It’s a Long Road: Part Two. The first part was posted on Pages in December, below
About half way through his Collected Poems we see the emergence of the mature Lee Harwood. It is worth remembering that 300 pages (of 522) of the Collected were written by the time he was 40. From this date, 1979, the work, while continuing to record the vicissitudes of personal relationships and thematic obsessions, and while emphatically insisting that it is making art from these materials, demonstrates a stylistic assurance that can use whatever expressive mode is at hand. While ‘Old Bosham Bird Watch’ (a text I examined last month from the late 1970s) may have re-kindled Harwood’s interest in prose, this confidence may have been reinforced by participating in two collaborative projects, which provided him with two new prose forms.
The first one, ‘Wine Tales (1979-81)’, a work written mostly in prose with Ric Caddell, and published under that title by Peter Hodgkiss’s Galloping Dog Press in 1984, makes open play with the conventions of the short story or the fictionalised vignette. The text’s conceit is a version of the game played by Raymond Rousell: imagining oneself disappearing into labels on wine bottles (though the collaborators eschew Rousell's punning); the labels that Caddel and Harwood use are reproduced in the original publication. Caddel's texts and responses as well as Harwood's are generously included in the Collected. In ‘Claret’, which Harwood published separately (and is printed here also in the ‘All the wrong notes’ section!), he imagines the ‘large grey chateau’ on the wine label as ‘A Gestapo Headquarters – interrogation rooms and cells- ’, but reminds us that ‘this in my imagination in a sun-filled kitchen in the early afternoon in September’, a place ‘where such interrogations could equally happen’ between ‘husband and wife’. (CP 260 and 304) Block prose paragraphs allow for multiple connections to be laid out, precisely juxtaposed, as each new paragraph signals a change of ‘scene’ quite literally (from Gestapo HQ to kitchen, to windows and rooms in South London (‘Step into that room’) to a noisy children’s cinema. (CP 260 and 304). The poem ends, jokingly, but menacingly, for the ordinary harbours such acts of micro-fascism: ‘If we sit quiet and still we will be allowed to see the rest of Sabu the Elelphant Boy with French subtitles’. (CP 261 and 304).
‘Wish You were here: six postcards’ originally published with Antony Lopez’ replies (by Paul Brown’s Transgravity in 1979), here forms the opening work of the section ‘All the wrong notes 1976-1983’. Again, as its title suggests, it uses visual materials as stimulus, which is a common method of composition from this time. More generally, it also makes use of one of Jack Spicer’s forms, which Harwood has made his own: a lyric fragment juxtaposed with a prose statement or apposed fictional passage at the foot of the page, a flexible mode of combining text and commentary, and perhaps of reversing them. While ignoring Spicer’s more teasing and sometimes contradictory use of this form, it would prove useful to Harwood in other of the poems collected in ‘All the wrong notes (1976-1983)’, the long section of the Collected reprinting Monster Masks of 1985 which had itself absorbed the texts of All the wrong notes (1981), but not the original photographs by Jud Walker of Brighton streets, hills, alleyways and littorals. Both books were published by Caddel's Pig Press.
Most notable around this time is Harwood’s development of the long sequence, mixing modes as he sees fit, and juxtaposing longer passages (often in Spicer’s double voiced discourse), as a gentler form of the collage and cut up procedures developed earlier, as in the excessively entitled ‘Faded ribbons around the lost bundle now being devoured by moths’, which mixes lyric, prose, fiction, fact, and emphasises imaginative methods of transformation. Cavalier fictionalising often raises ‘the question of where vanity and obsession meet or divide or…’ (CP 312), while the natural world offers the seductions of simple enumeration, as well as subtle ‘distinctions’:
cuckoo’s call (CP 313)
But the desire to link aesthetic and sensual experiences (as they are in their etymologies, of course) haunts the piece: ‘A 13th century ceiling meets Schubert meets/a glass of chilled white wine and a ripe peach’. (313) This ‘meeting’, this deliberate juxtaposition, offers the hope for an imaginative interinanimation of various cultural artefacts and sensuous experiences.
While aesthetically the assurance of the later pieces is a success, there is no doubting the negative aspect of Harwood’s imaginative restlessness, where ‘meeting’ can degenerate into slippage, and even evasion. He himself, writing in 1993, suggests that such stylistic restlessness – rapid changes of direction and attitude - may indeed at least partly derive from a personal disposition. (Although the metaphor used here is of an earlier civil conflict in English history, there is a clear echo of the ‘puritan-cavalier routine’, examined last month, and of the way that that stylistic formulation echoed emotional and sexual vicissitudes.)
