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03 February 2018 @ 03:39 pm
Review of The Glass Aisle by Paul Henry, pub. Seren 2018  
The Glass Aisle

The summer's clouds are moving east.
My father stokes their fires.

They do not know it is winter,
that I am already old.

Over the Sugarloaf they go,
full of my mother's songs.

Over the hill's white pebbles,
away, away from the sea.

I have noted in previous reviews how fugue-like Henry's poetry is, how much use it makes of refrain, repetition, variations on a theme. Naturally the longer a poet's career goes on, the more this kind of technique builds up, so that certain words are heavy with significance almost before he has done anything much with them. In the poem above, "Cliff Terrace Clouds", which opens this collection, the words "father", "mother", "song" and "sea" (the two latter in particular) are, for anyone familiar with his work, already charged with meaning and mood, so that when we read "away, away from the sea", we do not even really need the echoed "away" to know that anything headed away from the sea is a cause of grief. This loading of individual words enables a certain minimalism; some of the short poems in this collection are more pared down than anything I recall seeing from him before, without sacrificing anything in power or emotion.

Indeed in the long poem "The Hesitant Song" he is concerned with something he has mentioned before: the re-creation not of words or things but of the spaces between them, the "beat before the singer sings".
" It’s about listening in to the white space, each “bar’s rest”, the place where the poem’s heart resonates. My mother was a professional singer for many years. She sang as naturally as she spoke. What struck me after her death was the silence. How can we hear such silences if we talk over the white space?" (Interview here).

The "glass aisle" of the book's title poem is a stretch of canal above Crickhowell, and that inspired phrase is one of many in which he evokes it:
The wind picks at it,
water feature of its past,
stapled to the land.

An arch makes a moon
that cows amble over
and O it is tame.

                              A river
snuck under a town
and spawned it

and sometimes it knows,
a finch on a twig
surfs the hint of a wave

a duck's wake widens

to a forgery of the sea.

The canal is being viewed through the eyes of a telephone engineer who is repairing a line that crosses the watercourse to an old workhouse, and in the process finds himself "connecting" to the voices of its dead inmates. Their names and trades are from the 1840 census and inhabit the poem as hauntingly as those of Catrin Sands, Brown Helen & co inhabit the nostalgic poems in part 1 of the collection – or, indeed, as the sometimes eyebrow-raising names of Herefordshire apple varieties inhabit the poem "Windfalls". If Henry has a musician's fascination with rhythm and refrain, he has a poet's fascination with words and especially names.

It may have been the pared-down nature of the poems, as much as their consciousness of mortality and human frailty, that made them strike me as unusually and powerfully bleak. On the face of it, there is not much comfort to be had in poems like "The Seamstress" and "The Father in the Well". But there has always been a saving humour in Henry's way of looking at the world. In the middle of the title poem, with its stories of poverty and death, we have
Half-wool, half-air,
small gods, their sphere
a foot above the earth,
the lambs at bridge 114

all calling for the mayor.

(Think about it a moment; it'll come to you.) And indeed, there is a certain pathos about those small voices, but also a sideways trick of seeing and saying that can't help but raise a smile.

There is, by the way, a performance version of "The Glass Aisle", featuring songs co-written by the poet and Brian Briggs, which was touring at the time of publication. Henry is of course a guitarist and singer as well ,and I've no doubt this version will be something to hear. But in truth, there is enough music in the words themselves to echo in any reader's mind indefinitely.