The eighth in this series.
Bears dance to the music, slowly, awkwardly
in the grand piazza.
A thin but sufficient chain keeps them in place.
So begins, Coat of Arms on Wall in Ancient City, the first of Lee Harwood’s poems in the anthology, set in an unnamed Italian city where an evening of decadence is about to begin. The tourists marvel at the humiliations and pleasures of the evening, as the city icon looks on with apparent indifference. The tourists board the steamer and head into darkness where a bored bus driver waits to escort them back to their hotels. The poem finishes:
The bears troop off and disappear into the night.
Their plans remain ambiguous.
I’ve been asking myself what makes this poem so unforgettable and why the conclusion is so successful. The poem makes me think of Venice, its great square, the music and crowds and street performers, except Venice is a gentile version of this poem’s city, which is inhabited by “systematic and cold debauchery.” There’s that delight in being a tourist, the high of seeing something outlandish, but there’s always the low to come, of the bus back to unambiguous routine. Yet those bears who seem like the victims – trapped animals performing for the tourist gawkers - they are the ones who slip off into the night, the ones with secrets, the ones who can’t be pinned down. The surrealism of the picture is earthed in human longing. We want to be the bears, not the tourists looking on and then rushing off to bed.
Lee Harwood was born in 1939 in Leicester, was brought up in London, and has lived in Brighton since 1970. His Collected Poems was published by Shearsman Books a couple of years ago. In the 1960s he met up with members of the New York School and was influenced by John Ashbery and others. His poetry developed along very different lines from his mainstream UK counterparts, although, on the evidence of these anthologised pieces, his poems are less fragmented than his American contemporaries. He has been named as one of three judges (along with John Burnside and Alice Oswald) in the UK Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition 2006 – an interesting choice!
His poetry strikes me as deeply questioning and meditative on the nature of reality, love, faith, death. It often conjures up a mood, rather than a narrative. At times sentences trail off, thoughts drift, images come and go, but the poems remain remarkably cohesive.
The Unfinished Opera is a long poem that interweaves two stories. The first is a love story. A man goes to visit his lover in the ‘Overture’ section of the poem. This gives way to Act 1, where the lover dreams an opera, and it’s a traditional opera in which plot is no more than a backdrop to music. The characterisation is wooden, the plot a ridiculously convoluted love story, and this part is told in coolly humorous prose:
The confusions and trials seem endless. Who is behind the locked door? Who leapt from the window as the baritone approached? Who has seemingly left with another?
As the curtain falls we feel totally exhausted.
Then comes the Interval, during which the man reaches the house of his lover. At first I was surprised by the diction here. It seemed almost melodramatic, the kind of language one might read in a romance novel, except heightened and chastened:
Your eyes glitter as we lie in the half light
in so close an embrace that
our breath and lips and limbs are one.
A clear crisp new moon rises,
a pure silver white awesome in its power.
I gasp at this as at our love.
It seems so heartfelt, and yet so artificial, so poetic. But back we go into Act 2, with more intrigue, and then a couple united after years of separation, a chorus praising the virtues of a tender and constant heart, and then:
Suddenly I drop the curtain on this scene.
I stand in front of the red velvet, the toy theatre,
this elaborate allegory of our story.
Allegory, yes, perhaps. But I look at it like this. The opera presents passion, music raw with emotion, and it may bring us to tears even when we know that what it presents is artificial. It’s the intensity of the music, not the love story, that affects us. However, in the real love story between the man and his lover, the art, the words, seem inadequate to express what’s felt and experienced. We might be able to look on and experience the artificial with intensity, but we can’t experience what’s real. After the (deliberate) poetic clichés of the Interval section, Harwood resorts to quotation marks, as if to remind us that we are kept at a distance:
No one ever in my life has that “power” you always have,
a force even greater than love…
…The “perfection” and “paradise” of such moments
as your kiss brushes my lips…
The poem ends with the opera characters getting very cross at the interruption. The real characters step into the wings and the opera continues.
Brecon Cathedral has a very different atmosphere. This poem explores faith and does so from an open, ambiguous perspective. The narrator is present in the cathedral just as the sun rose against the stained glass:
I can’t forget that
moment nor the powers there
But to praise God is a strange deed.
God or the gods need no praise,
only some thanks now and then
He goes out into the hills and mountains, which are oblivious “to all this stuff (maybe),” and the town below goes about its business as usual. But he thinks back to the open book in the service, the priest’s calm blessing, and “it’s clear enough/ clear as the mountains.” Then a child asks if he believes in God:
To which a faltering adult answer
goes nowhere near satisfying the simple question.
It’s a beautiful, thoughtful poem. It might look simple to construct a poem like this, with simple language, without complex sentence structures, with calm and seemingly casual observation. It is of course extraordinarily difficult to achieve. There is great art in managing to get something looking really simple and yet saying something profound.
Cwm Uchaf does without punctuation for the most part. Its unfinished thoughts and broken-off sentences merge into one another in a collage, the theme of which appears to be decay, crumbling, slipping off – a voice falls from a window to a dark street, “a fuzz of stars sweeps across the world”, a silence you can almost touch never achieves completeness as there’s always a “faint ringing in/ the darkness”, and:
The faint glitter of the rocks mica the sky
catching the eye stood still almost
The dust the waves going nowhere in particular
a gradual leaking away
On the Ledge has the narrator witness his friend fall from a snowy mountain to “a final thudding stillness.” The narrator is left to weep alone:
and you gone silently down
through grey winter air
the mountains we loved
What really impresses me about Lee Harwood’s work is his evocation of mood. His subtle use of language gives his poems both intensity and intelligence, and many of his images stick in the mind well after the poem is finished.
Roy Fisher, Harry Guest, Lee Harwood – that’s three in a row who have delivered big time. Can Philip Jenkins continue the run?