'I almost feel there’s nothing I can trust except the mountains and the countryside, and possibly the writing. I certainly don’t trust myself but continually doubt my ability to hold one idea or emotion without it suddenly sliding away from me, beside me, whatever. I feel like one of the earls in the Wars of the Roses. I set my standard up but as quickly leave the battlefield when most needed or even go over to the other side. I know I can be trusted when navigating in cloud on a mountainside but certainly not when trying to navigate sexual and some emotional "clouds" (though I wish I could).' (p. 150 Lee Harwood, Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 19, pp. 135-153, at 151.)
A revitalised juxtaposition of ever more discrete and larger fragments occurs in ‘Dream Quilt, 30 Assorted stories 1983-1984’, a text written after Harwood had split up with Jud Walker in 1983 and had moved to the artists’ colony of Bolinas, California, where lived with, and was directly influenced by, the fiction writer Bobbie Louise Hawkins for a year and a quarter. This work draws out Harwood’s tendency towards the short story that had been growing over a number of years. Harwood’s reading had always included prose, from the oblique fictions of Borges, to the sensually exuberant autobiographies of Jocelyn Brooke, but what he was not influenced by was the emerging form of British literary fiction, whether Amis or McEwan, Carter or Winterson, which may explain the slight archaic feel to their written surface. These ‘stories’, ‘flashbacks’, ‘fairy tales’, 'odes', 'hommages' 'dreams’, ‘announcements’ (to cluster several generic indices from their titles) are arguably ‘short short stories’. However, reading them today in the era of the 50 word short story, or slash fiction, or alongside a 'novel' such as Dan Rhodes’ neo-Oulipean 101 101 word chapters, Anthropology (2000), they seem almost prolix by comparison. He plays on his own history and those of friends (Caddell and Mottram, among others), he elaborately details his 45th birthday. He incorporates written narratives by his young children, as well as disappearing into his dreaming imagination. Various texts travel from the sublime to the ridiculous, and the sublimity of the ordinary, but never loose a gentle self-mockery when Harwood represents himself as a slightly bemused and stilted figure in a landscape. One fiction ends, ‘(Imagine all of the above.)’ as though the words, as ever, will be never quite enough, unless some total readerly engagement is enacted by such parenthetical prompts.
Back in Brighton in 1984, and returned to his post office job, in his poems of the two next sections, ‘Rope Boy to the Rescue 1983-1987’ and ‘In the Mists 1988-1993’, Harwood increasingly refers to his passion for mountain climbing, and country walking, examples of the forces he says he can ‘trust’. Rope Boy to the Rescue, which was also published as a separate volume in 1988, by North and South, run by Peterjon and Yasmin Skelt, contains poems which, while exemplifying the gains of the previous few years, sometimes fail to satisfy. For example, ‘The Unfinished Opera for Marian’ (O’Dwyer) is a prolix exercise in romantic operatic pastiche: ‘I have loved you for twenty stumbling years,’ is a desperate admission amid the camp excess of Albanian hussars and pangolins! (CP 386) This contrasts with the tightness of the first of several love poems dedicated to Sandy Berrigan (who was married to poet Ted), ‘Gyögy Kurtág meets Sandy Berrigan’. The title reminds us of Harwood’s strong sense of ‘meeting’; the poem is a ‘song cycle’ that fully deserves its lyrical aspirations towards music through the naming of the composer in its title. It risks unashamed tinges of narcissism: ‘But in love with being in love,/with feeling precious.’ (CP 372)
Although Harwood was to wait until 2004 for the Collected Poems occasioning this review, a selected poems, Crossing the Frozen River, a title which yet again foregrounds the sense of precarious travel, appeared in 1988, and was generally well received. Published by Paladin alongside the anthology The New British Poetry, which also contained his work, both were instigated by of the unsung general editor of both volumes (and more), John Muckle. (See some recent poems by Muckle as the last posting from Pages.)
