Monday, December 22, 2014

Robert Sheppard: On Three Sequences by Lee Harwood

I have always wanted to write at some length about the three extraordinary sequences that Lee Harwood published in his book Morning Light 1998, and, of course, collected again in Collected Poems (from which book, as I opened it to check details, a postcard from Lee, featuring an Atget photograph of a Corsetiere, fell; what can he have been trying to tell me?). So here goes. It builds on the briefer descriptions of this trio posted here. It follows on from my review of the 2014 book The Orchid Boat here, itself part of prefatory work for an article provisionally entitled '"Now Put it Together": Lee Harwood and the Gentle Art of Collage'.

Lee Harwood dreaming of Armenia

‘Dreams of Armenia’ presents the history of a near-forgotten genocide. Lyric interludes are truncated by ‘information(s)’. For me, the most resonant lines in the whole of Harwood’s oeuvre are the tender but chilling: ‘They would do this to you, my love,/ and to our son,’ (Harwood 2004, 444), compounding horror across the line-break; the lines rest alongside grim enumerations of ‘Massacres, shootings, bayoneting, hacking….’ (Harwood 2004, 444) Harwood has commented on the poem: ‘that poem is more a praise of Armenia and the Armenia I imagine,’ but – as ever – history keeps breaking in, literally, with more dates and bald grim facts than you find in a Reznikoff or John Seed poem. (Harwood and Corcoran 2008, 94) And the ‘Armenian song that tears your heart’ (441) or the lovemaking ‘in the hot night lying together’ cannot altogether obviate the terror, but then that is the point of the juxtapositions. (443) The changing ‘frames’ are like the mythical (and not so mythical) knock on the door in the middle of the night: ‘a silence. a door bangs in the wind./ not a dream.’ (444) These lines are ambiguous (given that the poem promises ‘dreams’ of Armenia as a positive); the poem’s delights are poised on the edge of terror. ‘“Who remembers the Armenians?” said Hitler years later as he set on the Jews.’ (444) He didn’t ‘say’; he asked. And one unscheduled answer to his rhetorical question is: Lee Harwood, and through Harwood, you (and me). Us. We remember. The poem is, in fact, a love poem, as contextualized by fact and ‘information’ in its way as the magnificent as ‘The Long Black Veil’ of the 1970s. These lovers are no longer young; they, too, have ‘history’: ‘Your long black hair, an occasional grey hair,/ your deep brown eyes that churn my heart.’ (442)

‘The Songs for Those Who Are On The Sea of Glass’ features fragmented accounts of a very literal assault upon the heart, a heart attack, which ends with the startling sonic patterning of: ‘sat up in bed in bizarre pyjamas’, (Harwood 2004: 449) which signals the narrator’s sudden release from the glass sea ‘of being dead and being brought back into what suddenly seemed like an amazing world’, in Harwood’s later commentary (he admits to being ‘happy’ with that marvellous last line too). (Harwood and Corcoran 2008, 94) Between sections which register the quality of light in the ward and the ‘The ice window’ of death – ‘(that’s a metaphor)’ (447) a typical parenthesis reminds us, Harwood remains ever-suspicious of language, even as in another mood (which corresponds to another section) he quotes Mandelstam’s depiction of the human universe as ‘the happy heaven’. (446) But the intrusions of involuntary memory whether of ‘Jamaican cigars long ago’ (446) or of a trip across the literal ice of Esbjerg erupt with hopeful imaginings: ‘Inland a fox trotted nervously/ across snow-covered fields and streams’, we read, a scenario that, with titles like Crossing the Frozen River and HMS Little Fox in Harwood’s back catalogue, let alone all the positive references to the solitary migratory habits of the fox (contrast that with the wolves we find in Barry MacSweeney!), suggests a validation of transitory movement from one ‘frame’ to another (to use William Rowe’s phrase for Harwood’s shiftology). (I stole that word from a book Patricia is reading; it seems apposite.) ‘“The monster! The monster!” fleeing villagers yell/ in black and white Transylvania’ is Harwood’s comic way of mediating ‘a body stitched and wired together’, (448) a reference to the early (and now unconvincing) Frankenstein films, and as ever the deflationary kitsch deflection unsettles the tone, as does his ‘To walk at ease with the ghosts/ (not a club member yet)’, (449) a late instance of what Geoffrey Ward recognised in early Harwood as ‘an importation into experience of a tonal innocence which is recognized as true to life, but which in the new setting of the page must henceforth wear invisible quotation marks’, though in this poem we are guided by the parentheses. (Ward 2007: 37) As Harwood remarks somewhere, the cliché is only too true. Too true. One section reads simply: ‘Talking in code?’ the question mark deflecting again absolute judgement. Clichés and metaphors, sections and poems, even fragmented and multifaceted ones, may be yet speaking in a cipher, and this is a characteristic poetic questioning of the medium of poetry, on Harwood’s part.  

