Sweeping the Courtyard: The Selected Poems, by Michael Harlow, (Cold Hub Press, 2014), 174 pp., $39.95; Heart Absolutely I Can, by Michael Harlow, (Hoopla series), (Mākaro Press, 2014), 56 pp., $25
Where to begin to describe the poems of Michael Harlow? With my mother’s successful selling of the family piano?* The piano had a wooden instead of an iron frame and to compensate she was beautifully dressed and each word (she couldn’t tell a lie) was carefully placed. Or with a still from Philip Gröning’s Into the Great Silence: a young Carthusian monk massaging ointment into the limbs of an old monk; or voices singing in the choir; or tobogganing on makeshift sleighs down a snowy hill? Words coming out of deliberation and silence, made brighter because of it; everything handled in light; everything democratically scrutinised. My mother’s scrupulous words; the slow movement of the young monk’s fingers, demonstrating a kind of holy respect. An absolute democracy in which everything – rooms, love, letters, quarrels, mythologies, birds, identities … the universe, in fact – can be turned on its head through a principle of re-balancing. How often in a Harlow poem something that seems to be going wrong is actually coming right:
It is a comfort to know this speech
you make on leaving is also
about love, and clearly.
(‘My love in bed I will not lie’)
I don’t think this democratic principle can be over-emphasised. It has painterly qualities – ‘such dark silks of longing’ – and spaciousness, like the spaciousness of a Morandi still life – but it also has a philosophy that is as old as stones (keystones or paving), one based on a lifetime study of Jungian analysis where waking and dreaming converge, where there is a constant bringing into the light of the rich material and compelling narratives and archetypes of the unconscious:
Something there is about
the loneliness of certain
words looking for the right
place to settle down
(‘Heart absolutely I can’)
The fretful drawing by Jeffrey Harris that graces the cover of Sweeping the Courtyard: The Selected Poems – the piano keys are there and the poet’s initials – is contradicted by a bright emerald-green band. It would be facile to say these poems will stop you worrying or that poetry can be a prescription for living but surely the tense faces will relax as an alternative view is presented? At the end of the book (108 poems, chosen from seven collections) the reader should feel more mysterious than stressed, more open to possibilities. Some of the fretful identity each carries is dispersed; inanimate objects play a part; coincidence is examined and found wanting; our collusion with fate can be a matter of style. Instantly there is a sense of liveliness. Before the opening poem, about the secret lives of tanks, take a spoonful of tonic:
There is no such thing as chance.
A door may happen to fall shut, but
this is not by chance. It is a
conscious experience of the door,
the door, the door, the door.
The earliest poems hold in a net the elements that will inform a lifetime of sweeping the courtyard in preparation for writing. Mythologies, plainly stated, will eventually be so absorbed their language will be everyday; fantastic flights, flowering early in Nothing but Switzerland and Lemonade, will be propelled by an existential treatment of human and non-human elements:
… A woman is climbing in and out of her bedroom mirror.
Her husband is plugged into the wall-socket.
She is watching herself – carefully.
Carefully … he is turning himself on and off.
When the parson (an archetypal parson) takes his sermon (all sermons rolled into one) for a walk the reader thinks, Why not? A bacchanalia ensues – there is a housekeeper behind the piano, eager to strip down to her knickers – the ending is a levitation of the whole congregation and the words of the sermon transformed into song. Harlow’s mastery of the prose poem – almost his creation of it, for few other New Zealand poets come close – is an enduring legacy. Transubstantiation in a poem? No problemo. Individual lines that produce a disappearing smile like the Cheshire cat:
… he tore into shreds his final gavotte for alpine mountaineers …
He is watching himself in his black coat with two licorice tails …
(‘The albums of young lady tourists’)
Gradually, as the collections unfold – Vlaminck’s Tie; Giotto’s Elephant; Cassandra’s Daughter; The Tram Conductor’s Blue Cap – the reader enters the poem and the questions and answers become personal possibilities:
But if you’ve
come this far and end up in the lost and
found, you know that old story, where no
one becomes someone one day; you pray
for one thing and get another. You know
that looking for a black cat in a dark room
where there is none – you find one anyway.
