This substantial and handsomely produced volume of poems by Devon-based poet Bruce Harris deserves all the praise for its formal accomplishments as its author and publisher Artificium does for donating all proceeds from sales to the Huntington’s Disease Association (HDA). The HDA is a charity in desperate need of support for the work it does in trying to find a way of better treating and ultimately even curing this as yet barely treatable and incurable hereditary neurodegenerative illness. Harris’s partner, Anthony, is afflicted with Huntington’s Disease following a recent diagnosis, hence the choice of charity.
As reviewer, I flag up a common cause in relation to Huntington’s Disease: my mother passed away after a 15-year battle with the illness, on 31 October 2013, and my 2015 poetry collection, Shadows Waltz Haltingly (Lapwing Publications, Belfast), was mostly themed around this. The poems in Harris’s Kaleidoscope, however, are not themed around HD, though illness, hospitals and mortality do feature heavily throughout; this is a poetry collection of multiple topics, it’s just that its proceeds go towards the HDA, very emphatically, via the logo on front and back covers.
Kaleidoscope is an apt title for what is a particularly colourful collection of poetry. It starts with the eye-catchingly titled ‘Vivaldi and the Metro: Pride in Survival’, where one immediately notes the alliterative chiming of ‘Vivaldi’ and ‘Survival’. This poem depicts a respectfully receptive visit to Paris after recent terrorist incidents. Here Harris displays a true poetic ear for alliteration, assonance and sibilance, and this, together with the sprung rhythm and musical lexicon, buoys the bristling social observation:
Underpass Paris; through its spare, garish tunnels
the people stream on in their tidings of business.
An artful Vivaldi from a busker so lost
in faithful playing that the world is excluded
and all of our bouncing walks are prouder,
all shoulders squared to the glorious grace notes.
The Red Priest is weaving a dance for the evening,
the music a summons let loose in the tunnels.
We divide between the striders and siders,
the first relentless, ready and set-faced
making intent and determined ways
to whatever purposes, in grim optimism,
balancing along the rhythm of life.
The second are players, dancers and chancers,
or beggars and dreamers, momentarily broken
by booze or substance, bad luck or cruelty.
The poem closes on a beautifully thoughtful trope:
Those with too many yesterdays and too few tomorrows,
the lucky, the brave, the inward despairing,
we all march on in our communal metropolis
passing the shrill violin like a salute.
‘Admission Times Five’ is one of a few hospital-set poems in this collection. Harris’s poetic form is succinct, disciplined, and his occasional iambic pentameter lends the lines a cadent rhythm:
‘I was starting to think of sit downs and coffees,
warming numb hands round the heat of a mug,
when the latest coronary arrived on a trolley.
Pale and bespectacled, frightened and silent,
emptied, stressed-out, middle-aged victim.
This compact lyricism calls to mind the –albeit strictly pentameter– blank verse of Peter Branson, though Harris’s style is less formalistic. The descriptiveness is disciplined but no less colourful for it:
‘The place was, like, frightening, I so didn’t need it,
bundles on beds, smell-wafts of chemicals.
Dad flat on his back; he tried to smile up,
his face all ghostly, hollow cheeks whitened.
Whether serendipitous or deliberate, Harris occasionally hits on internal rhymes that increase cadence:
‘It might seem impossible, but I knew it from the ring;
I’d been anticipating, like a summons from the Head.
Unforced, perhaps also serendipitous end-rhymes permeate the closing stanza of a poem which manages at once to be anecdotal and poetic:
‘I can see that man’s screen, the green lines moving;
it seems indecent, like intruding on his medical.
His name is Ben; he sold stationery and supplies
until stabbing chest pains on the M6 last Thursday.
Every man’s invincible, or so they like to think
until Reality gate-crashes like Jeremiah at the party.
I am more tired than I knew it was possible to be,
but the fact of survival somehow speaks of mercy.’
Tonally Harris can move effortlessly from tragedy to comedy: the next poem, ‘Yer Ides’, is a comical mock-Cockney dialogue between ‘Mark-Tony’ and Julius Caesar, which is almost pastiche Kipling in its slangy, sing-song style:
‘I’ve ‘ad a few rumbles; you might remember I
was the one who finally sorted out the Belgae
and then again, it’s not so many years ago
all our lads mixed it in yer actual Bello Gallico.
