Thursday, July 22

Paul Hyland's "Art of the Impossible"

Review by Nigel Pickard

The last time I saw a magician he was really terrible. He was so bad some of the more erudite members of the audience began to claim that he was, in fact, rather good. The whole thing was, they argued, a cunning post-modern joke. It was a joke my eight year old daughter wasn’t in on, however. She was sitting at the front and kept telling the magician how he was doing his tricks (which reminds me, in passing, of one of my favourite jokes, about a magician and a parrot who does pretty much what my daughter was doing, both of them working on the Titanic. The end of the joke is that the parrot doesn’t get how the magician made the ship disappear.) Anyway, the last magician I saw was becoming increasingly pissed off with this running commentary, and, I must confess, I was becoming increasingly pissed off with him. I can’t be doing with terrible magicians, and I certainly can’t be doing with magicians who are pretending to be terrible: there’s enough pretence and enough shoddiness around without the two of them coming together. No, I want to believe in the magic. I want to have no idea how it was done.

I mention this because Paul Hyland is a magician as well as a dizzying number of successful other things, and it strikes me that how I like my magic is also how I like my poetry. I like to understand the point of the trick, I like to be able to follow it and enjoy that process, its narrative, if you will, but at the end of it I want to be astonished, I want there to be some mystery that I can’t ultimately explain. In terms of poetry I don’t mean that the poem will be in some way incomprehensible; I just mean that its power will somehow overwhelm me (it’s that feeling, that click, that… – you know what I mean). William Carlos Williams’s ‘This is just to say’ or Frank O’Hara’s ‘The Day Lady Died’ or Robert Creeley’s ‘I Know A Man’, to pick three well-known examples, stun me every single time I read them, but they sure as hell aren’t ‘difficult’.

Half the time, even after thinking about why my favourite poems are my favourites, I still have no idea why they leave me dazed. In fact, it’s often a disappointment to discover ordinary, mechanical reasons that justify an approbatory response. (And, even worse, as in the Carol Ann Armitage school of contemporary British poetry, to read poems where the mechanics are almost all there is, a masquerade of devices. Once you’re aware of those, there doesn’t actually seem to be anything else left.)

Paul Hyland’s "Art of the Impossible: New and Selected Poems 1974-2004" seems to include a number of tricks performed by a number of different magicians: there’s the one who leaves me amazed and unsure how he did it; there’s the one who’s obviously very clever, but I’m not sure I’m particularly bothered about the trick; and there’s the one who is probably being ironic and who I really can’t be doing with. It’s not that this latter magician is terrible, it’s just that I’ve this nagging sensation that I’m getting a running commentary as he pulls another rabbit out of the hat; not my daughter’s voice, not a parrot’s, but the magician’s himself.

Let’s get that stuff out of the way first because I’d really like to concentrate on what I enjoyed. "Poems of Z", for example, which received huge praise when it was published in the mid-eighties, appears to me to have dated rather badly. It’s very much of its time – the cleverness, the irony, the persona, the espionage, the fractured English and the fractured self: po-mo, as I’d have said in the Students’ Union in ’88, thinking I was ahead of the crowd.

I decode the words
I do it in English
I adopt that tongue.

Mmm. It’s playfully poor, you see, which is always an easy defence. Similarly, the ‘Millstrode’ poems – the persona here is plainly uninteresting; there’s a nod to Ted Hughes’s Crow and a touch of Sean O’Brien’s Ryan, but Millstrode isn’t anywhere near the same league as these two.

For me (and this, obviously, is only for me), the middling poems are the travel ones and the archaeological ones: they’re steady poems, but I’m not taken with them. Then, because Hyland’s a Bloodaxe chap, there’s poems about class and work and oppression, both in a contemporary, and, lest we forget, an historical setting. Reading these (and there are some decent ones – ‘Map of Abandonment’, for example) reminds me of friends trying to introduce me to British folk music: it has its place, don’t get me wrong; only not round my place.

But then there’s the good stuff where the language isn’t deliberately slippery or worthily portentous. In these poems, it’s distilled, unadorned. If ideology is, as Louis Althusser had it, “the lived relation to the ‘real’”, then these poems grapple with the ‘real’, authentically, essentially:

When he died
the doctor did not
use the opaque word.

‘Die’ is written in short lines which engineer a distance and indeterminacy, underscoring both the simplicity of its phrasing and, ultimately, Hyland’s emotional fearlessness:

What she said was,
Your father’s gone.
I’m sorry he’s gone.

Which led you to ask,
Where? And afterwards,
How can I join him?

‘Snowman Song’ is another favourite of mine. Again, the short lines create a sense of contingency in the narrative, and where the nice detail in ‘Die’ is that the doctor (in this intensely masculine moment) is a woman, it’s similarly scrupulous that the boys playing in the snow are British Asians, watched by their mother who “risks the road/…./her sari swathed in tweed”. The fact that the snowfall is “meagre” and yet the boys manufacture a “snow-god…./who’ll stand marooned for days” adds to a tone of amused generosity. These poems and others like ‘In Chittlehampton Churchyard’, ‘On the Hook, and ‘An Accident of Love’ are all inscribed with what John Grierson called “the blazing fact of the matter”. Sorry to wring out the magic analogy, but this is the close-up stuff, the magician making things appear and disappear right in front of your face. These poems are of the highest quality: irreducible, moving, precise.

This collection proves to me that more and more, apart from a few key people, I’m going through a spell of discovering poems I like, rather than poets: there’s some cracking stuff in here, but there’s plenty I wouldn’t choose to read again.

Finally, a note to the Bloodaxe blurb writer – you’re not going to attract readers when you write things like “Words culled from darkness are fine-tuned under bright lights.” What does that mean, exactly? Or “he dons masks, plays games and tricks….. and, in all seriousness, attempts the art of the impossible.” It’s the “in all seriousness” that cracks me up every time. That isn’t so terrible, it’s good; it’s just bollocks.

© Nigel Pickard, 2004

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