Last week I discussed I Knew the Bride by Hugo Williams, shortlisted but not the winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize of the Poetry Book Society, founded in 1953 by T.S. Eliot and friends. In the UK, this is the poetry prize to win, carrying with it a 20, 000 pound award (about $36, 000). I was so taken with Williams’ poems that I wondered just how good the winner was.
It begins with what is undoubtedly a fire song – “Fire: a song for Mistress Askew” – a rather graphic account of a woman being burned at the stake, with enough Old English lines worked in to add an air of historic reality. (As it turns out, Mistress Anne Askew, a Protestant poet, was arrested several times, found guilty of heresy and, after torture in the Tower of London, burned at the stake in 1546. She was 26.
You read Harsent’s poem, and you suffer alongside Mistress Askew. And it is a long poem.
The poetry in this collection, his eleventh, is vivid, startling, and engaging. At some points he seems to be speaking a new kind of language, one filled with such sharp images that it almost leaves you breathless.
This is poetry about England and its history, and poetry about England and its contemporary state – especially its state of the environment.
“Bowland Beth” is a poem about a bird, a hen harrier, and was commissioned for The Sparrowhawk’s Lament: How British Breeding Birds of Prey Are Faring by David Cobham. The hen harrier is the focus of a bird breeding project in the Bowland Forest in Lancashire in northwestern England. Read it for the beauty of Harsent’s words, and the harsh reality of what he’s describing.
That she made shapes in air
That she saw the world as patterns and light
moorland to bare mountain drawn by instinct
That she’d arrive at the corner of your eye
the ghost of herself going silent into the wind
That the music of her slipstream
was a whisper drone tagged to wingtips
That weather was a kind of rapture
That her only dream was of flight forgiven
moment by moment as she dreamed it
That her low drift over heather quartering home ground
might bring anyone to tears
That she would open her prey in all innocence
there being nothing of anger or sorrow in it
That her beauty was prefigured
That her skydance went for nothing
hanging fire on plain air
That her name is meaningless
your mouth empty of it mind empty of it
That the gunshot was another sound amid birdcall
a judder if you had seen it her line of flight broken
That she went miles before she bled out
In his acknowledgements, Harsten says “the hen harrier is on the verge of extinction in England thanks to systematic, gleeful, illegal persecution: hen harriers take grouse. Bowland Beth was killed before she could breed.”
Every poem in the collection is just as arresting, whether it’s about describing the travels of a rat as a kind of social commentary (“Sang the Rat”), poems that use tinnitus (that “white noise” sound you hear in your ear as you age) as a metaphor, or the poem entitled “Icefield” that uses words like cold knives.
In short, Fire Songs is simply stunning.
In an audio recording, Harsent reads from Fire Songs at the T.S. Eliot Prize awards program in London on Jan. 11:
Related: David Harsent: A Life in Writing (The Guardian)
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