Yer senators don’t bother me, since they’re all well known as
too stupid to tell their tunicas from their togas.’
He grabbed the soothsayer, and stabbed ‘im up the Khyber,
led ‘im by ‘is beard and threw ‘im in the Tiber
‘Daniel’s Shore’ is an assuredly composed poem, its poetically couched turns of phrase and cadent prose reminding me of the similarly smooth compositions of Nick Burbridge:
For two days, he haunted his shell of a house;
for two nights, he salted his wound on the streets
among the city’s shambling demons,
the freshly opened scars still smarting,
walking a sudden hellish emptiness.
The polemical ‘Tesco Arriving’ has a sing-song rhythm wonderfully buoyed on internal rhymes:
He’s just down the road, the Merchant of Menace
and whatever’s in store for our retail tale?
Our village pillaged, butchers out-butched,
bakers broken with all buns banished.
Our sorted resort with chalets in alleys,
folk from Smoke buying hi-dee-hi-ing,
to be stark shop car-parks, follies for trollies,
bling and buy selves up and down British shelves.
There’s more polemical sport in the poem ‘Plastic Toys in Cereals – The New Generation’. ‘Waterloo Bound’ has an exuberant rhythm which belies its pessimistic comment on the absurd hustle-and-bustle of city life; one particular trope ripples out as a pool of aphorism:
Books and baggages, straps and helmets,
crash-banging doors like multiple tantrums;
noise enough to make words superfluous,
a beat lullaby for the still half-asleep.
‘Final Offers’ appears on the surface to be personifying houses up for sale, but is I think actually depicting old people –possibly in a nursing home– as if they are dilapidated properties; its style and rhythmic yet prose-inflected turn of phrase calls to mind the poetry of Harold Monro:
His aspect was period, his timbers silvered;
last century vintage, post-war built.
His façade was weathered, not dainty or quaint;
no roses round doors, no well-polished oriels,
no twee brick arches or mock Tudor gables,
but a certain battered log-like consistency
born of well-settled northern foundations.
It’s almost as if the ghost of Harold Monro is commenting on social media:
Her living rooms were now guarded, not opened,
barriered still from the Facebooks and Twitters
and fittingly fitted with windows intended
for her to look out, not the world to look in.
The topical ‘Anniversabrexit’ is a sing-song polemic with in seven A/B/A/B-rhyming quatrains, and re-introduces us to the old slang for Europe, ‘Yurp’; but above all, it reminds us that Britain is a mongrel country and the English language a Franco-Germanic melange from our Saxon and Norman occupiers. ‘Flight Delayed’ is a poignant poem from the point of view of an illegal economic immigrant.
‘Becket’s Last Prayer’ is one of the standout poems in this collection, an unexpectedly historically-specific piece, it is beautifully phrased in a way that instantly evokes the period:
We should not serve You, we men of the world
who aspire in vain to a godly simplicity
and tempt too easily to action beyond prayer
when savages’ swords menace our gates.
King’s men seek only to keep their heads
and I have dug in dirt for Henry,
drunk in the rancid trough of service,
whored and warred and bled for Henry
in the bloody playground of his kingship.
The seeming simplicity of the aphorism ‘King’s men seek only to keep their heads’ is impressive. One is reminded of T.S. Eliot’s play in blank verse, Murder in the Cathedral; or, cinematically, of the consummate 1964 film Becket:
Soon he will kneel before my grave,
his back bared for penitential scourging
and his lips will murmur Latin words
even as his mind dissembles.
And I will sigh for the thousandth time
and whisper to him yet again,
‘Sire, His greatest rival is Satan
and I would not place that crown upon you.’
Harris is particularly deft at subtle but bristling alliteration and assonance:
Outside, his knights’ hooves are thundering
and I feel the duty which burns in their blood
like a long departed anxious childhood.
They have no pain to match my hair shirt,
no torture to equal my cancer of sin.
Lord, I will carry Your cross to face them
needing only enough strength in my limbs
to stand untrembling in the path of their anger.
