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Lee Harwood’s The Orchid Boat

Lee Harwood’s The Orchid Boat

Enitharmon Press (www.enitharmon.co.uk)

I recall a moment, a few years ago, when I was at a dinner given for a colleague of mine who was moving to another school. Some of us were talking about how much we were going to miss this particular colleague and one person said ‘You cannot register absence in presence’. It was a clear statement which focussed upon the meaning of the word ‘loss’ and it brought to mind a wonderful early poem by Lee Harwood which I had used in the classroom, ‘As Your Eyes Are Blue…’. It is a poem of parting and the vividness of the experience is heightened by the inclusion of direct speech, echoes in a room after the parting has taken place. In an interview with Kelvin Corcoran, published in Not the Full Story (Shearsman 2008) Harwood referred to ‘little intense scenes shifting round…You do get these moments of goodness, whether it be in some of the pastoral scenes or a landscape of suburban railway tracks and oil refineries.’ When talking about his education at Queen Mary College, University of London, Harwood placed the reading of literature firmly in the world of the objective:

‘I did a degree in English literature and language. I had this terrific thing of walking from Mile End tube or Stepney Green—I was living in Stepney anyway—to lectures and then coming out of the lecture and walking back along Mile End Road. So all that business of maybe going to a place like Cambridge where you would float out of your lectures in your gown and walk to the quad, and you could keep on living in that world was avoided. It was knocked out of you because you immediately had reality in your face and you didn’t go to high table. You had bubble and squeak at the local transport café. I think that gave me a lovely sense of the importance of literature but also in the world, not in some isolated, privileged world. So you’d always have the measure of what you’d read, of the poetry existing in a working society.’

In the same interview he referred to a poem as ‘a bundle of stories’, ‘this building with fragments and suggestions’, ‘building up, like a chemical build up’, ‘a bundle of voices’, ‘getting to know the building bricks’, the ‘heaping up of fragments’.

This new volume from Enitharmon Press opens with precision:

‘A hot summer night,
the sound of rain in the courtyard.
A satin breeze sways the curtains’

We are given direct speech, itself quotation from a translation of an eleventh century Chinese poet; and we are given a picture ‘that maps / the wear of years’; a letter referred to ‘will reach the other side of the mountains’ and the present is placed as the poet plods ‘along the mountain path’

‘drifts of rain, streams sweeping across the path,
clouds so low you can barely see the path
as you stumble on loose rock.’

There are echoes here of Hardy’s ‘Poems of 1912-13’ and of Pound’s Cathay in which an ‘Exile’s Letter’ is sealed and sent ‘a thousand miles, thinking’.
In a landscape which merges Europe, China, Mexico, a history of the library in Alexandria destroyed by Christian fanatics, ‘A dense history of such deeds’, the poet recalls his father in 1940 having to shoot one of his own men who was begging to be put out of his agony, ‘his stomach ripped open beyond saving’. The moment of direct speech questions the narrative that we make of our own lives (‘We deceive ourselves with our stories’) and a clear statement follows…. ‘Not this one’.

Mark Ford wrote in The Guardian: ‘Harwood’s poetry is not only not “difficult”—it is open, moving and exquisitely delicate in its attention to landscape, mood, and the pressures of time and history’. It also looks forward as well as back:

‘I don’t intend to sit here waiting in my coffin,
gathering dust until the final slammer,
adjusting my tiara.

I’ll stamp my foot
and, checking the rear-view mirror,
head for the frontier.’

The Orchid Boat is a terrific new volume! As readers we are invited to look at the ‘Objects on a Polish Table’

1.

Four books, two newspapers,
an ashtray, a pack of cigarettes, matches.

2.

when visitors are coming
some poppy seed cake or doughnuts
or fresh baked makaroniki
placed on a plate on the table

a lace table cloth beneath the coffee cups

3.

a ceramic salt bowl with a lid

4.

an empty vase in the centre of
the oil cloth

Come and sit down

Ian Brinton 6th October 2014

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