Lots to laugh about

, Michael Hulse (81pp, £8.99, Arc)

Robert Lowell in noting the four musts of oral performance as: 'humour, shock, narrative and a hypnotic voice,' ('Readings Remembered' in The Outnumbered Poet: Critical and Autobiographical Essays, Dennis O'Driscoll, Gallery Books. 2013) could as easily have been talking about Michael Hulse's eclectic yet cohesive Half-Life, so persistently rich in the first three.  Here, though war, whole scale devastation and mammon are unchangeable realities, the future generation and the natural world act as a hopeful counterbalance.  The title 'Half-Life' variously suggests nuclear fall out, poverty, moral sleep-walking or blind religious conformity, and this prepares us for Hulse's rich and rewarding intertextuality such as in his poems on Syria and the key sequence 'Foreknowledge Absolute'.  The blurb describes Hulse as 'an acclaimed master craftsman', but don't expect sharp, Poundian images, but rather Eliot style open incantatory lines - occasionally with direct echoes, such as this hint of 'Prufock': 'For I have seen / the lotus unfolding in summer sun, the shimmer of light in the rose.' ('The Return')

Hulse immediately invites us to reflect on our own morality in his shocking true account of a father ('Freeman') who threw his young daughter off a bridge in full sight of rush hour traffic. With an awful intimacy we witness the hypothetical preceding moments: 'When he opened the door, did he hold out a hand and speak to her reassuringly?' Hulse then observes: 'I can imagine it. Nothing easier. Nothing more impossible' and adds the sobering question: 'Which of us knows what we are capable of,' which discomposes us from our natural assumption as readers, that we are the good guys.    

The next two poems offer a dazzling, intertextual consideration of recent events in Syria.  'The Return' ranges across Carthage's annihilation during the Third Punic War, the Copiapó mining disaster, Oppenheimer's role in the Trinity Project (the first Nuclear test site), use of Zyklon B for mass gassing. He includes hints of Orpheus in the underworld and Dante's Inferno
for good measure. He starts by describing Syria as the place where the dead remain as ghosts: 'They say that the souls of the dead inhabit the place. / They say there are shifts in the light, prints in the dust', but then shifts to a more absolute devastation: 'darkness meaning darkness only darkness, / and solitary only solitary'. These walking dead link neatly with 'The Syrian Bride' that initially intrigues with its two-layered associations of the Syrian ghost story that inspired Goethe's poem 'The Bride of Corinth', but subsequently shocks us with its harrowing contemporary images of Syria.
Religious ambivalence also dominates and Hulse describes himself as a non-believer who wishes he wasn't: 'No, I can't suppose the Great Story true. / Still, I prefer to live as if it were' ('The Half-Life of Jesus'). Entertainingly, he draws our attention to religious absurdities: 'The Catholic Church! - I've always had a soft spot for its comedy / its hotchpotch of the silly, the rotten, the true.' ('In Sant Antonio di Padua') He continues with the humorously accurate, crude incongruity of a chic woman praying:  'She lip-served in silence as if she were giving a blow-job to a lizard' but then juxtaposes this hilarity with a powerfully emotive concluding image of one of Christ's crucifiers (from Altichiero's Crucifixion
): 'The hammer with which he drove in the nails tucked carelessly into his belt' - a workman proud of a job well done.

The latter half of the collection includes some more nuanced introspective poems in search of meaning such as 'Swallows' where he notes: 'Theirs is a world without ifs' and 'Eh, Tom' with art as an affirmative compensation for mortality:

   to gather all the sunlight on the water
   into a marriage of artifice and nature,
   an Amber room that might survive itself
   as the idea of a tower would outlive Pisa -
   to be the air Scheherazade was breathing,
   the light by which Leonardo painted Lisa.
The above lines and his delightful eulogy of the natural world in the lines below, are some of the most flawless in the collection. Note the sinuous diction here, as he argues a need to get one's priorities right. The ludicrousness of building a white elephant of a yacht (fourth largest in the world) is highlighted all the more when set again this river:

   We walk on past the dock to where the fleet flows into the Elbe.
   The muscled waters gather. Strong and confident and old,
   the river writes no chronicles, affords no consolation:
   it has only the beauty and might of a natural thing, no more no less.

In general, though, Hulse drive home his points more directly and in such cases, clearly, sex sells. Note, for example, his repulsion at the grotesque decadence of the world's tallest building: 'Filthy rich is as filthy rich builds, / Capital giving God the finger' ('Burj Khalifa'). His sequence 'Foreknowledge Absolute' is an entertaining and shocking climax to the personification of death motif that has filtered through the collection. Here, we have a flirtatious femme fatale
juxtaposed with a collage of voices from a range of stories on violence, war and death. Hulse is helpful in providing notes to all such subtexts adding to the reader's engagement. This is really Hulse's forte: his quirky sing-along-a-death tone along with the all-pervading presence of violent death to create a deeply unsettling mixture of humour and shock. Take, by way of example, the opening poem of the sequence:

   She's wearing the new black. her heels are like ice-picks.
   Her skirt is of charcoal and ash. Her talk

   is of body parts hung in the trees,
   arms in the branches, a torso, a head impaled -

   I was there. I saw it. She speaks of a truth
   within all the higgledy-piggledy relative anything-goes of truths,

   the need to know your way through the absolute.
   Next July we collide with Mars. Call me death, she says.   

Dark as his message is, Hulse also attempts to create ploughshares from swords and the child as the symbol of hope is repeatedly drawn on for this purpose. We see this in the two poems that make up his concluding Section IV, in particular, here, in the second poem:

   She wants to dance to 'Singin' in the The Rain'
   over and over again, my little daughter -

   splashing in puddles, she pauses to explain,
   I'm walking on the water!

Placing this moment of affirmation at the end of the collection suggests Hulse is hoping for an upbeat conclusion but, given the timeless human horrors of so many of his poems, one is left, finally, unconvinced that there is much to be hopeful about. What he does convince us off unconditionally, is that there are none of us out there who have the right to be complacent - yet ironically, perhaps, his collection still gives us lots to laugh about on this descent into Hades. 

      © Belinda Cooke 2014