After some humorous poems comes ‘Intensive Care’, which faces courageously grimmer realities in a mortality-marking hospital setting with hints of Philip Larkin’s ‘Aubade’:
And I could never derive a neat master plan
from the daisy chains of bleating priests
or the dull voids of cynical nihilists;
I stand with the ranks of shady don’t-knows.
At the end of the ward an old man has died,
a mind and life now a white sheet on wheels.
‘Karen’s Week’, composed in long-lined rhyming couplets, tackles the thorny topic of domestic violence. ‘Learning Swedish’ seems to be about the untapped potentials of working-class schoolchildren:
Jennie Warriner, if she but knew, could easily manage Swedish;
her intelligent and sensitive ear would understand the sounds.
But she’s never going to know it; from a Wolverhampton semi
the need for speaking Swedish will always be obscure.
‘On Tick’ juxtaposes ancient notions of earthly transcendence with the plastic affluence of credit-card capitalism:
And the Romans, too, were granted their escaping,
their epic Solace-eum freeing them from cares
by watching sacrifices spicily administered,
annoyances deflected in fests of schadenfreude.
So it is as it was; Nirvana must be now,
a well contrived concept to meet all expectations,
a Visa pleaser, a Mastercard placebo,
an American Express to Dreamland Central.
‘Partying’ is a vivid depiction of pleasure-bingeing and the inescapable consequences, Harris’s arresting turns of phrase consummately couched:
Over, and leaving trophies and wounds;
flushing memories and arid regrets,
fruits of embrace and scars of collision.
Over to face deep pits and high skies;
Sherpa climbing, Icarus diving,
and ravaged monstered faces of morning.
‘Peterlee Juniors’, composed in eight A/B/A/B/C/D/C/D-rhyming stanzas, is a bittersweet recollection of the poet’s schooldays, one supposes from the final trope, a state school:
We’d heard the supposed big school excesses,
chains being pulled on heads down loos
and split into failures and successes
We’d already lost any right to choose.
‘Sustainable Hades’ hilariously depicts a new regimen of austerity measures and fiscal restraint imposed by ‘ecological angels’ after investigating Hell –it’s almost like Spike Milligan rewriting Paradise Lost:
‘All this vivid heat and light might make the wicked cower
but it would be more user-friendly if sustained by solar power
and such abundant use of energy might become more doable
were it to be supported by material more renewable.’
But Satan counters:
‘Enough of this’, said Satan, with a few loud sighs and groans,
‘Angels in glass houses shouldn’t come here throwing stones.
What of heaven’s clouds, made to give refreshing showers,
and currently used by people playing harps for bloody hours?
Harris rounds this metaphysical polemic off nicely:
So it seems that even Life Beyond must be negotiated
and parties have to keep to what’s been agreed and stated.
Ecstasy or torment, glory or damnation,
everything is subject to resource aggregation.
‘Jungle Tree’ aptly depicts austerity capitalism as the serpent in the Garden of Eden hissing temptations. ‘Costa Illusion’ juxtaposes contemporary austerity-hit Spain with its internecine years of the Thirties:
How they would gape, those martial Orwellians
at the squads of gaudy oranged arrivals
decamping to supposed England with sunlight
with no more concern for their commandeered home
than the settled nest eggs of alien cuckoos.
In ‘Telstar’ Harris reminisces on the transformation of society from the Fifties –which, for him, ‘resembled a penal institution’– into the Sixties, from black and white to colour, and he focuses on these changes through the prism of school:
Our schools were arenas of routine abuse
of ears, hands and bottoms, and humiliation
with canes and slippers in regular use
for calculated physical intimidation.
Some teachers were still marooned in the war
brutalised into a norm of brutality
and setting little educational store
on schooling’s potential to benefit humanity.
Again Harris employs a fairly traditional form of quatrains with A/B/A/B rhyme schemes and one is at once reminded, to some extent, of both John Betjeman and Philip Larkin:
Laughter and colour beamed into our gloom
and as they peered up from pulpit and lectern,
the satellite whirred like a comet of doom;
a lesson, for once, that they had to learn.
We are then led into the complementary ‘August Playground’ which again has a Larkinesque lyricism and communicates some unassumingly sublime observations:
The adults watch on a bench together
in companioned abandon; the children roam
the outer fringes of their awesome games
unentrapped, in worlds never emptying.
