Complex Crosses, Edmund Hardy (125pp. £7.99, Contraband Books)

Complex Crosses is a collection of sixty miniature essays on single poems or extracts from poems, sometimes only one or two lines. All the essays are preceded by quotation of the relevant passage; some are followed by a footnote usually citing recent academic studies. The poems are arranged chronologically by date of first publication or accepted time of composition. The majority are Anglophone but some Classical and Romance works are also included - the linguistic and chronological sweep of this book is impressively broad, from Homer and Horace through to the Late Classical, followed by a refreshingly generous stretch of the 'Middle Ages' before we arrive in the more familiar reaches of the Renaissance and on to the modern and contemporary with Denise Riley and Derek Walcott as the most recent exemplars. I'm puzzled that the first two subjects, passages from the Odyssey and Horace's Ode 1.4, are designated 'Beginning I' and 'Beginning II', suggesting that the essays will offer a largely historical perspective tracing lines of development and influence. Nothing of the kind is attempted; Edmund Hardy's focus is always on immediate aspects of the text, sometimes a single word, letter or phrase and on three occasions a punctuation mark. The chronology seems simply a matter of arrangement.
The book reads to me as a very welcome Ars Poetica, not only a consideration of how poems work and what distinguishes them as poems but also a quietly understated demonstration that the techniques poets use are to a large extent constant, surviving the vagaries of time or, as we're so fond of thinking, 'periods' and 'movements'. Hardy's 'complex crosses' are as it were a poem's pressure points, sometimes a word where two or more meanings coalesce, sometimes one freshly and unexpectedly empowered by the force of rhythm or rhyme, alliterative pattern or similar device, a twist of syntax, a shift of context. It is these moments which instill that compression of language which is peculiar to poetry, simultaneously creating an inner density and a radiance of signification extending far beyond the poem's specific occasion. It scarcely needs saying that the grandmaster of it all was Shakespeare, most concentratedly in his sonnets; Hardy gives us Sonnet 133 which happens to include the line 'A torment thrice three-fold thus to be crossed.' His commentary carefully unravels the 'thrice three-fold' crossing of the force-field binding dark lady, the speaker and his 'sweet'st friend'. It is too long to quote in full but Hardy's closing remarks will give some flavour of his exposition: ''A torment thrice three-fold' is also crossed back over the preceding line-ending and onto the previous line ['And my next self thou harder hast ingrossed:'] - an appositional relationship between the two lines, restating the dissolution of 'my self' in the thornier alliteration of 'thrice three-fold'. This phonetic alliteration can then be seen to carry the repeated 't' which bars the line, at which point 'all that is in me' [the sonnet's final phrase] is also all that I can see or speak, as the hard engrossing and its pain reduces language to these crosses.' I must enter a quibble about 'reduces'; although 'thrice three-fold crosses' can certainly reduce personal and private communication to 'hard engrossing and its pain' they are a poem's condition of expansion, the very reason that poems written centuries ago continue to enthrall and accumulate meaning.
Poets often employ 'complex crosses' which would have carried specific reference to their contemporary readers but are now largely forgotten. Some of Hardy's essays are acts of recovery for which I feel grateful. I was unaware, for example, of the multiple contemporary associations the letter 'A' would have held for Chaucer; in the course of teasing them out Hardy also offers his reflections on Chaucer's use of that by no means simple word 'now'. Similarly but more briefly he reminds us of the scholastic doctrines underpinning Donne's 'The Good-Morrow'. There are of course poets who resolutely refuse to engage with the contemporary; Charles M. Doughty is a conspicuous example, represented here by a passage from The Dawn in Britain
Book 2. Hardy is as usual enlightening about the threads and undercurrents governing the passage, even if this tends to demonstrate that Doughty is unlikely to achieve widespread popularity.
You may be wondering by now whether Complex Crosses
is a densely scholarly affair. It is and it isn't. Hardy's scholarship is always evident but exercised with good humour and wit. His choice of extracts alone can amuse - from John Gay's Trivia he offers no more than 'Pip-Pip-Pip' and then proceeds to wipe the smile from our faces with its deadly repercussions. He can be engagingly tendentious, particularly in his discussions of punctuation - the comma, for example, in Keats' line 'But to her heart, her heart was voluble', concluding that it presents 'a revelatory flash […] between hearts - it emerges as the speck of writing, available to be traced from the speed of hot cognition within the body's pulse.' This reading would have been strengthened by manuscript evidence for the comma and allowance made for the irregularities of punctuation in early 19th century printed texts. It's certainly arguable that the line would be more powerful with the comma omitted.  I'm doubtful too about one of Hardy's remarks on four lines extracted from E.J.Blandford's 'A Real Dream', a poem urging radical protesters to convert iron railings into street-fighting pikes - the suggestion that the em-dash in 'They'd from their stations start, - their yokes they'd break' represents the pike itself seems no more than a pleasing fancy. I feel more convinced about Charlotte Smith's use of the semi-colon as a point of pause in her description of Beachy Head and its bird-traps, partly because it seems more than incidental and more thoroughly embedded in the text.
I don't suppose many people will read Complex Crosses
from cover to cover in one sitting. Its ideas come thick and fast and I needed to read some entries several times for anything approaching full understanding. (The patchy inking in my copy didn't help, an unusually poor print job from Lightning Source. Perhaps they don't much care for Baskerville.) It might be more cherished as a compendium and good companion. Here I've mainly attended to some of the more famously appreciated poets but you'll also find extracts from Otfrid von Weissenberg, an Exeter Riddle, a metrical version of Mandeville's Travels, some trademark raunchy Aretino, a canting rhyme by Dekker, one of the liveliest Robin Hood ballads, a jolly song about the music hall star Lottie Collins, a computer-programmed poem by Alison Knowles from 1967 and much more besides.

     © Alan Halsey 2015