Clocks. Rivers. Skylights. Arches and arcs. Songs. The sea. Henry's poetry is becoming not just more and more musical but more fugue-like, forever picking up themes and motifs from earlier work that deepen and grow more haunting each time he does so. His first collection, decades back, was called Time Pieces, and ever since, the passing of time has sounded in his work; the stone his younger ghost-self kicks through a Sixties housing estate in this book is "four million today"; has been there since the estate was a primeval swamp. He is "kicking a time piece".
The names of former neighbours inhabit this long poem as the names of women inhabited his spellbinding long poem "Penllain" from The Brittle Sea and earlier poems, notably in The Milk Thief. To me, at least, the name-listing in "Kicking the Stone" does not have quite the same resonance as that; I think because these are neighbours and friends, while Catrin Sands, Brown Helen and the rest were family (anyone biographically minded who wants to know more about them may care to look at the interview Henry gave here). In fact the final section of "Kicking the Stone" rises quite suddenly to a new height of impassioned involvement:
O scuff of sunny dust,
preserve this woman's song
only the stone and I can hear
up the unfinished road.
Preserve this woman's song
that finds the sea in a stone
as we pass by, up the road,
up the unfinished song.
And I think this heightened intensity can only be because the "musical house" where this happens, where a soprano is rehearsing, has to be Henry's own childhood home (his mother was a professional singer).
Brown Helen and the others do in fact recur by name in two poems: "Wardrobe Time" and "Brown Helen on Harbour Beach", and both have not just a nostalgic but a slightly elegiac tone, as if he might be saying goodbye to them. I sort of hope not, because they have become familiar and loved ghosts to the reader as well as the poet, but work does move on. Family life has always been important in his poems, but in this collection the protagonist is distanced from his family; in the collection's first poem, "Usk", the eponymous river is both the distance and the link between the speaker, "upstream", and the "you" he addresses, in the "mess of streets" where the river turns to sludge (ie, Newport). And the "boys" whose childhood has featured in earlier collections are distanced not only in space but by time, the adulthood which brings independence and loosens parental ties. In "Late Kick-Off" the ghost-boys return in fancy:
They are coming back to me
taller than I imagined
and too old to warm inside my fleece.
It has been too long.
They must be cold by now.
I'll warm up the engine.
Those three short sentences at the end: a reminder that Henry has always been skilled at using the unromantic tools of sentence structure to create pace, tension, emotion. He must also be one of the most skilled and unobtrusive rhymers currently working; his natural musicality lends itself to form, but it's a different and more verbal skill that makes the rhyme in "Blackrock: the Bedsit Years" read so unforced:
The lost years owned a rent-book
and sometimes fell behind.
they clung to what they took,
sang between cracked walls,
had plans, murdered mice,
came and went, imprecise
in their choice of doorbells.
"Davy Blackrock", a new character in his work, is a sort of modern avatar of the 18th-century harpist and composer Dafydd Owen, better known as Dafydd y Garreg Wen (David of the White Rock), who is remembered today for the tune that bears his name. There is a fair amount of humour in Davy, but also much darkness. The final poem of both this section and the collection is neither up- nor downbeat; it expresses inevitability, the way our past shapes us and the necessity of living with that:
However badly we played our love,
slipped out of key, this song.
It will not forget us, haunts us now,
plays us into the dusk, this song.
It seems appropriate, in such a music-haunted, crafted collection, that this final poem is called "Song" and is a ghazal. But the poem that strikes me as most like a keynote for this collection would probably be "Under the River", both for its musicality, the way it uses refrain and the alternating short and long sentences to drive its rhythms, and for the way he has always had of seeing inside and beyond things:
Under the river a deeper river runs.
It is simply a case of pressing your ear
your heart to the bank, about here,
then of listening to its quieter turns
to the voices of loved ones
you thought would never rise again,
holding you now, with an old refrain.
Under the river a deeper river runs.