Disquiet in David Harsent’s Night

By Rob Packer

A man roams his house at night, runs down two flights of stairs and, to his surprise third, and is suddenly drinking a margarita in a cellar bar when a stranger turns to him:

‘I never envied another man’s life,’
he says, ‘the way I’ve envied yours, the full and fine
day-after-day of it, a house so full of song, a wife
so sleek and quick to please, your music, your books,
those times in the summerhouse with friends and wine;
or candles shifting the shadows, and soft rain
stippling the darkened window as she turned to you again.

This comes near the start of ‘Elsewhere’, the quest poem that closes David Harsent’s 2011 collection, Night and at first glance, looks the epitome of idyllic bourgeois fantasy. If you re-read it, maybe you’ll catch a twinge of misogyny in the “quick to please” wife, or a hint of menace in the shadows encroaching towards the end of the stanza, or just as likely, you’ll take the idyll at face value. By this stage of the collection, however, you should have learnt that looks can be deceiving and to expect the worst. Throughout, the poet makes the familiar uncanny, gradually and subtly creating its own world of realigned and juxtaposed imagery

In an earlier poem—which clearly resonates here—the narrator waits hidden in a darkened, rainy garden looking in (spying?) on a woman setting the table; in another, he’s “shitfaced” at 3am “lost in your own backyard”. Memorably in ‘Spatchcock’ the boundaries between sex, sunbathing and barbecuing a chicken are gruesomely indistinct. In others, birdsong is redefined as the sound of death and ghosts, or an enclosed garden becomes a trap and the key no more than a talisman:

Here is your key. It was specially cut. If the door
to the garden blows shut as you enter, at least
you’ll have your own key, though the way out is not
really the same.

The effect is cumulative and you learn to arm yourself against the underlying tension and unexpected twists, making it almost unsurprising when the barfly continues, saying:

‘But more than anything, I envy this: the day you woke
to the knowledge that true sacrifice is gain
and junked the lot, setting out at once, a bleak
road ahead of you, the weather closing in, her last
desperate kiss still cooling on your cheek;
and I’m more jealous of that touch than of the least
part of what you’d just flushed down the pan.’

It seems a paradox that the stranger’s deepest jealousy is of a “desperate kiss” with its implications of pain, but it echoes through the rest of the poem, a dark epic through a nocturnal cityscape, where “promises freely offered are better taken by force”. It’s a strange, amorphous place where streets suddenly change, mannequins come to life and the narrator’s guide is a dog that may (or may not) metamorphose into women. It feels like an elaborate metaphor for something, but what? A dream? Depression? Drunkenness? A journey to the underworld, Aeneas-style? The clue for me was in the leitmotif of night and the narrator’s inability to forget, reminding me of Borges’s story, ‘Funes the Memorious’ with its meditation on insomnia.

But ultimately, any “meaning” feels equally indistinct among the tension, uneasiness and sometimes disgust that Harsent creates, based as much—if not more—on what is not said than what is. In a lot of ways, these feelings reminded me a lot of the anonymous warzone of his 2005 collection, Legion, most memorably in the sniper in a bell tower allowing people below to survive by his grace alone (with its echoes of the Yugoslavian wars). Where Night is different, though, is where it puts a similar tension in a far more familiar, domestic setting. In some ways, that is what makes it even more disquieting.

David Harsent, Night, Faber & Faber, 2011

The British Library, Carol Ann Duffy and Pubs

By Rob Packer

A few weeks ago I went to Writing Britain, the British Library’s summer exhibition, which looks at the landscape of the British Isles and its influence on literature. With illuminated manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales and W. B. Yeats, notebooks of Blake and Coleridge, and 150 other bits and pieces of literariness, I found it engrossing. But after a good three hours of geekdom, I started to wonder how much background knowledge you need to appreciate a show like this—probably a common problem of curating books. For example, if Mrs Dalloway or Wuthering Heights immediately evoke Woolf’s London or the Bronte’s Pennines, it’s probably because I’ve read them and know both places. On the other hand, if it’s something I’ve never heard of, much less read (such as Walter Brierley’s 1935 novel, Means Test Man), it tells me about an aesthetic movement and that industrial landscapes encouraged literature, but not a lot else. As a result, the exhibition is only at its best when it reminds and evokes, as well as informs.

An exception is poetry and song, which just work quicker, and there are some great pairings that use different media, like the Beatles’ ‘Penny Lane’ with videos of 1950’s Liverpool, or recordings of poems from Ted Hughes’ Return to Elmet (1979) reunited with Fay Goodwin’s photos (maybe more on that some other time). My easy favourite was Carol Ann Duffy’s paean-lament for the British pub, ‘John Barleycorn’, which recalls an archetypal Britain, creating more of a personal mind map, than anything cartographical.

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