Henry Shukman’s Archangel, published just under two years ago, was much anticipated; it was his first collection since the publication of his award-winning debut In Doctor No’s Garden, over a decade ago. The central sequence of this work addresses a captivating piece of little-known history: the story of thousands of Jewish immigrants, tailors, to be specific, deported back to Russia in 1917. Feelings of connection and estrangement are particularly striking here, resulting in the paradoxical “absence that I come from”. While the history is in itself most fascinating, the collection’s real strength lies in the depth of feeling expressed in Shukman’s poetry.
A personal favourite in this collection is “Household” which, despite its brevity perfectly embodies the essence of Archangel:
The tons of brick and stone, the pounds of piping,
the sinks and china basins, the tiles and bathtub,
the hundredweights of board and joist,
the yards of flex and cable that wrap the house
like a net, the heavy glassed door, the rippled sheets
of window, bookcases, pictures in their frames,
tables, piano: what would it all weigh? One kiss,
one breathed declaration: the mass of love.
Here, the breaking down of boundaries between the material and the immaterial is fascinating – Shukman’s equation of the physical and the emotional, the “mass of love” embodied in the material weight of house and home. Indeed, this means of calculating the incalculable defines the work as a whole.
Archangel is characterised by a significant use of enjambment throughout. In places, this works beautifully; consider the depiction of a shared moment between grandmother and grandson in the poem, “Boxing Day”. Here, Shukman’s sentences continue not only over line breaks, but also, across stanza breaks.
There’ll be tinsel on the dresser, while your son
picks raisins from wrapping paper as his grandma
asks a question that makes him pause and think;
then his answer that makes her pause and think,
and smile. Next door the fire’s drawing breath.
That cross-stanzaic enjambment is particularly effective here. After that clever syntactical repetition, the withholding of the phrase “and smile” until the ensuing stanza captures the very pause Shukamn describes, enhancing his imagery and using that whitespace to breathe life into the poem’s rich density. In apt, simple language, he captures a most delicate moment and frames a moment timelessly and universally.
Indeed, the collection as a whole boasts a comforting simplicity of language. Shukman’s poetry sings strikingly, despite this apparent homeliness. A particularly strong point is undoubtedly his poetry’s rhythmic qualities. In the opening lines of “The Singer”:
The day they got the Singer
my grandmother wouldn’t touch it.
The clacking of its single tooth
terrified her, and the way it opened,
tipping over its hinge
so the bobbins, spikes and belts
of the god and black carapace
almost fell into her lap.
What is perhaps most remarkable here is the subtlety of that rhythm. Shukman does not overtly employ rhyme, nor is his use of alliteration particularly obvious. Rather, his rhythm is transparent and effortless; a rhythm which perfectly complements the simplicity of the poet’s language and the nature of that heard and seen domestic vignette.
That love lies at the core of this collection cannot be denied. Yet, at times, love is also complicated. Separation in love features prominently. Take, for instance, the following lines of “Martyrs”:
You were always a step ahead: yesterday
you’d said your body couldn’t understand
our separating. […]
Once again, there is that cross-stanzaic enjambment, that pure and modest simplicity of language. Therein lies the true value of Archangel.