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:
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
And in the next poem, 'Six Letters on Change & Exchange, Hay-on-Wye,
fewer Gods than churches;
more antiques, fewer pubs.
without myth except bargains,
burnings of the castle and the hanging of Armstrong
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
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':
where we're always
for but a totem
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':
Tomahawk missile pens
no amount of
have answered [...]
casualty of war
pronunciation and so air assault
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
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):
Castle and K
Castle: I am lighter than I was and seem to be
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
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:
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