majority of poets seem to subscribe to either the ‘form and rhyme’ school, or
the ‘only free verse means anything these days’ school. The former insist on
the rigid use of the fixed forms, precise metre, and careful rhyme schemes,
often to the detriment of their poetry. The latter avoid these formalities at
all costs, except sometimes with the rather annoying final rhymed couplet
that is so much in vogue at the moment. Not David Harsent. He is clearly very
comfortable with the demands of formal verse, but makes form serve the needs
of his poetry. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that there is no poet
writing today that I know who uses near-rhyme, assonance and the peripheries
of formal verse anything like as effectively.
This is praise of the most extreme kind, so I’d better at least try to
justify it. Just saying ‘read the book’ would be a cop-out. Nor would I be
forgiven for making extensive use of quotations, tempting though this is. But
the third poem in the book, the first one that convinced me that this time I
was holding something special, is short enough to quote in full, and I can’t
resist doing it. It’s called ‘Patrol’:
it seemed, as we rode through; but a last
revealed rows of sleepers clabbered in dust
and puffed as their reams erupted,
cloaked and his weapon in his fist.
over, not sure what to do for the best.
dead-to-the-world, this unity of breath,
stock still in the shadows,
behind the grille of the ‘facility for widows’.
This short poem provides an object-lesson in the heart of poetry, the use of
language in general, and how to fit a wealth of meaning into a few short
It’s not specifically about Iraq, by the way. This one comes from the title
sequence of the book. This part takes as its subject what the cover calls
‘reports from an unnamed war zone’. ‘Reports’ are linked by ‘despatches’. The
first of the despatches right at the start of the volume opens ‘shape of a
man // broken legs, sit-dragging himself, knuckling the clay ...’ so that you
know that what you’re going to get will be uncompromising. Not that I should
give the impression that this first third of the book is unremittingly bleak.
These lines are taken from what is my favourite poem in the whole collection,
‘Barlock’. Although the subject might be dark there is a satisfying lightness
of tone about it:
I had plaster
in my hair that made my whole scalp itch,
like hell, lip bitten-through, a raw patch
on the heel
of his hand from hammering home the latch.
For an hour
or more we could hear the phone and the fax
There is a complete break with military concerns in the second part. It is
called ‘Stelae’ and is centred on megaliths. The eight poems here are not
specimens of concrete verse exactly, but the layout is suggestive of standing
stones. You might find them to be more interesting for the tangential way
they look at their subject than for anything else. Not many people, for
instance, would have known that the ‘black’ in ‘Black Tor’ was derived from
the Anglo-Saxon ‘bleak’ pale or colourless. Oddly enough, though, the
guanine from the scales of the bleak, a freshwater fish, is used to make essence
d’orient for artificial pearls.
The third, untitled, section of the book is a more general collection. I
should straightaway say that the absence of a theme does not signify any
absence of merit. Some of the best poetry is here. Particularly appealing to
me were ‘The Player’ and ‘Tristichs’. The latter, by the way, is a term for a
series of three-line stanzas. These can be in free-form; they would only have
to rhyme if they were ‘triplets’. In this part the poem that I liked best was
‘At the Quayside’. The second stanza of this reads:
Your smile is
custom-built, held ready, pearly-perfect.
Can you see from there? I’m over here
by the ticket-
by side with the usual suspects.
Now the sun
is playing morse on your locket
and I’m one
of a cargo-cult.
This poem seems to me to show Harsent’s command of assonance at its very
best. Have I convinced you? No? Read the book, then.
It would be
unjust and more than a little pointless to try to ‘compare’ another book with
Legion in the same review. David Scott’s poetry has its own rewards. He,
too, is not afraid of form and makes it work for him rather than the other
The opening poem is called, appropriately enough, ‘First Thing’. This one is
in free verse, and concentrates on capturing a word-picture of a man’s
encounter with four deer on a path to the wood. It does this very
successfully, as witness the final four lines of this simple poem: ‘ Air
rigid between us, / they moved first, / nobly, silently, / sensuous as
waking.’ Much of Scott’s poetry is like this: on the face of things quiet and
unambitious, but the concern with wider truths revealed in a small way is
only just below the surface.
It comes as no surprise to learn that David Scott is a churchman, the Rector
of St. Lawrence with St. Swithin in Winchester. The titles of many of the
poems might be a bit off-putting for the non-believer: ‘The Priest in the
Pulpit’; ‘Meeting St John of the Cross’; ‘The Church of the Holy Sepulchre,
Jerusalem’; ‘Qumran, Cave no. 4’ and so on. If you are in this category don’t
be intimidated. The last of these poems, for example, is primarily an
examination of the human aspects of the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This
one is also short enough to quote in full:
the talk of the Prince of Light,
this is the
centre of the coolest darkness.
which on the outside
makes a dust
of stones, here only angles in,
scrolls rolled up in jars, sleep:
waiting for the chance eye
of a Bedouin
boy. Why now, why then:
about so fervently
things, waiting, waiting?
This superbly captures a picture of the darkness inside the cave contrasting
with the fierce heat outside. Although this is not described as such, it
doesn’t take much imagination to see one of the bars of light illuminating
the surprised face of the young Bedouin discoverer of the Essene texts.
Best of all in this collection is the intriguing ‘I pollarded am’. This opens
‘I pollarded am. / My elbows ancient are,’ and ends ‘I know not what I think
/ not having head, / for I pollarded am.’ But it is the first lines of this
last stanza of this poem that hold the key to it: ‘They say in China this
they do to feet, / in other countries, minds, / and others, souls...’ The
slightly - only slightly - off centre language gives the poem an
other-worldly feel that seems to work perfectly with its subject.