                   The 50 short sections of ‘Days and Nights’ (some of them single lines, like the self-interrogative one in ‘The Songs’) reflect Harwood’s brief employment as a museum attendant (they were ‘written’ in Harwood’s head). They range from single word entries, such as ‘(space)’ (Harwood 2004:  421), which attempts to look outwards, and ‘sullen’ (Harwood 2004: 422) which looks inwards, to meditations on their own development; one explains Harwood’s frequent preference for gerund forms throughout his work: they leave the utterance ‘always in the present    ing   ing’. (Harwood 2004: 421) There is nothing quite as minimal as this in Harwood’s work, although he refers to Raworth’s serial composition ‘Stag Skull Mounted’ (1970), from which it quotes, commenting on its own failure of method, or failure as method: ‘As Tom once wrote “this trick doesn’t work”.’ (Harwood 2004: 422) ‘The line that says nothing. A chair creaks,’ in fact says quite a lot about how ‘one thought fills immensity’ as Blake puts it, (419) though ‘stuck in the fact of absence’ doesn’t quite suggest the zen-like calm of meditation. Structurally, ‘Days and Nights’ testifies to the continuing influences of Ashbery’s ‘Europe’, and to the miniature box-sculptures of Joseph Cornell, to whom the piece is dedicated, the constructor of his own ‘poetic enactments’ as Dore Ashton calls his famous boxes. (Ashton 1974: 1) We are left, as it were, peering into the miniature but expansive interiors of his assemblages in the final ‘accidental sighting’, as these texts are subtitled: ‘The white box contains a landscape.’ (423) The smaller we go: the more the find. Cornell was first excited by the ‘splice of life of collage’ as Waldrop calls it – he was untrained and could not draw – when he saw Max Ernst’s work, but it was later with his friend Marcel Duchamp that he ‘shared … a love for sudden juxtapositions, of perfectly ordinary and even vulgar objects. But seashells, pressed flowers, and butterflies were in the final analysis closer to Cornell’s vision than were Duchamp’s ironies’, as Ashton explains. (Ashton 1974: 77). Cornell preferred what she calls the bric-a-brac of ‘Victoriana or Americana’ of which Cornell was an obsessive collector. (Ashton 1974: 74) Harwood’s attitude to literary collage is similar to this cabinet of curiosities approach, closer to the juxtapositions of the Victorian commonplace book than to those of William Burroughs or Dada-period Tzara.

A final thought (after, or rather, during, a late afternoon walk down the Allerton Road where I bought a novel, The Director’s Cut,  by Nicholas Royle, which was priced £1 and which the charity shop wanted to charge me 29p for – and I refused, giving them the pound that was already a markdown, but it was an appropriate find, since Lee is a walk-on character in Nick’s latest novel, First Novel): amid the syntactic and rhythmical restlessness of Harwood’s work, between the shifting ‘scenes’ of the clusters of fragments in the narrative, there is a singular voice (that is not to be confused with its variable ‘tone’, as some commentators have noted), a set of concerns and a way of saying them that is – whatever the formal or narrative guise – immediately recognisable as ‘Harwood’, and quite unique. It is an undamaged fragility, a quiet determination to uphold eros and agape against the forces of destruction and negativity, a polyphony to undermine the stomping boots of the military marching song, a bit of camp (or the occasional kitsch ‘bad’ line) thrown in to unsettle the certainties of received discriminations in life and in the arts.

One reference of use:

Ashton, Dore. A Joseph Cornell Album. New York: The Viking Press, 1974. 

Richard Cupidi and his Public House Bookshop (Brighton) with Lee Harwood, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky
 Read a two part review of Harwood's Collected Poems here and here. i.m. here.