John Harvey’s poetry is spacious, unhurried, measured, taking its time to unfurl its effect but keeping its hooks in the reader by careful control of pace and by making every word count. Here’s a sample from ‘Christmas Day’:
soon they will shuffle on their coats and shoes
and make their way through the quiet streets
to early morning mass
It is descriptive, patient and redolent of the slowness of the aged. It has an elegiac quality, both to do with the approaching end of the couple’s lives and the felt out-of-date-ness of church-going. Elsewhere in this poem this mood is enacted in memories of the daughter before she flew the nest, of the mother when she was well, of the lost certainties of life, a time when prayers might mean something. This poem takes its place against other elegiac poems, poems about love, loss, belief, truth and death along with a couple of ekphrastic poems and several finding their origin in jazz.
Another fine poem is ‘Monk at the 5 Spot’. There are two separate threads to this poem: one involving legendary jazz musicians in performance, the other some famous listeners. Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane leap off the page in Harvey’s enactment, their closely observed behaviour culminating in a marvellous image for Monk:
… an angular arpeggio
which calls to mind a man stumbling headlong
down a flight of stairs, never quite losing his balance
Meanwhile poet Frank O’Hara is at a table with his friends, talking, laughing, drinking, apparently unstoppable. The poem ends with the two threads brought together:
[a] final double handed chord, so sudden,
so emphatic, that the crowd, almost as one,
catches its breath and even Frank O’Hara
is stunned into silence.
The music and O’Hara stop, the poem ends.
To my mind ‘The Curve’, which makes reference to Bridget Riley’s sequence of that name, does exactly what an ekphrastic poem should do – responds rather than describes – you don’t need the painting to enjoy the poem. In this poem Riley’s abstract sequence brings to the narrator’s mind a suburban street evoked as a canyon, an absent daughter ‘dreaming of becoming seventeen’, a train journey in which a painting is briefly returned to and brought in as metaphor:
the light oscillating
on the water’s surface
patterning across the painter’s canvas
There are memories of the beginning and continuation of love and another strong ending:
then you turn and come back to where I’m waiting
small shells like keepsakes tight
in the palm of your hand.
It’s a stream of consciousness, just the kind of thing that might go through your mind when you look at abstract art.
There are many good things in these poems: memories as ghosts in ‘Voyage’, the slow build up of the extended metaphor in ‘Bailey’s Mistake (Again)’, the discussion of epitaphs in the eponymous poem, the way Harvey can condense meaning, for example, in ‘The US Botanical Gardens’:
… I break small leaves
into the palm of my hand;
yarrow, for internal bleeding,
foxglove for the muscles of the heart’.
These are real plants to be found in the Botanical Gardens, with a historic symbolic meaning but they stand also directly for the narrator’s own emotional situation (and perhaps for the bodily state of the loved one).
I began with a reference to Harvey’s measured style. Occasionally the close control wavers and the poetry meanders into something prose-like, where too much is said, as in ‘Lester Young’, but this is a minor complaint.
The photos by Molly E.Boiling are abstract conceptions, many based on buildings seen from unusual angles and reflect the poet’s interest in abstract art. They certainly contribute to what is a very attractive book-object.