May 6 2023
Poetry review – LEARNING FINITY: Clare Morris admires the use of memory and story in these poems by Deborah Harvey
In her latest poetry collection, Learning Finity, Deborah Harvey explores memory, mutability and ‘all those stories / Hanging in the air’ (“A Gloucester Road Odyssey, The former Cabot Cinema, 1970, 29 Gloucester Road North”). That precise location offered in the poem’s title and subtitle reinforces that Learning Finity is a collection firmly rooted in place, albeit one that shifts and transforms through the centuries. In the second line of the collection’s first poem, “A Pint at the Shifting Sky” Harvey describes herself as ‘[looking]’ for a familiar scene: girls sitting on the wall of a pub, swigging cider, having graffitied the names of pop stars ‘over the underpass wall’, their spray cans now leaking, ‘burning a hole in the carrier bag’. The LP referenced, released in 1977, reinforces that this is a memory. The girls are ‘gone/and the stars fallen’, alluding to the deaths of David Bowie, Ian Dury and Joe Strummer. The pub too has closed, perhaps demolished, because we are told that ‘the King’s lost his head’ and has been replaced by ‘the shifting sky’. The final phrase prepares us for a principal focus within the collection: the process of change. The girls have grown but their memory lingers.
The theme of mutability continues in the next poem, the eponymous “Learning Finity”. Here Harvey succinctly offers a compelling image of how we, as children, first respond to the notion of infinity. She describes how for ‘a small boy’ it is a ‘knowing’ that is ‘too boundless for his brain’ and then swiftly places it within a series of distinct occurrences that repeat and repeat with post-modernist insistence: a dizzying mise-en-abyme where finite moments are forever trapped in a process of infinite regression. The fallen stars in the previous poem have been transformed into paper ones, which are themselves similes for the falling leaves which are metaphors for the ‘words they are reading’. Everything is ripe for transformation, as a later poem “Fockynggrove” observes where ‘the longing for stories to tell themselves / recreate old echoes’. Although people and places are subject to change and decay, the poem suggests that similar people respond to similar instincts in similar locations, whilst remaining ignorant of the significance. If all things must pass, that does not stop those finite forces repeating themselves again and again.
Under Harvey’s subtle guidance, we are invited to explore the intricacies of Bristol’s history and people. Through her poems we delve deeper into its very bones and mine ‘the hungry earth, / roots reaching up snagging headstones’ (“Rags from the Boneyard III Valley of the Shadow”). This is a collection where ‘only the stones remember’ (“Gorge”) and where words are viewed through the prism of earth: what is on it, what is above it and what is under it. Bristol is ‘this city of corpses’ (“Rags from the Boneyard I Hansardysgarden”),’a collection of teeth and shells’ (“Gorge”) and ‘the accretion of moments so brief / they flare yellow, sputter, are blown /away’ (“Rags from the Boneyard Birdcage Walk in November”).
Life, Harvey reminds us, is brief, whether the ‘small lives stopped before they started’ in “II Small Lives”, or else the infants murdered in “Ballad of the Angel Maker”. Harvey has harnessed the potential inherent in key poetic forms with telling effect here. Both the pantoum’s repeated lines and the ballad’s question-answer format give each poem a relentless force, subtly reminding us of the tragically repetitive grind of poverty. There was no escape, merely the prospect of the same finite steps being repeated again and again. The excellent Notes section at the end of the collection provides illuminating background detail, including the grim statistic that the notorious Victorian baby farmer Amelia Dyer was hanged for murdering approximately 400 infants during the course of 27 years. Since many of Harvey’s poems spring from personal recollections and family history, as well as knowledge of Bristol and its environs, it is important to offer sufficient contextual information to allow each poem space to flourish. Her decision to place these notes at the end of the collection is wise. The notes do not intrude but support our reading. They are also an effective way of ensuring that her poems are revisited and thus continue to resonate long after we have finished reading.
Other more famous lives are considered in the collection too, Thomas Chatterton, Dorothy Wordsworth, Cary Grant, Bob Dylan among them. In each case, their lives are woven seamlessly into the fabric of this remarkable collection in order to reinforce further themes. In “Dorothy Wordsworth drops into the Co-op”, the eminently capable, perceptive Dorothy ‘sees beyond picturesque’ into the future of the ‘worn-down women serving shoppers’, who are themselves just another version of the female farm workers with ‘fingers bluish-black with sap’.
Death takes a different form with the mention of “Stoke Croft Bus stop, 1974”, the first poem in the “A Gloucester Road Odyssey” sequence. Allusions to the perpetrators of a string of horrific murders through references to ‘his gap-toothed/ glee’ and ‘all the bodies under concrete’ are a chill reminder of the journey some girls were forced to make. That the identities of the murderers are only alluded to reinforces the purpose of this collection. We are Learning Finity not sensationalising it.
“Time Lapse” eloquently emphasises the processes of life and death as a continuous cycle; it is ‘the endless task/ of manufacturing ghosts’. How do we deal with the enormity of that task, particularly when it involves suffering, violence and oppression? Harvey offers us a clear solution in the ultimately jubilant “III and suddenly air”, the final poem in “A City’s Shame”. In tackling the issue of Bristol’s involvement in the slave trade, she focuses on recent city-wide protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, which led to the statue of Edward Colston, merchant, slave trader, MP and philanthropist, being toppled and pushed into the harbour. We are presented with ‘a story / come full circle’ and the empowering image of ‘a black knee / pressed to the slaver’s neck’. This reminds us all of both the power and the purpose of poetry. The city has now ‘woke up from its coma’ and we have the means to make our understandings and our grievances known through our wordcraft. In “III and suddenly air” Harvey uses those same words again within the poem to remind us powerfully why the chronicling of our past is so important for our present and our future. It allows us to breathe freely again. In “A City Remembers Itself”, it is true that we have come full circle in that Harvey references both the stars and the leaves, just as she did in the first two poems in the collection; but, she reminds us, clouds are also ‘streaming overhead in a time lapse’. We need not fully repeat our errors if we listen to and learn from the stories we are told and we tell. In “The Fir and the Ash” we are warned that the ‘years grow short’. If we wish to change the ending, we need to act now.
Learning Finity is a thoroughly engrossing exploration of people, place and the inevitable processes of change. Reading this wonderful collection has changed me. It has encouraged me more to consider, as R S Thomas expressed so pertinently in his poem “Here”, ‘The footprints that led up to me’. This is a collection whose words and ideas will continue to reverberate long after you have read the last poem. I found it an exciting collection too, as it encouraged me to consider how we create our poetry as well as how we interpret it. It is a collection which is both a mirror and a lamp. We see ourselves reflected but also illuminated as we continue to consider ‘all those stories/ hanging in the air’ and hear, as Harvey suggests in “Crossing The Ring Road”, ‘ through the monologue of rain …’ a raven [calling].’
Clare Morris is an award-winning poet, writer and spoken word artist from south-west UK. Her poetry collection Devon Maid Walking (Jawbone Collective), nominated for The Forward Prize, was published in March 2023.