A slow game

The Orchid Boat
, Lee Harwood (45pp, 8.99, Enitharmon Press)

In interview with Kelvin Corcoran, Lee Harwood reflected on his monumental 2004 Collected Poems from Shearsman: 'I was frozen by it. I just thought what can I do now? It's only going to be a repeat. Some writers do have formulas, a practice like writing every day, and maybe it works for them but I've never been able to do that... In the last year' - he was speaking in 2008 - I've written three poems and each poem has taken me about 7 or 8 months.' This rate of progress seems consistent with his latest publication (a pamphlet disguised as a book) which contains 16 poems.

A gatherer of fragments, Harwood's writing is a mode of slow accretion, of building blocks of poetry (and prose), and presenting them in relationship with others, to allow them to resonate with one another. We think of collage as a technique of rip and tear, shuffle and paste, fix and finish, but for Harwood it is more like a slow game of chess. It is a question of listening and of paying attention to the world rather than producing a discourse about it. This is not to say he shies away from the political but his 'beliefs' only appear along with a respect for other people, particularly working people, and an anger at totalitarian behaviours, at the 'level' of history ('Powerless to stop any of it'), at the micro-fascist levels ('To curse "the bosses"? But that's another story,/ and along with all its contradictions'), and where they meet:

   A dense history of such deeds,
   but that shrinks into the shadows
   when faced with our daily history.

The 'deeds' of history, though, are double in this example, drawn from the central poem 'The Books'. On the one hand we have the books of the torched library in Alexandria, 'Remember its destruction by Christian fanatics/ and the savage murder of the mathematician Hypatia', and the finger is pointed at a named bishop and archbishop. On the other hand we have history closer to home, more pointed but poignant:

   The young officer, my father, 1940,
   having to shoot one of his own men,
   his stomach ripped open beyond saving,
   begging to be put out of his agony.'
'How did my father/ live with that moment for years and years?' It was a question obliquely asked in a number of earlier poems ('The Sinking Colony', 'One Two Three') but the fact of this intertextual 'repeat', as Harwood might think of it, only heightens the impact. The effect of the technique of collage is to offset such horrific 'moments' against returns to the repeated lead motif of the poem, 'She climbed down from the tree the next day   a queen', a magical moment (even if lifted from a 1950s wireless report) which 'we' share: 'As we all do, and then set out/ across golden stubble to the river'. We live - through the collage that is our reality - with both moments, and we relive it through reading the collage of this text. There is, as often, a touch of camp to lift the contextual horror, as though the narrator were Catherine Deneuve imprisoned in the castle in
Belle de Jour:

   I don't intend to sit here waiting in my coffin,
   gathering dust until the final slammer,
   adjusting my tiara.

Indeed it's time to 'head for the frontier', a characteristic Harwood image of transit
and transitional emotive charge.

The title poem which opens the collection plays with the sensibility of the female Chinese poet Li Ch'ing Chao who praises 'the orchid boat', but this is not defined or explained: 'How to imagine an orchid boat?' Indeed a 'he' is quoted as saying: 'A picture held us captive and we/ could not get outside it.' The Chinese poet is figured passing by a mirror to glimpse her own features, but the mirror and the picture are aligned (through juxtaposition) with the notion of the 'moment': 'The picture in the mirror seemed so real,/ though only caught that imprisoning moment'. This is an astonishing network of repetitions across a meditative narrative that pulls its distant nodes together and knots them into a different consciousness. The 'moment' is not imprisoned by the mirror or picture: it is itself 'imprisoning'. The end of the poem (as in 'The Books') opens out towards escape, this time by boldly harnessing the inconceivable 'orchid boat' to its final acts of transit and transition, in an epiphany:

   Without thinking
   I step aboard the orchid boat,
   he feel of silk

- which had earlier in the poem had been the fabric of the poet's gown opening in a 'satin breeze' - 'carrying me beyond all mirrors', beyond all historical 'deeds'.

'This moment that keeps coming back,' the narrator (if there is one, among the possible voices of the poem) says in 'Ben's Photo', an ekphrastic meditation upon a photograph (reproduced on the cover of the book) that is 'not haunting, but something else', he says. (Clearly an example of Roland Barthes'
punctum which lifts a photographic image and takes it somewhere else.) There is a 'moment midway/ between cup and lips. A timeless pause,' and the narrator is 'thankful for this moment' in the last line of the poem, which has, as might be expected, in its progress, strayed from the peaceful street scene of the photo to the horrors of history (but, importantly, back again to the here and now of the narration). 'Yes, people carry on,' the poem affirms. (As the uncle of the poem, 'The Oak Coffer', says: 'We manage'.) 

I could go on, but it is perhaps best to reflect upon these 'late' poems. They require a slow read (the brevity of the book helps with this). Although there are slight poems (an acrostic on a grand-daughter) and missed opportunities (an untransformed prose piece on Harwood's tragic ancestor Leah Lee, who married Laforgue), this is the work of one of our best poets, working at the height of his powers, with an unhurried comparative sensibility, leading us just enough into his world(s) of pictures and mirrors, reminding us of the horrors most of us have not (and never will) experience, to leave us with truths we must imaginatively encounter rather than painfully endure, and to sweep us away with enjoyment of his imaginative transformations and transitional moments.

   Robert Sheppard 2014