Expansive Poetry & Music Online Poetry Review

by Tony Harrison
Faber and Faber
All poems cited are by Tony Harrison and
may not be copied or distributed
without the express permission
of the author
review by Arthur Mortensen

61-year-old Tony Harrison is a poet most Americans (except perhaps audiences at opera houses) have never heard of.  Winner of the Whitbread Poetry Award (and many others), a translator of worldwide note, the playwright-in-residence at the National Theatre in London, author of many poetry books and at least a dozen plays, Harrison arrived long before most contemporary American poets finished their MFA programs. And unlike virtually all of us, Harrison has had and continues to have a wide audience, not only from his work in the theater (as playwright and librettist) but from televising and filming what he describes as film/poems.  The Shadow of Hiroshima, and other film/poems, brought out by Faber and Faber in 1995, is a collection of those. One might ask first -- how to realize a film/poem on paper?

The designer and typesetter conspired with the poet to render visuals by using simple phrases to describe them in the left hand column, with the poetry set in the center. A swift glance (and imagination) starts each visual; then one can proceed with the poems. These poems were intended to be heard, whether in the mind's contrived voice, or by the reader aloud; to avoid that is to miss much of their impact. After all, why else use stanzas, meter and rhyme, which are nothing if not the art of crafting language into sound?

And Harrison knows how to use those. With a facility reminiscent of Auden, Harrison's use of quatrains throughout this book (and in much of his other work), ranges from elegant to ironic to bouncily obscene without the least sense of arch contrivance. Contrived as prosody is, it should not sound that way if composed with an ear for contemporary rhythms and diction, an ear Harrison must have been born with. And what of the poems? Is there enough there without the whole works of art?

Recognizing that to judge these as texts rather than as completed film/poems (as performed by actors and projected on a screen) is to shortchange the reader, as having only the script of JB is to shortchange a lover of MacLeish, it is telling about Harrison's gifts as a dramatic poet that, with nothing more than the flickering images of fancy to accompany them, these poems have great power on their own.

        Out of the Metro to the upper air
        the dead brought back from underneath the ground,
        and a century since the film of Lumiére
        out of the Metro, coloured, and with sound.
        Napoleonic Paris cleared its plague-filled tombs
        and first showed Europe more hygienic ways.
        They stacked the dug-up bones in catacombs
        and opened a green place called Père Lachaise.

        Paris pushed, promoted and PRed
        to induce the city's dead to settle there
        and reburied Héloise with Abelard
        and brought in La Fontaine and Molière.

        and by a process of promotional exhumation
        of endorsing heroes long ago decayed
        lured both great and small to emulation --
        and now draws TV crews and tourist trade.

        The tour starts here with voices in your head.
        Hear one corpse sing what another corpse composes,
        Follow their music, let yourself be led
        to where the shell of genius reposes.

        Composers rot but their recorded notes
        are all we need to make them seem alive.
        The singers buried here have crumbled throats
        but the voices they vibrated with survive.

        And that, what's that?  ...A bird?
        Follow the leafy paths to track the sound
        and maybe find it's not a thrush you heard
        but Mez Mezzrow's clarinet from underground.

        The Muse, one of Memory's nine daughters,
        looks and doesn't like what she beholds,
        the lyre finally unstrung when Lethe's waters
        took Chopin underneath her chilly folds....

                from "Cheating the Void," by Tony Harrison
This lengthy meditation on cheating death, and whether or not that's possible or even desirable, is startling; and its use of quatrains creates an ironic counterpoint to its explorations of how since the last century we've struggled to substitute artifacts of memory for those of death. In Harrison's film/poem, such resemble what one find in a walk through a curio shop littered with the artifacts of another century. The sheer discord, here a delicate comb inlaid with mother-of-pearl, there an accounts book bound with cracking leather, there a telephone with a crank, and there a lock of hair preserved in a glass ball, in some ways carries more portents of death than a plain tombstone, just as the odditities of a piano player in 1925, considered flashes of brilliance then, may seem impossibly old-hat on hearing their reconstruction today on a CD. While with tombstones, the weight of death is measured in marble, simple phrases, dates, and space, with recordings and film, as with preservation of the body parts of saints, the weight can becomes commanding hints from the past on how we should conduct our lives. The light of memory, at odds with the darkness of death and forgetfulness, may itself become a beacon leading us away from the day. Virtually all of the other film/poems in this book work the same territory, as one would expect of a volume whose major piece is in commemoration of Hiroshima.
        I heard a sound I thought was birds
        but then I swear I heard these words:

