Strange, Fractured and Incomplete Narratives: The Poetry of Lee HarwoodSelected Poems
Not The Full Story: Six Interviews by Kelvin Corcoran
Published by Shearsman Books
Reviewed by Liz Kirby
you move me—and the thought of you—
I imitate you.
and cities apart.
when the river beneath your window
was as much as I dream of. loose change and
your shirt on top of a chest-of-drawers…”
When Lee Harwood fell in love with John Ashbery in the New York of the mid 1960s, he also fell for the American avant-garde. When he read, loved, and translated the surrealist, Tristan Tzara, he helped to forge a connection between American and European traditions. The excitement and experimentation of London in the early sixties had perhaps been the perfect preparation. He brought these elements together and added gentleness, understatement and a fascination with stories: creating a poetry of strange, incomplete and fractured narratives.
These poems are like a glass bowl, that has shattered yet somehow held its shape perfectly. Harwood’s language is run through with cracks, breaks and discontinuities. It is grammatically inventive. The use of punctuation is very personal and surprising. Often the distinction between ‘I’ and ‘you’ is unclear. And it is these very ‘flaws’ that create a shape able to both contain and spill over.
Take the long dashes in the opening of AS YOUR EYES ARE BLUE. They contrast with the short workaday ones used in ‘chest-of-drawers’. The choice is foregrounded. It is a deliberate gesture, suggesting reflection; an inner or other voice dwelling on the beloved
“—and the thought of you—“
The phrase pauses, lingering.
Harwood turns to political and historical subjects with the same light, searing touch. DREAMS OF ARMENIA juxtaposes factual lists with poised and heartbroken fragments of imagery and loving accounts of ancient history:
“…. forced marches, rape, starvation, robbery. Children, men, women, the old and sick.
They would do this to you my love
And to our son.”
The blurring of identity, and fragmentation of history into splinters of mirror glass reaches a climax. Every loss, every violence, every moment of love could be ‘me’, could be ‘you’.
This book illustrates the achievements of four decades. It represents ten collections, including a stunning series of ‘notebooks’ about an adulterous transatlantic affair, called The long black veil that ends with the words “lie naked upon the bed” encompassing every possible meaning of those five words in a shimmering image of love, deceit, loss and joy.
In these poems binaries of all kinds melt into one another and always it is the particular, irreducible details that remain. The tender description of the lover’s shirt. Shearsman have also produced a companion volume in Not the Full Story. It is a series of interviews with the poet, following the chronology of the Selected Poems. As Kelvin Corcoran comments ‘on occasion a poet might be persuaded to talk about the work….’ Harwood is diffident about doing so and sometimes Corcoran’s interventions seem to overwhelm his tentative comments, though the book does go some way in providing context for the work. In the last section Harwood says “It doesn’t matter that it’s left unfinished, finished doesn’t exist”.
Liz Kirby is a poet who is currently battling to complete a novel. She has poetry, prose and reviews in a wide range of magazines and journals, such as Skald, Famous Reporter, and (forthcoming) Poetry Wales. Officially a bitch, she has a story in the Crocus Books anthology Bitch Lit. She shares her home in Hebden Bridge with Leonidis the Prince of Sparta (a small cat).