The alliteration of that last line works particularly well. The poem slopes towards a dreamy melancholy summation of the human condition:
For the children, these soft-focused memories
will return lost sounds and faded scents
from more mundane, pedestrianised futures
when the burden of days demands an escape.
‘Song of Guy’ is the second historical poem-cum-internal monologue –another figure who, much more contentiously, might or might not be regarded as a more roguish kind of Catholic martyr to Thomas à Becket’s canonical one. When Harris tackles period detail his linguistic muscles flex more descriptively and evocatively: so we get terms such as ‘blackguards’, ‘hose’ and ‘doublets’. Two stanzas stand out to me for their descriptive vividness and tangible assonance and alliteration:
Down in this Hades, I hear a clock chiming
and I ask who am I to make this last judgement.
It is a blasphemy, to ape the Almighty;
my hand is shaking as I reach for my taper.
I have listened too much to their baas and bleats,
incontinent sheep, wool-coated and wet,
ale-d and ailing in intemperate hoo-hah
like overgrown boys on a windy binge.
The homoerotic ‘Skin Deep’ is perhaps the most beautifully phrased, sculptural poems in this collection, linguistically confident and highly imaginative in terms of images; it’s a phantasmagorical poem, at least to my reading, since it seems to slip between the image of a leather-clad motorcyclist –‘his bike steeded like a growling phallus’– outside a Moto motorway station and what might be his lover semi-revealed by a slipping duvet like a marble statue. The poem is itself a piece of poetic sculpture in its smooth, assured form:
A duvet slips like a parting curtain,
dawn light frames an alabaster torso;
his waking lover glances, entranced
at a long perfection of sculptured spine
and a classical symmetry of shoulders.
Harris’s turn of phrase is breathtakingly fresh in the following stanza:
As he turns, the treacherous bedspread lifts,
first presenting a Michelangelo rear
and then a resting defined masculinity
caught by invading shafts of daylight
like fanfares for a risen day.
The final trope, ‘shafts of daylight/ like fanfares for a risen day’ is a startling image, as well as wonderfully alliterative. The following stanza also bristles alliteratively:
And just beneath, such warm-fleshed bareness
exposed to vulnerable in bedrooms and baths,
casual Hockneys and daily Mapplethorpes
beauty camouflaged as menace
art works under terror disguises.
What is particularly interesting grammatically-speaking here is Harris’s choice of ‘vulnerable’ as opposed to the more obvious ‘vulnerability’ in the second line, as well as the absence of the definite article before it, which is very distinctive. The brilliant contemporary British painter David Hockney, and the deceased American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe who was famed for his homoerotic photography which often depicted statuesque young males, are two iconic gay art figures whose paintings are cited here.
‘Summer Night Fish’ deploys a hypnotic use of o-assonance throughout; in its anecdotal qualities, natural setting and poetically-couched prose, I’m at once reminded of poets such as Nick Burbridge and Dan Wyke. ‘The Uniform Question’ depicts a young ‘rookie’ policeman discovering a dead old lady in a house he’s been forced to break the door down to. Again we have a sculptural erotic image as in ‘Skin Deep’ flitting into the policeman’s consciousness: ‘He’s remembering love-making three hours before,/ white marble nude in the ghost light of dawn’. This is another sculpted poem with some nice descriptions and complementary alliteration:
He finds her in the living room, between the flaking wallpaper,
her face melting down, like Hammer horror make-up.
He stays inside to retch, even in the putrid air,
in case the neighbours realise he’s a boy, not a policeman.
A few detections, he’s not surrendered those ambitions.
She’d got up to clean the bathroom; the dirt rim is disturbed.
Not seeing a soul for years is no excuse for laxness
and perhaps chest pain drove her right back to her chair.
The poem is also quite cryptic in places, particularly at its close:
The old lady uniform is invisibility,
it occurs to him, when he tries to remember seeing one;
if that’s their price, he thinks, what’s the price of mine,
a do-your-dirties servitor done neatly up in blue?