        'This voice comes from the shadow cast
        by Hiroshima's A-bomb blast.
        The sound you hear inside this case
        is of a man who fans the face
        he used to have before the flash
        turned face and body into ash.
        I am the nameless fanning man
        you may address as Shadow San....'
The opening of "The Shadow of Hiroshima" introduces us to a sort of guide, a ghost, or literal shade, from August 6, 1945, who leads a tour of both the Hiroshima of memory of and today, its past and its current commemorations of the city's destruction and rebuilding,  of its daily life and ritual. (If you don't know the basis for the "Shadow," it is one of the most haunting effects of the nuclear strike. People at ground zero, though instantly vaporized by a fireball four miles above them, had their images cast on surviving walls and walkways, much as a painting, if removed, will leave an image of where it hung by the wallpaper or paint having darkened around its frame. Several of these shadows are preserved in the A-Bomb Dome and museum.) Is the past judging the present a good strategy here?

We've had so much the other way round that the inverse of itself is arresting. We like to think the past is buried or burned; indeed, that may be described as the American cultural conceit, and one adopted by much of the world. But there is another side to that; it is also the conceit of the pathological killer, the totalitarian, and the Puritan burning books. What characterizes them?

A universal in all three is the desire to destroy the evidence of some other path than the one chosen. And another is the incapacity or unwillingness of all three to perceive the web of relationships, histories and myths that binds the present they try to destroy by knife, propaganda and fire. As such, the third universal is that despite their immediate success they always fail. The web of relationships that bound the murdered man or woman, the web of histories and myths that binds a society, cannot be, even in Auschwitz-Birkenau or Hiroshima, entirely destroyed. These vastly complex interactions go on, altered by acts, but informing the future sometimes with greater force than they did before. So, dragging the shadows for a narrator on the present is entirely appropriate. Does this lead to an apology for Japan at war?

Hardly. This is a poem about integrating the present with a terrible past with the hope of avoiding a terrible future. To do that requires a look at more than one side. The A-bombing was a catastrophe of will from one side. What led it to came from the other.

                Where peace doves are the birds of prey
                has never been very far away.
                These hawks cruising the skies
                don't care what peace-doves symbolize.
                These emblems are mere morsels, meat,
                their ripped-out innards good to eat.
                Since yesterday the hawks have waited
                to see their lunches liberated.
                Hiroshima hawks are glad to glut
                and gorge themselves on peace-dove gut.

                It's not inappropriate that birds of prey
                are also present on Peace Day.
                They could well stand for Japanese
                who forced other Asians to their knees.
                They stand for a spirit from the past
                that moved Japan before the blast....
Take the time to read all of "Shadow..."  Harrison's sensibilities for detail, character, and his compassion for how most of us try to work through this mad century are very rare.  And, in a time when so many poets are content to work such territory third-hand, one has the sense from Harrison's work that he's been there.

There are many other strong pieces in this book, too many to adequately examine in a review on  a Web page.  Don't miss "The Gaze of the Gorgon," done for BBC in 1992, whose central image is a bust of the poet Heine, forcibly removed from Corfu by Kaiser Wilhelm; it is a powerful look at the monster unleashed in organized war in this century.  "The Blasphemer's Banquet," an imagined feast of Omar Khayam, Moliére, Lord Byron and Voltaire (with Salman Rushdie the missing guest, is a sharp-tongued attack on the fundamentalist reactions across the world and across time. "The Muffled Bells," and "Mimmo Perrella non è Piu" are two more meditations on death and the rituals surrounding it, one set in rural England, the other in Naples, both with the same evocativeness, sharp commentary, sardonic wit, deep compassion and poetic craft that marks so much of Harrison's poetry.

The Shadow of Hiroshima is highly recommended, and can be obtained through Amazon or through Grolier's for US$12.95 in the U.S. and Can$19.95 north of the border. It was published in 1995 by Faber and Faber, Eliot's old house, of London.

                                Arthur Mortensen

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