As one might well expect from the highest class of second-hand book seller Alan Halsey has an ear and memory for names. This is true of a childhood recalled near Crystal Palace in ‘Idle Time-Scans’, where the pub Beulah Spa still stands as do those uplifts of memory with names such as Robin Hood or Dick Turpin engraved on their craggy surface, and it is of a literary knowledge acquired over some sixty years. The poems in this new Shearsman collection will present the reader with glimpses and echoes ranging from Homer and Virgil to Lorine Niedecker, from Dickens and Mayhew to J.H. Prynne.
And yet those names, books, associations have an awkward life of their own as they insist upon thrusting themselves up through consciousness and memory. Alan Halsey recalls that as a child he found it difficult to sleep since ‘I couldn’t put an end to the saying of things’ and he is compelled to tell Timothy Donnelly in a letter ‘dated 2 a.m. 26 Dec 2011’ that it only gets worse as he gets older. The experience of the avid reader takes the poet back to his memory of a piece of description from Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and London Poor in which a snake-swallower gives an account of his secret:
The head of the snake
with the ‘stingers cut out’ goes ‘about an inch
and a half down the throat and the rest of it
continues in the mouth, curled round.’
As the magician puts it: ‘As for the snakes / ‘they’re smooth one way’—he meant when they’re / going down—but the scales like things said / ‘rough you a bit when you draw them up.’. Nothing easy about either memory or poetry!
In 1924 Francis Ponge wrote a little piece titled ‘L’insignifiant’ the conclusion to which tells us of the poet’s belief in utterance as opposed to silence: ‘more important than the white page is the script even if it appears insignificant.’ Against the azure sky watch the quiet outline of a cloud! Look out for Alan Halsey’s convincing evidence of the worth of putting pen to paper. And also look out for Laurie Duggan’s full-length review of this delightful volume; it will appear in Tears in the Fence 60 or 61.
Ian Brinton 26th April 2014