Thursday, December 10, 2009

Review: Mark Halliday - No Panic Here

Mark Halliday is an American poet who is also professor at Ohio University (there is a UK poet called Mark Halliday, so plenty of room for confusion). HappenStance recently published his chapbook, No Panic Here – interesting in itself that a small chapbook publisher based in Glenrothes, Scotland, has published a debut UK collection by someone who has published five full collections in the USA. Long overdue, I’d say.

If I mentioned that mortality and time were major themes in this chapbook, which they are, you might have certain expectations of the poetry inside, but you’d need to revise these quickly. Halliday himself cites the influence of Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara, and also nods in the direction of Wallace Stevens, but none of those influences quite convey what he does. He uses plain language, layered with irony, and often turns that irony on himself with great comic timing.

Noon Freight is a good example of his style. The poem's ‘you’ is eating a turkey melt and watches a long freight train go by, an ‘unmistakable metaphor’, he thinks, for time rolling by, the past (loaded with ‘stuff’, of course!) giving way to the future. The satire is plain:

.....You’ve seen how many, probably four thousand freight trains
.....and at least fifty of them looked meaningful;

He is aping a certain kind of contemporary poem in which the poet observes an object and finds something that sounds deep and meaningful in it. The problem comes when very little of substance is actually conveyed. The satire continues:’s a long freight train, metaphor rhythmic you never quite grab the iron handles
.....and hoist yourself on board

There’s a disconnection between the metaphor and what the poet is really experiencing. The epiphany of the metaphor is an abstract construct that sounds ‘poetic’, a stock metaphor, the kind of image that lends itself to poems, but the poet isn’t really there, can’t quite get ‘on board’. Suddenly the freight train passes and the empty tracks become yet another metaphor, with silence in its wake. The 'you' is left with his turkey melt, which is at least real. In fact, you could say that there is no material difference between the freight train and the turkey melt, except that trains have traditionally lent themselves to poetic treatment.

Halliday’s style may appear casual. I read an interview with him from a few years ago (actually, I've just realised that it's not this interview and I can't remember where he said it, but I'll keep the link up, as it is a great conversation) in which he suggested his ‘ultra-talk’ poems might seem odd to a UK audience, whereas Americans were more used to conversational tangents in poetry. British readers tend to prefer a tighter structure. That’s probably true but, in this chapbook, the pace of each poem is spot on, and the progression and structure never seem accidental. The switch between different registers, especially prominent in the opening poem, Numerous Swans, which contains one of the best closing lines I’ve ever read, is another feature of Halliday’s work. In other words, the style may appear casual, but its simplicity is a crafted illusion.

Halliday turns his irony on himself and his own work as much as anyone else’s. At first, The Elegist might seem similar thematically to Noon Freight. It concerns a memory of June 1980 conveyed by an ‘elegist’ who ‘stood up before us though we didn’t recall asking him,/ and he began to evoke.’ The evocation of grilled-cheese sandwiches and the sun filtering through the green leaves wins over his sceptical audience:

.....…we were touched as if we had no choice
.....each time he said green leaves

That phrase, ‘as if we had no choice’, just drips with irony. But then comes a ‘dark crosscurrent’ to balance things out a bit, important (ironically) to convey more than mere sentimentality, as the elegist creates a metaphor about loss and separation and death:

.....the metaphor resonated with a grownup kind of truth then we gave him an award
.....and we gave him a fellowship
.....and we gave him a prestigious grant

So you now know how to be a ‘successful’ poet. Green leaves, however pleasing, are insufficient; you need the ...ahem... 'grownup kind of truth' in there as well! But the elegist secretly realises he hasn’t quite managed to convey what he wanted to convey. He is stuck with the limits of language, the stock metaphors and the vivid particulars that language can only approach from a distance. Halliday seems to be acknowledging both the laudable attempt of poetry to get to the core of experience and yet the extreme difficulty (or impossibility) of doing so. The elegist:

.....kept on trying to touch that thing saying the green leaves or
.....those grilled-cheese sandwiches

The universal and the particular, seriousness and comedy, combine to make poetry resonate, but it always leaves us (and the poet) still trying to touch the thing. Many poets use irony as a cloak, but Halliday uses it like a barb.

Not all the poems are about poetry. Like most people, I don’t find many poems about poetry have much to say, but I enjoyed the ones in this chapbook a great deal – Drafts to Impress the Angels is terrific, satirising with wicked humour the tension between a desire for posthumous critical reputation and an engagement with living readers. However, Halliday also writes about tomato ketchup and rain, and contributes a few elegies himself – loss and absence are recurring themes and wit is often fuelled by sadness. My favourite poem (I think) from the chapbook was The Leakage, a poem in five short sections that connect in various ways. We are all, I suppose, ‘spilling over into the dark’. The fifth section evokes, but it evokes something all at once mysterious, universal, particular, and real:

.....A week after I die there will be
.....a woman with black hair who should have met me a long time ago
.....sensing something of the greatest importance she listens to a string quartet by Boccherini.

No Panic Here is published by HappenStance and costs only £4.

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