Poetry Review Spring 2013 – Harrold

David Cooke reviews A.F. Harrold’s latest collection ‘The Point of Inconvenience’

 

The Point of Inconvenience by A.F. Harrold
Two Rivers Press. 2013    af harrold
£8.99
ISBN: 9781901677904.

 

The Point of Inconvenience is A.F. Harrold’s third full length collection of ‘serious’ poetry since Logic and the Heart (2004) and Flood (2010). A versatile and skilled poet, Harrold is also a writer of ‘entertainments’ and books for children. Well known as a performer of his own work and the irrepressible compere of the Reading Poets Café, A.F. Harrold is, like his master W.H. Auden, a thoroughly ‘professional’ practitioner of his craft whose work is by turns whimsical, lyrical and deeply felt. Still in his thirties, it is clear also that with this new collection, in which he mourns the death of his mother, Harrold is building up an impressive body of poetry which is distinguished by its intellectual and thematic unity. The dichotomy between the heart and the mind which underpinned his first collection was further developed in the love poems and the elegies for his father collected in Flood. Inspired by the polarities of love and death, the collection was also informed by an acute sense of the paradoxes and absurdities of everyday existence, while in The Point of Inconvenience a sense of paradox is implied in the very structure of the book.

Taking his cue from Wittgenstein’s assessment that the Tractatus ‘consists of two parts: / of the one which is here, / and of everything which I have not written’, Harrold has divided his collection into two sections. The first contains the main body of fifty three poems, the second consists of one poem only, ‘Get Over It’, a brilliant four page litany in which the poet incorporates just about every euphemism we have invented to avoid facing the reality of death head on:

 She’s passed away, gone out of the room, drawn the curtains.
She’s stepped outside, might be some time.

 She’s snuffed it, clocked off, left the building.
She’s pegged out, is feeding worms, gone up the chimney.

She’s put on the big overcoat. She’s filed her last report,
has finished her homework, put down her paintbrush.

A bravura performance, in which the poet ranges from a ‘not in front of the children’ sense of decorum to officialese and black humour, he concludes with a brutal self rebuke:

She’s flown out of the high window of the old meadhall,
out into the unknowable night from whence she came.

Your mum is dead, get over it.

In ‘The First Lesson’, a brief prologue to the collection as a whole, the poet comes up with some striking imagery to evoke the terrifying inevitability of death:

Its eggs are hidden through the world,
like nits, like gnats’ eggs – invisible things,
tiny things, tucked in books, in leaves –
they hatch, they hatch, they hatch.

He then moves on to chart the progress of his mother’s illness from her initial diagnosis to her death and its aftermath. A sequence of epistles addressed to his mother, the poems are also confessional in tone, giving the poet endless scope to own up to his own tangled emotions of dread, anger, guilt, frustration and love. In ‘If There Is A Beginning’ he starts with the precision of a journal: ‘It began with a message on the phone in early May’. However, almost immediately we are drawn into a continuum in which death is ever present, moving from the mother’s illness to the deaths of his father, pets, literary heroes and even fictional characters. This sense of a recurring cycle is also expressed, with epigrammatic conciseness, in ‘Reversal’: ‘The seesaw tilt of time / tipped me up, / tipped you down’. With an unflinching eye, the poet evokes every stage of his mother’s illness and his own reactions to it:

and I look at the pillow, that simple snuffer.

How easy would it be? How hard?
Would you come to before it was done,
push back, thrash weakly and weaker?
Or would it, like morphine, be absorbed in a dream,
closing curtains, a shush of librarian walking away?

In ‘Geriatric Ward’, with its descriptions of ‘bloody wallpaper’, ‘old biddies who mutter and grumble’ and bodily functions, he writes as powerfully as Larkin, a poet clearly admired by Harrold and whose poem ‘Ambulances’ he skilfully reworks in ‘All Streets In Time’: ‘I spent my time hanging on, / reading labels: / razor, swabs, burns kit, maternity kit, sterile water.’ In ‘CT’ there is again an unashamed emphasis on bodily function: ‘You’ll feel as if you’re going to wet yourself, but you won’t,’ which is then conflated with the experience of giving birth. As in previous collections, Harrold has a wonderful eye for detail and an enviable ability to capture the most mundane reality. In ‘To Avoid Cross-infection’ the business of applying hand gel is captured memorably: ‘It’s transubstantiated soap, / changed to breath on my skin.’

Impressive, too, is the way he extracts poetry from the sheer boredom of endlessly hanging around. Rushing off with his mother in the ambulance, he is annoyed with himself because he ‘forgot to pick up anything to read’. The sense, too, that his mother is forced to wait around long past the point where she is ready to go is also convincingly evoked. In ‘The Defeated’ he addresses her: ‘You wouldn’t die, for so long. / But you wouldn’t live, lost interest, / bored of it all.’ By and large, the poems that make up The Point of Inconvenience are brief, epiphanic and lyrical. However, in ‘Hospice Song’ and ‘Ann 824’ he addresses his mother at greater length in poems where raw emotion is held in check by regular metre and rhyme. In the former he expresses his own and his mother’s frustration:

You knew, and I, just where all this was headed.
We cursed this body that hung around so long:
a shoddy box from which your life was leaking.

A few stanzas later, he reverses an image from Dylan Thomas to devastating effect:

Too tired to fight you raised no raging fist:
Just lay abed, a monumental bore,
A waste of time and space … you get the gist.

Then, in the second poem, there is a return to the Wittgensteinian silence: ‘this book extends our conversation, / but your part’s silent, dead and gone’. In an epigraph to the first part of his collection, Harrold quotes F. Gonzalez-Crussi: ‘Death, like the sun, cannot be viewed directly.’ However, with his latest collection A.F. Harrold has given the lie to this assertion. In recent years other poets, Dunn, Feinstein, Reid, have written powerful works in which they mourn the loss of a spouse. Harrold’s poems on the death of his mother more than hold their own with those of his illustrious predecessors. Intellectually rigorous and devastatingly honest, The Point of Inconvenience is an accessible and highly memorable collection of poetry in which the poet explores an intractable reality that, sooner or later, will face us all.

 

David Cooke won a Gregory Award in 1977 and published  Brueghel’s Dancers in 1984, but then stopped writing for  twenty years.  His retrospective collection, In the Distance, was published in 2011 by Night Publishing.  A new collection, Work Horses, appeared in 2012 from Ward Wood Publishing.  His poems and reviews have been accepted widely in journals such as Agenda, Ambit, The Bow Wow Shop, Critical Quarterly, The French Literary Review, The Irish Press, The London Magazine, Magma, New Walk, The North, Orbis,  Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry London, Poetry Salzburg Review, The Reader, The SHOp and Stand.