‘In the Mists (1988- 1993)’ is subtitled ‘mountain poems’, and appeared as a pamphlet of that title from John Harvey's Slow Dancer in 1993. The deliberately clumsy title, ‘If you think this is just descriptions, it isn’t’, reminds the reader that considered enumeration, in writing about the natural environment, may be considered evocation, another ‘meeting’, this time of man and nature, culture and the environment. Another poem records one notable historical failure of this perspective: ‘"I see Nature bothers him" Maddox Brown noted of Rosetti.’ (CP 400) There are poems to Harry Guest (a poet-friend since 1963, and probably the dedicatee of the early erotic reverie of ‘This Morning’) that flirt ambivalently with the numinous religiosity of his older Anglican friend. ‘Gilded White’, a second ‘Sandy Berrigan’ poem, in lyric form again (prose has more or less temporarily vanished from Harwood’s repertoire) is a triumph of hesitant lyricism, where Harwood (whose early New York casualness of line generally gave way to phrasal lineation) pays particular attention to the aesthetics of line breaks. A gift becomes the focus of a connecting ‘wrapping’ not just of itself but of memory, experience and place, a locus of time and space, although the local (‘Sussex’) is distanced by such a ‘meeting’:
Japan is a long way away Italy is a long way away
California is a long way away Sussex is a long way away
but all gently wrapped together in this moment
your gift (CP 414)
These aesthetic delights – these are just a few - are overshadowed by the death of Harwood's friend, Paul Evans, whom he had known since 1965, while climbing with Harwood on Crib-y-ddysgl, Snowdon, in 1991. There are a number of moving elegies to him, ranging from the starkly notational ‘On the Ledge’, which narrates the incidents of the fatal accident, even to ‘a final thudding stillness’, (CP 406), through to ‘For Paul/Coming out of Winter’, an attempt at redemptive imaginative recovery and a reprise of a subject dealt with both in Harwood’s own earlier poem which recalled walking the seashore with Evans, ‘You essai. You o.k.’, and Evans’ own reciprocal ‘It’s No Good Lee’, which concludes, ‘it can’t be done’; that is, to describe the variety of the sea in words. Harwood’s elegy ends with a restatement of the two poets’ agreed humility in the face of the inadequacy of language to reach whatever it is that is not ‘just descriptions’:
How many times we discussed the sea’s colours
all beyond description words a mere hint
of what’s before our eyes then and now (CP 407)
In 1992 Harwood co-edited and published, from his own Skylark Press, The Empty Hill: memories and praises of Paul Evans which contains memoirs, critical articles, and poems by, and to, Evans. (Evans’ The Manual for the Perfect Organisation of Tourneys, Oasis Books, London, 1979, I have long regarded as one of the forgotten masterpieces of the British Poetry Revival.)
The trauma of this event, problems with employment, and a bout of bad health probably explain why between 1989 and 1996, years represented by the ‘Morning Light’ section of Collected Poems, there are fewer poems than one might expect. They were first published in the Slow Dancer volume Morning Light of 1998. However, there are three outstanding long sequences. ‘The Songs for Those Who Are On The Sea of Glass’ is an account of a heart attack, ending with the startlingly rare sonic patterning of ‘sat up in bed in bizarre pyjamas’, which signals some release from the glass sea of illness. ‘Dreams of Armenia’ presents the history of a nearly-forgotten genocide (a mode of ethnic cleansing contemporaneously revived in the Balkans and in Rwanda). Lyric inter-cuts are truncated by ‘informations’. For me, the most resonant lines in the whole of Harwood’s oeuvre are the chilling but tender: ‘They would do this to you, my love,/and to our son,’ (CP 444) which it forces against – how could we assume the positivity of ‘meets’? – grim enumerations of ‘Massacres. shootings, bayoneting, hacking….’ (CP 444) The 50 short sections of ‘Days and Nights’ came out of Harwood’s short period of employment as a museum attendant (they were ‘written’ in Harwood’s head). It ranges from single word entries, such as ‘(space)’ (CP 421), which attempts to look outwards, and ‘sullen’ (CP 422) which looks inwards, to meditations on its own temporal development (and in confirmation of Harwood’s attachment to his frequent use of gerund forms of verbs): ‘always in the present ing ing’. (CP 421) There is nothing quite as minimal as this in Harwood's work, although it reminds one of Raworth's serial composition ‘Stag Skull Mounted’ (1970), to which it refers, and from which it quotes, commenting on its failure of method, or failure as method: ‘As Tom once wrote “this trick doesn’t work”’. (CP 422) Structurally, ‘Days and Nights’ testifies to the belated and repeated influence of Ashbery’s ‘Europe’, and there is a further precedent in the delicate miniature boxes of Joseph Cornell, to whom the piece is dedicated (and to whose work Harwood has compared his more stylised fictions).
‘Late Journeys (1996-1998)’, the final section of Morning Light (but here extended with a further poem), is dominated by love poems (one dedicated to Penny (Bailey)) in a variety of lyric modes, recording a variety of states, from exultation to self-pitying dejection. But even where the inadequacy of language is referred to again, these poems can be refreshingly detailed, and mysteriously erotic: ‘Cobwebs stretch from rust patina. Still water/in a sexual scoop’. (CP 460)
The early years of the twenty first century have seen the collected volumes of a number of Harwood’s nearest contemporaries; for example, Tom Raworth and John James both published Collected Poems in 2002. The need for a Lee Harwood Collected Poems did not pass by Tony Frazer of Shearsman Books, and he proposed the publication of this handsome and extensive volume, which appeared in 2004. Such a welcome request to a poet often interrupts the usual accumulation of work towards the poet’s next volume, and the section ‘Evening Star 1998-2003’ may well have been (or still be) the beginning of a further book (it was a pamphlet from the Leafe Press in 2004). This section is overwhelmed, rather than overshadowed, by another death, this time of a daughter, Joey Peirce/Harwood, at three days, in 1997, and the three elegies to her brief ‘Morning Star’ are deeply moving: ‘The sun rises three times/The sun sets three times’ (CP 480). But Harwood returns the reader to the world ‘going about its usual business’, (CP 481), and to other children, and the indivisible and inexhaustible continuum of human interaction: ‘The children running on the dyke bank/absorbed in the world.’ (CP 482) The most beautiful of the ‘Sandy Berrigan’ poems so far, ‘The wind rises: Istvan Martha meets Sandy Berrigan’, muses on the effects of ageing, as the long road progresses:
is this what getting old is?
