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Rhapsodies by Graham Hartill (Aquifer Press)

Rhapsodies by Graham Hartill (Aquifer Press)

Hartill’s poetry combines an interest in Buddhism with a political approach which manages to fuse an often sparse lyrical style with something more analytical so we have beauty and melancholy alongside anger and critique. We have ‘being in the moment’ and a celebration of the physical world together with a commentary on the negative consequences of capitalism and of the empire building realities of organised religion. I’m probably being a bit reductionist here but these seem to be the underlying themes of what is a wonderful book of contemporary poetry.

There’s a definition of the term Rhapsody from Cuddon’s Dictionary of Literary Terms at the end of the book which it’s worth bearing in mind:

          Rhapsody  means ‘stitch song’, a rhapsodist  one who recited, 

          stitched together and improvised on various elements of epic 

          poetry.  In   a  more  general   sense  a   rhapsody   may  be an

          emotional, perhaps even ecstatic, utterance.

      From ‘Proverbs of Sugarloaf’ we get the following encapsulations:

          If there’s no room in your boots,

              put your feet in your hat                     (Spring)

          “Peace is the milk of birds”                    (from a Khartoum newspaper – Summer)

          “We’ve all pissed in the bath son…”                      (on the Usk bridge, Autumn)

          The sky dragged across like a heavy sack              (Winter)

     The section entitled ‘Easter’ is an appreciation of the innovative and influential American Jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler where we get this:

          Love reaches and unfolds,

          a completed life

          can show this:

                                    Ayler,

          dead in the water at age 34 –

          his universe swims in the cup of his tune

          forever: folk-songs are flowers, flowers

          explosions of language – there is and there is no

          silence in inner space, the thud of the blood,

          the pulling of nerves,

          the picking up, between finger and finger,

          of intimate stars.

                         The tree in the ear,

                         The Easter in the throat.

     ‘Pay Dirt’ from ‘Letters from America’ is prefaced with the quotation (Not just to make poverty history / but also excessive wealth!) and is clearly a critique of American political machinations and the ideology of The American Dream which has surely crashed to ground if it was ever an admirable or attainable aim in the first place. Those of us in the west who grew up in the aftermath of WW2 and who were hugely influenced by tv and advertising allied to the culture of consumption may feel an inevitable ambivalence about ‘the reality’ but in the face of climate change, war and pandemic it’s hard to come to any sane conclusion that doesn’t point towards a serious change in direction. 

     There’s a lot of compassion in Hartill’s poetry and the section entitled ‘Crowd Scenes’ includes material related to mental illness and to a celebration of the human spirit in the face of severe adversity. He’s inclusive rather than exclusive but focusses on the dispossessed and how chance can play such an important part in anyone’s life:

           There are different kinds of drop out –

           those with proper jobs, who like to dress up and express themselves,

           and those who face or suffer St Anthony’s mental fire

           every day:                (from ‘St Anthony’s Well’)

     In an earlier sequence from ‘Only Human’ we have a description of prison life and I imagine this experience may have come from work as a prison tutor (I’m guessing) similar to that expressed by Ken Smith in his book Inside Time. “He’s lost it now, his tele, and his parole, Gray, / anywhere else they’ll have done him over, / fucked him up. / He can forget September now.’ The final short poem in this sequence is puzzling but resonant and filled with both a sense of disturbance and of compassion:

          Entire

          that the stone could be

               pulled from his chest

          and become his father again

          -that he could write an entire page

          and his father be in it

     From the chapter ‘Palaces’ we get ‘Pebbles’ a seven part reverie which ponders the nature of war and human culture, moving from the rhapsodic and a contemplation of beauty to something much darker and how the two are hopelessly entwined:

                                                         but Death,

           like cathedral stone, isn’t violent, just Culture:

           the beautiful carving of bear or leaf

           on the fortified tower, and yes, of course,

           a poem –

                                           in a Christian cross,

           the violence done

           to Love

           can coalesce, this is maybe how

           cultures solidify –

Similarly with ‘From A Chained Library’ where we have the following from ‘in violence we act as if we were alone.’   

               Like children, we are keepers of the sacred texts,

                       we want the same story, over and over again –

                  a theocracy’s job, or a capitalist’s,

                                                         is to chain the text –

                      but life is a language, a touch, and a timing:

                          faces flow past,

                               the altars are way markers –

                      and every lost book a lake

                                 in which we are free to imagine.                    (from 3 ‘From A Chained Library’)

This may sound overly didactic on a first reading but in fact it’s the opposite of that, an invitation to engage and to think outside of the box.                 

There’s a lyric tenderness in ‘Life Stories’ which is prefaced by what I take to be a tinted photograph of the author’s parents so there’s an autobiographical feel to this short penultimate section. In the final section ‘Lyrics’ we have fragmented open-field minimalism while in ‘Spring’ we have a commentary on the nature of being – …’that being human, the fight is always between the real and the / how we would like it to be,’ – which is interrupted by an evocation of the here and now:

          the wind is suddenly loud in the bushes,

          wrapped inside the hill

          the cuckoo’s

          song

     There’s a delicious sensuousness to some of these latter pieces which is enhanced by the cover art, a minimalist creation of line and texture. This is a nicely produced book which I thoroughly enjoyed reading and thinking about.

Steve Spence 25th April 2022

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