I normally automatically switch off when I read poems about sport, particularly football, but in ‘The Rest of the Time’ Harris makes a profound polemical point about the complete partition between supporters and players and how the former, more often than not working class, come to perceive their team’s victories vicariously as personal or community achievements:
Lovers and partners, friends and relations,
the raw material of all that matters,
need no trumpets or paraded trophies,
to glorify, impress and control.
So, most never pose in a glory of spotlights;
most never hear the engine of cheers
as if touching gold is substitute living.
‘Theme Park EXTINCTICA’ and ‘The Real Deal’ are timely ecological polemics while ‘Spinning Taffeta’ satirises vacuous talent contest panel shows. ‘Pneumonia, Sunderland Children’s Hospital’ is a nicely described vignette on childhood illness, with serendipitous assonantal and alliterative effects: ‘Barley water was my entire intake/ as penicillin destroyed appetite’.
Harris gifts us another of his historical poems: ‘1816: The Pedlar’s Tale’ depicts ‘a simple, common man who traded pots and pans/ to make a proper living’ and who is press-ganged into Wellington’s infantry: ‘General Nosey summoned Britain’s men/ to seek out and destroy the proud tyrant Bonaparte’. The unceremonious privation of the common soldier of the period is well-depicted:
No fine plumes or feathers, no epaulettes or spurs,
but red coats and rifles, and worn rough-hewn boots
to trudge behind officers, sitting proudly on their horses,
and bed down in ditches while they rested in their tents.
‘Downstairs’ is an empathetic piece which depicts a teenage girl frightened of her domestically abusive stepfather:
Back and pretty late, but not before new Dad.
‘Hello, love,’ Mum says, brave smile from her chair,
just a little red of eye, just a little pale.
Telly’s off, silence screams, night is lurking round
A long quiet time, like waiting for the hunter,
Mum and me listening, too frightened to unite.
Clumps and thuds again, this time made of anger
alive in new Dad’s head, stuff he’s never sorted,
One particular trope is powerful in its sense of apprehension and desire for escape, nicely sculpted with p-alliteration: ‘Turn out my light and life, hope for sleep to come,/ posters on the wall mocking in dim shapes’. ‘Evasion’ is a sardonic vignette depicting either an anonymous City speculator doing a Reginald Perrin routine leaving his clothes on a beach before alighting on a boat to sail away as a tax exile –or it might be an anti-homage to the late disgraced Robert Maxwell:
He looked out towards the edge of the bay, where a boat had been arranged.
‘Here’s to strategic vanishing,’ he said, ‘and the taxman finally thwarted.
‘I leave my best black brogues on the sand, in memory of my father,
and the knitted socks to follow, in memory of Auntie Jean.
‘I leave my M and S suit in salute to all the boardrooms
where I’ve sat in it, being bored, and doodled under the desk.
The mysterious, almost cryptic ‘Frost’ is indeed a chilling piece, its evocation of the physical sensation of firing a rifle, intimately descriptive –here it is in full:
No shaking finger, no nervous gulp
on the trigger click which crosses the life line.
Just for one second, some dark passing bandit
is scared enough to risk an escape.
I’ll feel the dull metal thud in one shoulder
and poleaxe his scamper like an execution.
I never was cool, lost in a crowd of boys,
with no lucky looks or a voice to touch.
Yes, fair enough, the first time I was shaking,
flushed and wet-eyed like a pant-pissing fat boy
but the second time, I felt my face numbing
and frost collected neatly round my heart and my crotch.
I’m poised now, unblinking, a newly-made iceman,
duck-shooting wooden toys at the fairground.
‘Desdemona Remaining’ is a compelling contemporaneous polemic on what used to be very clinically termed miscegenation –basically, a sexual relationship between members of two different races, in this case, as the allusive title suggests, a white woman and a black man; and here Harris courageously broaches the subject of such relationships still attracting social prejudice today in certain types of communities. Harris asks, perhaps rhetorically:
Surely discrimination is consigned to the past;
no blank fascist stares, no pub sneers and leers,
and relationships which can easily outlast
outdated, anachronistic race fears.
Just a girl in love, or the black guy’s whore,
love satisfaction or treachery and shame;
are harmony and peace, or races at war,
the current conditions of the relationship game?