(‘On looking in the lost and found’)
The great enchantment is words and no single word in a Harlow poem does less than double, triple, quadruple duty.
One word, one word and then another
one word and another, waiting for the
light to come stealing in, you ask what
it is that love dares the self to do?
(‘The longest day of the year’)
If there is a muse in these selected poems it must be Cassandra (Cassy) the little girl who wants to question the poet about the colour green and learn ‘all about the world’ but skips off before he can formulate an answer. Innately she knows that ‘Poetry is when words sing.’ What base they sing from is the criteria. That Harlow gives them so much freedom and yet makes them sing so well; that a poem reads like a cajoling with a detour of acute observation; that the freshness of the story touches the profundity of myth: these are some of the enduring pleasures.
Cold Hub Press has created a book that is elegantly and scrupulously attuned to the poems: wide margins, appropriate to the imagery, elegant type, notes and index. Quotations introduce each collection: my favourite is by Jean Arp: ‘Things that are familiar depend on this magical, almost impossible subworld.’ Roger Hickin has provided the detail that has brought this subworld into being.
Heart Absolutely I Can is one third of the first Hoopla series, commissioned by Mary McCallum’s Mākaro Press. Three poets at once, at different career stages, on different themes, all poets of panache. Here, perhaps appropriate to age, Harlow has love; Helen Rickerby, film (Cinema); and Stephanie Lash, crime (Bird Murder).
Delightful to hold in the hand, the cover features a pitcher: the idea of going to the well or drinking deep. ‘Five fresh poems and a number selected from previous collections form this book on the hoopla of love.’
The directness (hoopla) is there in the bold opening lines, a Harlow trademark:
The way light swarms over
(‘And just now’)
by moonlight your body is an adventure
(‘The right touch’)
Such dark silks of longing who
would still loving go walkabout
(‘Such dark silks’)
Or, to put a more quotidian slant on things:
After years of living together taking care of each other’s
dreams, and making minute adjustments to their love life
And here is ‘La Trapéziste’, ‘high-wire walking’ … ‘strid[ing] the silky air’, right on cue.
Isolated from the larger selected poems and not in chronological order, which can often be unexpectedly subtle, now the links are traces and interior themes: light and waking, undressing, talking under the cover of darkness. The piano makes another appearance and it seems more melancholy: ‘Yesterday it was found weeping in the garden.’ At times the lovers retreat to their own identities, as if to recover strength. The domestic and the abstract compete for understanding: letters re-appear and quarrels. Even a quarrel can be lit by magical images:
We were walking out of the park, your
hair on fire under a full fall of moon;
the flowering almond its bridal white
fading earlier than we remembered.
The image offers more than magic: it is a presage that love will survive, refreshed. ‘Swimming lessons in Spanish’ sets this out almost like a thesis, contrasting and employing two styles of language, both familiar to lovers:
He didn’t know if she was running away from something
(himself) or running towards something (someone else).
How would you know until too late …
But language, elevated, lyrical, can ride to the rescue:
And so to ‘tell his love’ he wrote: ‘By that small flower
of forget-me-not that kisses the air dulce on waking wherever
you are, call out the name of someone you have loved and
who has loved you back. I promise you three times. I promise
you swimming lessons in Spanish. Call this a moment of prayer,
even for a lifetime.’
(‘Swimming lessons in Spanish’)
Mary McCallum has chosen wisely: her most experienced poet is well-equipped to deal with the most difficult subject of all.
* One of Harlow’s most anthologised poems and the title of his 1981 collection, Today is the Piano’s Birthday
ELIZABETH SMITHER, a former Te Mata Poet Laureate, lives in New Plymouth. Her novels include Lola, published by Penguin in 2010, and her most recent collection of poems is The Blue Coat, published by Auckland University Press in 2013.