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Michael Henry’s Bureau of the Lost and Found (Five Seasons Press, 2014)

Michael Henry’s Bureau of the Lost and Found (Five Seasons Press, 2014)

Michael Hulse’s back cover blurb captures the spirit of this collection:

‘In Bureau of the Lost and Found Michael Henry’s
poetry resembles W.G. Sebald’s prose in its rich
understanding of the invisible connective tissues of
individual lives and national cultures. A lover of the
little things and the larger significance alike, he wears
his erudition lightly in these wonderfully sensitive,
even-humoured poems.’

The collection reads like a W.G. Sebald journey with its illuminating twists and turns through history, knowledge, geography and relationships, movements back and forward in time. The discovery of a genealogical hidden past through his German father, a Liverpool based surgeon, of a Belgian grandfather with French connections, and a great grandfather, who married in Brussels in 1882, with French and German witnesses, leads to travels and archival research.
The narrative of lost family connections and a quest for roots, prefaced by an extensive portrait of the narrator’s father in exile, and the intense recall of childhood memories, is quite distinct from say Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood, around 1900, with its pursuit of fugitive knowledge through sensory memory and farewell to old Berlin. Here the poems, rich in detail and cultural accretion, produce a sense of wonderment at a missing family connection that disappeared between the world wars. We are though in the world of migration and a difficult past.

Colophon for my Father

My father wrote his name
on Page Thirteen of all his school textbooks:
de Vigny’s Cinq-Mars – the writing
tall and spiritual like a saint’s cathedral carving;

….

But on Page Thirteen
of Conrad’s Tales of Unrest,
his History prize, I can still make out
his former German name, in spite of crossings out.

Henry explores the nuances of cultural resemblances and connections, traits and obsessions in an effort to discover larger substantive knowledge. This begins with naming and a search for identity and leads on to the acquisition of a bureau of documents, objects, in a widening arc of associations.

The Invisible Man

His occupation stands in the register:
tailleur between pelletier and coiffeur,
The man who came to Brussels from Aix-la-Chapelle;
I never knew him.
Ce n’est pas un Belge.

….

He lived in one of the ‘disappeared’ streets
Of Old Brussels, seen only
In old maps and aquarelles.
I never knew them.
Ce n’est pas une adresse.

The narrative unfolds as much as by implication as what is said. The narrator’s family moves to Cheltenham where father, with his ‘Gladstone bag of tricks’ and son become immersed in the old English ways of education, with Latin as its bedrock and a guidebook to hand, a Victorian eye for detail, cricket, teas and love of the countryside.

The poems are unassuming, cumulative, and effortlessly draw the reader into their world with an exactness of detail and measurement.

David Caddy 20th January 2015

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