Around the Back


Not Everything Remotely, Selected Poems, 1978-2005
, Alan Halsey
[278pp, £14.99, Salt]


Alan Halsey in a recent video clip on Salt's website says 'I do try to write around the back of any subject... That's what my kind of poetry's meant to do. That's what it's for.' Coming to Not Everything Remotely, his Selected Poems, the reader will need to bear this in mind and approach Halsey on his own terms. One has the impression of looking at a patterned curtain from the back, where one can just make out the shapes and darker shades, but can only guess at the colours and details (though one imagines these on the other side as bright and vivid, at times beautiful, at times terrifying and ugly).

In Alan Halsey's work, boundaries are deliberately blurred: the boundary between prose and poetry most obviously, but also between the philosophical and poetical, the personal and political, the lyrical and anti-lyrical, and even the lyrical and financial (if you think of Ezra Pound's Cantos,
that will give you an idea). In the space of a couple of pages, one can travel from the quasi-mystical to something which seems, almost, like a quotation from a letter to a local newspaper. For example, in the wonderfully titled '55 Texts for the Journey' we have:

     The search was for a world more than a home, a people, 'the sign' [...]
     The map shows nothing but roads and where they end [...] The
     wonder is we see the face at all, and see it everywhere, in lie of the
     land as well as tree-bark [...] You see the way through to go inside
     you.

And in the next poem, 'Six Letters on Change & Exchange, Hay-on-Wye, 1979':

     There are fewer Gods than churches;
     new teashops, more antiques, fewer pubs.
     The town's without myth except bargains,
     several burnings of the castle and the hanging of Armstrong
     the poisoner. The house now possessed by police.

Yet even this last excerpt is preceded by a sly reference to the first Ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus: 'We change but the river stays the same / and the bridge is as ugly as the last time you saw it'.

Like Heraclitus, Halsey has a gift for the aphoristic, often embedded within longer poems, as shown for example in, 'It's not the truth but the labels / which are liable to shift' ('Answering a New Year Letter, 1989'), or in the Blakean concision of 'The cut worm ploughed back shares the profit' ('Table Talk'). 

Throughout Not Everything Remotely
, Halsey shows an immense respect for language and a desire to squeeze the maximum possible meaning from words. This is not only done through extreme compression, but also through maximizing the number of possible meanings of a word or phrase, so that we are startled into seeing language and its possibilities in a fresh light. Enjambment combined with repetition of a preposition is a tool Halsey makes frequent use of here, as for example in 'Answering a New Year Letter, 1989':

                           While I'm for
     getting by you're forgetting
     truth derives from prepositions
     down here where we're always
     up to something somebody
     won't stand for but a totem
     would, and for more
     than tabulation profits.

Throughout there's a playfulness at work, which stops the satirical element, and at times the controlled rage, from ever descending into pure invective. Take this from 'Ars Poetica 2003':

     Short war does
     rhyme with slaughter
     and whether Tomahawk missile pens
     are mightier than swords
     no amount of bad sculpture
     could have ever been
     expected to have answered [...]

     The first casualty of war
     is pronunciation and so air assault
     first became aerosol.

It should perhaps be pointed out that this kind of political commentary is a strand throughout the book, going back to the early years of Margaret Thatcher's government.

Anyone familiar with Alan Halsey's work will know that he makes much use of collage of other texts. This can be especially enjoyable to read where one has some familiarity with the original text, or at least knows what Halsey is referring to. This is clear, for example, in the teasing 'Arias & Duets from “Loagaeth, An Opera”' (dedicated, tellingly, to Jesse Glass):

     Duet: Castle and K

     Castle:
I am lighter than I was and seem to be empty.
     K:
I seem to be returned from a great amazing.
     Castle:
In our country troubles we should be hence.
     K:
Put 'your' instead of 'our' in a laudable proportion.
     Castle:
King Jolly asked me what a hotchpotch is.
     K:
A hotchpotch is the last sleep of the world.

Because I have spent time in Venice I enjoyed very much his Pound-like 'Syllabus of Errors' with lines such as 'Dark brown as Florian's thick coffee' or 'Sinks six inches every year or the sea's on the rise / or both / but he only meant Venice. Il mare sul riso.'

There have been several times, however, I confess, when I have felt lost in this book simply because I didn't know anything about the source texts, for example, in the 7-page prose poem, 'Bardo Panavision 1949'; although there are some great lines (' half-destroyed city with Sartre in the bookshops') I found my attention frequently wandering however many times I returned to it. There are moments when I felt Halsey was speaking a private language all of his own. I knew it was good, but I knew there was something important I didn't get. I suppose this touches on a deeper discussion about just how far source texts are important to our understanding and appreciation of a poem (Eliot taking from Dante being the obvious example which springs to mind) - a discussion I won't go into here.

As a reader, I would have liked to have seen more of the lyrical, of images which create great spaces in the imagination, such as the beautifully simple:

     across the
                  listening
                           her
                   life

But then an essential part of Halsey's strategy is to subvert our expectations of poetry, to make us look at the moon from 'the dark side'. As he himself says, that's what his kind of poetry is 'meant to do'.

          © Ian Seed 2006