There is a quiet, yet brutal authority to David Harsent’s latest collection, although to categorise the book as mere poetry might do the collection and the writer a considerable disservice. Fire Songs stands alone as a unique beast, which harks back to the verse masters of the past; it is even reminiscent of Milton’s later works. Stealthily, the poet casts himself as a soothsaying prophet – a role rarely seen in modern poetry. This is a book of interconnected poetic and fevered dreams, some fragmented, and all weaving their haunting narrative throughout.
The opening piece, “Fire: a Song for Mistress Askew” immediately begins to stir a sense of unease. The emotive description of a body burning slowly is lyrical, seductive, and not a little dangerous. We are tempted into a sublime poem of initially unsought for voyeurism that is yet so beautiful in its focus that we simply cannot look away. Perhaps the most disturbing element here is the distant tone of the poem, that encourages an equivalence between burning dead things and bodies as metaphor for a callous jettisoning the past:
Bramble and thorn
lumber and junk. Dead stuff. Whatever would burn.
Thematically and atmospherically disturbing from then on, the collection continues to cement Harsent’s use of his central motifs. There are four poems designated as “Fire”, three labelled “Tinnitus”, all spliced in between with interludes featuring fools and rats.
The most dreamlike of these poems, appropriately titled “A Dream Book”, is an expansive, yet oddly fragmented narrative of lovers caught in a ghostly landscape, a haunting purgatory filled with hotel rooms, and city streets but also symbols, cryptic metaphors. In one stanza, the lovers enter a river naked whereupon a woman utters the line that possibly characterises the collection as a whole, “You think you’re safe? You’re not.”
That line signals the shift from poet to prophet as the opportunistic rodents and guileless idiots of these poems steer the reader into apocalyptic visions, hinting that such unsavoury guides will be the sole survivors come the end of the world. The river the lovers enters may symbolise baptism – itself a counterpoint to fire – but as the woman warns, you are not safe, even in water.
The apocalypse is addressed in the third Fire poem “Fire Song: end scenes and outtakes.” It is here that the horrific is explored in graphic and arguably, gratuitous detail with unnerving lines such as, “When Rape is a sweetener”. The longer “Fire” and “Tinnitus” poems are beautifully ambitious works which carry the collection’s theme to its Biblical conclusion. Nonetheless, the shorter pieces also deserve study; “Trickster Christ” is particularly emotive and rich in its imagery:
At the pool of Bethesda, in broad daylight, a man
Laughing a laugh meant for himself alone
As he walked away: half lost in the crowd, then gone.
For some readers, the lighter, yet more contemplative, poems will appeal; “Trickster Christ” in particular, provides a welcome break from the permeating, creeping dread. It also stands complete and whole.
Fire Songs starts with a historical atrocity by fire and ends with scorched earth. The escalation is deliberate, like fire it spreads and engulfs, burning itself out only when there is nothing left to consume. Unquestionably, this is difficult poetry, but this book stands as a testament to the poet’s boldness and his unerring respect for the reader. The themes are heavy and frequently upsetting, but the execution is stunning and complex, often mesmerising to the point of brilliance. By any standards, this is not a “safe” collection, but it is a sublimely beautiful nightmare in verse.
David M Graham