London Grip Poetry Review – John Harvey



Poetry review – ON BALANCE: Sultana Raza is intrigued by the underlying threads and themes in this short collection by John Harvey


On Balance
John Harvey
Shoestring Press
ISBN: 978-1-915553-28-7
24pp    £7.50

John Harvey’s latest collection, On Balance begins with “Setting Sail” and this poem gives clues about the themes that he will explore. In this first poem, Harvey manages to paint a nostalgic picture with suggestions of colour like the blue (of water), the grey (of uncertainty) and the blankness of white (absence of loved ones). And, in the rest of the book, absences, missing people, or blank spaces both in real life and in memories are as important as concrete objects and real but intangible pleasures of life such as music. A gifted crime writer, John Harvey invites the reader to pick up the clues he’s left and to form their own idea of his perspective on life.

Some strong literary threads run under the restless waters of these poems. For example, from reading the poem “Rananim” one can guess that Harvey appreciated DH Lawrence, since the protagonist of this poem is staying in the same place where the novelist lived for a while in Cornwall. (As an extra hint the title of the poem on the facing page is “Cornwall”.) The protagonist in “Rananim” is a man, possibly a literary sleuth, who notes that Lawrence finished Women in Love while he lived there and who looks for further clues about the writer’s presence (sometimes while the rest of the household is sleeping).

Then again, when listening to John Harvey read “On Reading Peter Sansom’s Lanyard II” at the launch of this book, I couldn’t help thinking of Shelley’s death, especially the lines,

Peter says it better than I could:
Sand in our shoes and shoes in our hands
we walk fully clothed into the sea.

These lines, in which one poet expresses his admiration for another, reminded me that, when Shelley’s body was recovered from the sea, one of its identifying factors was a book of Keats’s poems found in his pocket. Shelley had already written Adonais as a tribute to Keats a few months earlier. It was then even more intriguing to discover that D H Lawrence wrote the first draft of Women in Love in a cottage in Fiascherino on the Gulf of Spezia (where Shelley’s body was discovered in 1822). Perhaps Harvey hadn’t intended to make this connection with “Rananim” but nevertheless, these kinds of associations run like invisible threads throughout this book. (Another instance is the fact that Peter Sansom – named in two poems – has himself emphasized the greatness of Keats as a poet in his own handbook, Introduction to Writing Poems).

As well as literature, nature serves as inspiration for Harvey as in these lines from “Crow”

A crow, breaking cover through the trees
dislodges memories of leaving

We will remember the moment

Elsewhere, the open spaces of “the Heath” serve as a significant backdrop in “First Love” and “On Balance” (although we may also note, in passing, another link with Keats and his old stamping ground of Hampstead.)

As well as appreciating and playing with the musicality of language, Harvey has littered the book with clues about his own musical tastes. For example, in “Rome, 1962” the protagonist sets a scene with a memory

Midnight. A studio
somewhere on the Via Tiburtina;
teased by a memory, Chet Baker, 
trumpet hushed quietly addresses/
These Foolish Things’

And in “Paris Again” he conjures atmosphere with the lines

the first notes of ‘Central Park Blues’
come slowly gliding.

Isn’t Nina Simone 

In “Blessed” Harvey remembers listening in New York to Rachael Cohen’s ‘saxophone riding,/ now lyrical, now challenging,/ over guitar, bass and drums.’ From these varied locations one can also guess the poet enjoyed travelling. And indeed he reminisces about it in “South of Sacramento” and across the collection he mentions visiting diverse places such as (unidentified) Little Italy and China Town, as well as unnamed fields and ponds (perhaps on “the Heath”).

The collection pivots around the title poem, “On Balance”, which has been artfully placed in the middle of the book. It’s a metaphorical musing on the equivalence of keeping one’s vital signs stable in the aftermath of a serious illness and the act of literally staying upright for a man living with the consequences of polio.

These poems aren’t just about the disappearance of family members, partners, or reminiscences about the demise of prospective partners, or even about dementia. They also consider the inevitability with which life simplifies one’s existence as the years roll on, by gradually erasing objects, people, experiences, so that the canvas of life starts to become blank again in certain places. The poet can project his own versions of events on the expanding gaps in memory. But are these reminiscences real, or fictional? Either way, in between these whitened spaces, a haunting song can interweave itself, as a reminder of the beauty of the fabric of a life fully lived.

At the launch event for this book, John Harvey said that he now wrote poems (rather than the crime fiction for which he is famous) because they were shorter and easier to write. However, he also said that a poem is never really finished, and that he was sometimes tempted to revise one even as he read it from the published book! One gets the impression that Harvey’s poems are finely crafted by continual revisiting to whittle out their structure until they’re reduced to their essence, without losing any of their depth. In fact, upon reading some of the poems one is curious to discover what might have been cut out from them. The absence of contextual detail is as important as the facts or emotions conveyed in them, leaving the reader free to project their own ideas onto the result.

These poems invite deep reflection about the significance of choices, or the meaning of life, and death. While they express emotions, they do so with a certain sense of detachment, as if unrolling a vast painted canvas where space is left for the reader’s own (possibly similar) experiences. Yet, the poems are also imbued with a quiet and courageous sense of observing the inevitability of the way life continues to unfold in the autumn of one’s years.