Feb 6 2023
Poetry review – AS IF TO SING: James Roderick Burns admires the music and musicality running through this collection by Paul Henry
Unsurprisingly, Paul Henry’s As if to Sing is a collection marked by images of song, music and sound. On almost every page, it conveys a clear (and evidently lifelong) fascination with life’s musicality – from songbirds, clocks and pattering rain to ticking conversation and even the shape absence of sound leaves behind: a house bubble-wrapped in rain, or “the sound-box of an old guitar” (‘The Key to Penllain’). The imagery of sound runs through the book like Prestatyn through a stick of rock.
As biographical notes underscore, Henry is Welsh, a Welsh speaker and a singer-songwriter as well as a poet. These things might naturally account for the thematic focus of As if to Sing – if it remains permissible to attribute characteristics to a nation, even positive ones! – were it not for the fact that Henry shapes the poems in such a deliberate, subtle manner as to make sound itself the core of the book. It is an active poetic choice, not an accident of birth or employment.
In ‘Return to Newport’, for instance, the poet melds the physical soundscapes of a town with the receptive nature of its inhabitants, before lifting into something more abstract:
A train scans its freight across the town and into the tunnel of ears, the tinnitus of a slowly breaking dawn. This is how love disappears
A similar blend of the quotidian and abstract – both irreducibly rooted in sound – occurs in the opening of ‘All Souls Lay-by’:
We have lived and died in lay-bys, queued for Mari’s Snax, for a songbird, affected the heavy stillness of a herd, its shuffle towards an imagined border.
Henry is adept at bringing fresh, startling images into every aspect of experience. Perhaps his insistence on this technique – which never feels forced, but rather opens the eyes (or ears) to new perspectives – comes less from a musician’s habitual fondness for his trade, and more from the realisation that unlike visual novelty, where we can choose to see or not to see something in the world, for the most part we cannot choose what comes into our ears. Sound is omnipresent, and must be addressed on its own terms, in both poem and life.
As if to Sing covers a broad range of subjects, from Welsh history and personal history – particularly the long, impressively sustained nine-part ‘Key to Penllain’ – and is at times intensely personal and affecting. The loss of a child, for instance, is depicted through silent images of weightlessness and detachment, with a single whisper at its centre, and worth reproducing in whole:
It is always the same – the traffic lights on red and the ghost boy at my side whispering Don’t go as they turn to green. Then a sense of flight followed by a fall as I cross without him [‘At the Bridge’]
We feel the silence drifting between these crisp, separated lines, only memory filling it in over and over with a refrain both charming and devastating in its implications.
Again, while many of the poems in the collection engage the world of sound-permeating-life in all its complexity, beauty or mellifluousness, Henry is also alive to the humdrum, even the ridiculous:
Water trickles down from the field and he first warm day of the year spins its soundtrack about the house – mallards, wood pigeons, cockerels, day-shift owls, tone-deaf crows, all the hedgerow’s penny whistles … [‘Waiting for Steph’]
The poem is a remarkable exercise in tone – lyrical, profound (“everything couples. The sun settles on a silver ring”) and humorous in equal measure, and typical of the volume overall. Henry works principally in the realm of the half-page poem (though ‘Dust O’Clock’ and ‘Cave Songs’, both longer, work extremely well) and across sixty pages, he moves across the whole landscape of life.
His finest achievement, however, appears to me to be the title poem, ‘As If to Sing’, which from the outset captures the melancholy brotherhood of soldiers heading to the front. The lines are clean, minimal even, and set the stage for the experiences of “the Welsh boys, mouths open/as if to sing”. In a moment of anticipation,
Last night, for safe keeping, they packed their hearts into a song.
As with Wilfred Owen, or Keith Douglas, the end is implicit in these simple beginnings (and the poetry in the pity):
So when only one in four parts of their harmony returned, for roll call, the song still held them all.
The whole poem is only eleven lines long, and yet holds true to the overriding theme of the book: life, good and bad, quiet and pedestrian or stretched to extremes through stress and grief, resonates with sound. Sound forms and surrounds us, seeps through us, marks us out and hems us in, charming and disturbing in equal parts. It is underlined by the climax of another poem, ‘Red Moped, Powys’, which finds another sort of unifying image in all the potential of youth – wasted in war – lying untapped inside the homeliest of battered objects:
And which of us wrote it off on wet leaves matters less today than our going halves on repairs or that each kept a wheel, for a harp.