The next stanza is particularly striking linguistically with some nicely sculpted descriptions and plenty of p- b- and v-alliterative effects:
A literary text is suddenly remembered
where a teeth-chewing Iago, watching from shadows,
machinating an entry for his envy viper
to eat up the Othello boy from inside
by depicting his love as not righteous but risible.
Will she be stretched on a bed to face his fury,
all ashen innocence and pale china brittleness,
Desdemona martyred on naivety’s altar?
The phrase ‘pale china brittleness’ is a particularly arresting description of a corpse. This impressive and brave poem concludes on a note which suggests that somehow the white girl has her own unconscious racial neurosis:
Is he mainly a man or mostly a cause?
Is she loving or gesturing, dating or crusading?
She thinks of her mother’s weary worldliness;
‘There are problems enough without adding on extras.’
Desdemona’s a character in a very old story,
a victim of attitudes long since extinguished,
but she cannot persuade her heart or her head
away from suspicions of Desdemona remaining.
In ‘Diamond Do Fivesome’ we again come upon the image of a nude male like a statue: ‘In the moonlight, he stood like a living Greek statue’ –something of a leitmotif throughout this collection, as is, unrelatedly, the titular image of the kaleidoscope as a metaphor for a type of perception and remembering. As always, Harris’s alliterative descriptions are well-wrought:
‘She can still grumble on about tools in the kitchen;
I can still use wrong towels for my oil-dirty hands,
and there’s a sharp edge to her tongue when she needs it.
‘Seagull Politics’ depicts different types of gulls according to political affiliations. The ghostly ‘Stags Night’ employs synecdoche to impressive effect as suggested by its title –the poem mostly depicts an actual stag being hunted with nice turns of phrase couched in near-iambic pentameter A/B/A/B-rhyming quatrains:
In the early horizon, light blue and grey,
a proud silhouette moves in the moonlight,
the antlers shadowed in the early day
and a long rutting call despatching the night.
There’s an interestingly religious ingredient in the imagery:
A wind snaps and cracks from the sea to the shore,
whipping its wounds on his vulnerable skin;
the last party sounds like a fading war
linger and echo like unabsolved sin.
His great head raises; he sniffs to the wind,
unusually immobile, as if in suspicion;
a crack of the gun, a scattering of birds
The trope ‘his head and his knees sagged to an angle’ is nicely alliterative; the closing quatrain returns us to a Stag do and seems to end on an ominous chilly note:
The best man Dean has car and clothes ready
for half past five, the full light of morning.
He grins and relishes; a proper stag send-off
until his hand touches one marble cold shoulder.
In ‘Homomonument, Amsterdam’ Harris memorialises the countless victims of the Nazi occupation of Holland:
Yes to the glint-cold slabs of marble
where pale exhausted skins have laid
whose redundancy to the Aryan madness
is present eulogy and past death sentence.
Yes to the steps that rise and fall
like aspirations to the rights of man
ennobling in the brave ascent,
drowning in the abject fall.
And not least those persecuted and imprisoned for their homosexuality:
Yes to the well-marked pink triangle
branded once on jailbird suits
intended as a badge of shame,
become a beacon light of pride.
The poem closes on an optimistic, almost Blakeian note:
Yes to the tides of changing times
which melt the iron chains to garlands;
yes to the smiles of righteous ghosts
finally arrived on shores of love.
Bruce Harris’s Kaleidoscope is, as its title suggests, a truly colourful, swirling collection of poems with a dizzying diversity of themes and demonstrates an accomplished and sometimes exemplary sculpting of poetic form and, in particular, poetic phrase. To my mind, the standout poems –‘Skin Deep’, ‘Stags Night’, ‘August Playground’, ‘Desdemona Remaining’ and ‘Becket’s Last Prayer’– are excellent examples of contemporary poetry that deserve the place in respectable journals everywhere. Stylistically I’ve been reminded of poets of the past –Monro, Betjeman, Larkin– and of the present –Branson, Burbridge, Wyke, and to some extent the greatly gifted and recently departed Gordon Hodgeon; but Harris has his own compassionate, deeply humane and topically eclectic poetic personality that stamps its mark on the page. Highly recommended.
Alan Morrison © 2017