in the painting might be communicating – the wrong colour for sky, the wrong angle for water – and concludes it must be “an enormous carpet hung out to be beaten”:

Flecks within flecks leave scope for differing views,
which is as it should be: find somewhere for hope to inhabit…

He offers Two Interpretations of a Piece by Grieg. If titled simply ‘Last Spring’, referring to the preceding season, one can look on it as a bud that grew up to summer’s flower,

…an event
obliterated by its outcome. Scaffolding
gets taken down when the builder’s finished
though hedges tend to hide their structure.


But if titled ‘The Last Spring’, the final season with nothing ahead, then there is “no hope, no warmth again./ A white full-stop in space will mark the close.”

Barsoom is a metrical rhyming sonnet, a description of the planet Mars in the John Carter novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, none of which I have read, but it’s hard to resist two quatrains as good as this:

It is a world that has been left to die.
Cold sun probes thinning air. The last canals
lead from the ice-caps under ruined walls.
Mere skeletons of farms guard fields gone dry.

In arid light, waves of vermillion moss
break on abandoned wharves. Tall cities stare
from vacant windows past worn headlands where
the dead sea-bottoms roll through emptiness.


In A Very English Art, Guest describes the typical nature scenes of the English countryside immortalised in visual art, as well as scenes from abroad that have been painted in an English ‘style’. He concludes:

Art is the here and is the there,
the seen, the dreamed, the known, the longed for,
a winding path, meticulous
crossbars of a cottage window,
sunset beginning in a lake…


The poems are lyrical meditations, subjective reflections on art and life that possess an expansive and generous appeal to a reader’s sensibilities. You can virtually see the paintings, hear the music, through the power of the words. I never felt like I was locked outside a gallery listening to a poet intoning his response to a painting from a 5th floor balcony, which is what some poems on art make me feel.

The Fifth Elegy is a twisting, complex journey, or set of journeys. Seasons change, the summer sun is shining, then there is frost on the ground. Two lovers climb up a mountain path in autumn, but on a June evening guests gather for a dinner party. A deserted museum is populated only by skulls in glass cabinets, and then suddenly we are transported to a pastoral scene amid flowers, fields, and rivers. A host of memories interweave, slip in and slip out of the narrative, almost dream-like. It’s not easy to make rational sense of, but the writing is so good that I didn’t mind that too much. In any case, Guest writes:

…Naturalism
is an outmoded form. For a millennium
those who were buried in the shadow of that church-tower
have known of life what we know, that reason
reaches only so far before the truth
takes over.

The elegy, I think, is directed to a place and to the people who have moved through it and through the narrator’s life. The poem is like a journey through the memories and all the changes that have come about:

Who though can put a face on words or claim
to interpret the sundial? All we can say for certain is
there was a house, a tomb, a copse, and beyond
the land sloped to the river-mouth. This journey
will take its place among the many ways
of identifying movement.


I must admit, I could detect the (still living) ghost of John Ashbery in this poem, but Ashbery when he is good, so that’s OK.

Grave-Goods: Lithuania, c.6000, B.C, tells of the ritual sacrifice of a woman, a horrific event, and Guest gets the horror of it over very effectively. Those performing the killing are afraid. Their power is controlled by that fear. They lash the woman’s legs together so that she couldn’t walk:

They had all seen those who were dead
loom threatening like strangers.

They bury her alive and gaze at the mound in terror. Her eyes “press through the dirt”, striving to see the buriers:

Muttering words that had to be said
they backed away.

When she dies, the air above quivers with curses.

I didn’t enjoy High Orchids as much, even though I admired again the lyrical descriptions of the English landscape. This poem was dedicated to Lee Harwood, who is the next poet on the list.

The poem ends with a description of orchids, which lift “fragile above their mottled lizard leaves,” and then lines that many poets will concur with:

Would that our desks produced such blooms –
so unexpected, so correct –
as lovely though less perishable.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Fascinated by this, Rob. It spurred me into Googling for Harry Guest, and I think I'll have to get hold of a copy of his Collected Poems. Look forward to the Lee Harwood piece, because my opinion of his work changes every time I read it.

Matt Merritt said...

Sorry, forgot to leave my name with that comment!

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi Rob,
I especially like the two quatrains you quoted from the sci-fi poem. They move beautifully to a nice conclusion.

Jee Leong

Rob Mackenzie said...

Yes, I'm going to make sure I read more Harry Guest too, once I've finished this anthology.