Learning to live like this – that strength
increasingly needed. Or sink into gaga? (CP 487)
All of these contrast with ‘Five pieces for five photos’ which, via the stimulus of photographs as part of an abandoned commission, returns Harwood’s writing practice to history, to a restless multiplicity, after so much lyric, as in this teasing reaction to a photograph of an OK Sauce factory taken just after the First World War:
All those self-appointed spiritual officials, gurus, shamans. Who needs them and their elaborate power games? their prohibitions and idiot explanations? We should gloop OK sauce over them when they’re in full flight. (CP 495)
(I take it this isn’t an example of product placement. If Mr Harwood entertains with too many sauce bottles on the table, we’ll know why!) For a few years before he reached retirement age in 2004, Harwood had taken up a new occupation as a train guard, which he relished for its social usefulness. ‘You’re working on the railways? You must be joking,”/said the grand lady, before returning to her Kent “estate”’. (CP 496) This ‘Alternatively’ couplet from the end of one of the ‘five pieces’, ‘View of Site Workers from Above’, records the hurt of such an attitude to ordinary, dignified, and necessary, labour, more in sadness than anger; it contrasts with the more openly politicised Harwood of the mid-1970s, for whom work was represented as alienated labour. The poem, to which this is an alternative ending, concludes with a rapturous ode to the dignity of labour: ‘The railwayman. The social worker./ “honouring their world” is the phrase.’ (CP 496)
As though this poem, with its alternative ending were a hint, Collected Poems is deliberately left open, remains as unfinished as possible, at its end, given the authoritative imprimatur of its title and its definitive temporal limits: ‘1964-2004’. The final section of the book, ‘Take A Card, Any Card: An Ikonostasis’ (2003-2004), is a series of poems which may be read in any order, ‘52 pieces to be shuffled as you will’, as the title page invokes, suggesting that its eventual (or ideal) publication may be as loose-leaf cards, like one of Joseph Cornell’s ‘dosiers’. (CP 505) It is as though questions of sequencing, which have hitherto involved aesthetic choices of the greatest importance, have found their most radical answer, as if the role of the reader has developed beyond a respectful co-creation, into the primary role of operator of the cards. Leaving aside theories of computer games, cybertexts or ergogic literature, Harwood has produced what Umberto Eco long ago called ‘a work in movement,’ one ‘literally “unfinished”: the author seems to hand them to the performer more or less like the components of a construction kit.’ However, the openness of the gesture of ‘Take a Card, Any Card’, a stage magician's invitation to participate in a trick, contrasts with the religiosity and stasis, the sense of meditation, evoked by the concept of the ikonstasis. (‘We all in our homes often have a wall where we put our favourite pictures,’ Harwood explains, domesticating this religious device. Many of the ‘cards’ were stimulated by Harwood’s own array of images above his writing desk.) One part directly considers the function of the religious Ikon: ‘The pure virgin, immaculate mother/ of myth or mistranslation’. (CP 514). The idea of a misunderstanding of the word we translate as ‘virgin’ unsettles the Ikon’s entire purpose and undermines religious idolatory. One section, in its entirety, confesses: ‘I don’t know the connections,’ presumably between its parts, including those potential ones caused by the juxtapositions of the shuffling and selection of the ‘cards’. (CP 571) But another conjures up memories of an erotic encounter, of ‘making love with you among the apple trees./Decades ago, but still here set in my head.’ (CP 520) Language will inevitably fail the experience, however inevitable the memory seems: ‘like a…? I don’t know what./It’s there just like my bones are there.’ (CP 520) The reader, shuffling between the cards, is nevertheless not invited into the text of the card – unlike the similar ‘breakdown’ of simile in the late 1960s poem ‘Linen’ – but must meditate outside the frame, and then immediately mediate between the other cards in one’s hand.
‘Take A Card’ is also unfinished in a more literal sense. Collected Poems only supplies the first 26 of the pack.
So good. It’s still a long road.
I am currently editing the Salt Companion to Lee Harwood.