A beautifully arranged descent

Fire Songs,
David Harsent (66pp, 12.99, Faber)

Harsent's tenth collection of poetry, Fire Songs, is a beautifully arranged descent into a world in which 'the clocks are set / one at the right time, one to fool the devil.' Composed of single poems, those that 'belong together' and set sequences, the collection is sprinkled with recurring leitmotifs on which the poems coalesce to assume a sense of unity and shared purpose. 'There's the butt-end of prophecy to be sure', Harsent conjures intense and visceral images of rats, tinnitus, war and environmental damage. These recur throughout the work and invoke the prophetic spirit of a mystic or prescient 'in constant song' and on 'the edge of sleep, that fine and full suspension of the will.'

   They are drinking the last of the wine having drunk
   the last of the water... through veils of smoke and smut the blank
   stare of angels as they tread the air, as they ransack the sublime.

This is the poetry of warning and sacrifice and it is masterful in its realisation.

Harsent establishes his gambit in 'Fire: A song for Miss Askew'
, the collection's opening poem, here the speaker observes a bonfire and becomes entangled with the execution of the sixteenth century poet Anne Askew whose judges 'brede cockatrice egges and weve the spyders webbe.' What follows is an intense and sustained vision of the poet's death:

   And when I wake in sunlight, that flare is the flare
   in her eye, that rising note in my ear the singing deep in green
   branches, that low rumble her blood at a rolling boil;
   and what screams from the centre, now, as her hair
   goes up in a rush, as her fingers char,
   as the spit on her tongue bubbles and froths, as she browns from heel
   to head, as she cracks and splits, as she renders to spoil:
   the only thing she can get to me through the furnace, as I lean
   in to her, is yes, it will be fire it will be fire it will be fire ...

that leaves the reader in no doubt of the role to be played by fire within the collection: simultaneously an unpredictable harbinger of death and redemption, as likely to 'stoop(s) to take up your soul' as it is to 'shrivel-hiss/of burning hair'.

Rather than relying, as a lesser poet might, on an archaic mode or language, Harsent regularly surprises with his unusual choice of syntax and utilises full and half rhymes to great effect most noticeably in 'Effaced in which the reader hears the hidden 'rooms', 'reams' and 'rhymes' and senses Dorothy Wordsworth's 'life beyond the life and known to no one.' Fire Songs
is musical and richly detailed, capturing a confessional dreamscape that often infuses the collection as a whole with a sense of creeping unease. This perceived darkness gathers above the lyric as a great dark storm cloud, breaking on such frantic movements as the scrawling and anarchic staccato syntax of 'Sang the Rat' and the agonising delight of 'A Dream Book' in which one lover remarks to another 'You think you are safe? You are not.'

It's a shame that, owing to the might of the longer pieces and sequential poems often the short form fragmentary pieces are left by the wayside. I refer here to the likes of 'The Fool at Court' and 'Rat Again' which despite their nuanced turns (especially with regard to the latter) feel like little more than quaint poetic sorbets to cleanse the reader's palate and allow Harsent to flutter between his themes and better navigate the dense interconnected references. There will be those who attempt Fire Songs
and find themselves unmoved or even put off by the level of personal work Harsent expects of his readers, but those who come to the collection open to doing a bit of further research will likely pay its dividends and will reward both poet and reader with a shared respect. As the speaker of 'Fire: love songs and descants' attests '...It's not only in dreams that I can go through fire...'

   Phillip Clement 2014