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Lee Harwood - The Orchid Boat

(Enitharmon, London, 2014. Paperback, 48pp, £8.99)

Reviewed by Daniel Eltringham

 
On the surface, there does not appear to be much going on. A pool disturbed by the faintest of surface ripples, Lee Harwood's second full volume since the Collected Poems in 2004, The Orchid Boat often manifests a tranquil ambience that flirts with but does not surrender to stereotype. John Ashbery's ambivalent blurb extract skirts similar territory with the playful assertion that 'Lee Harwood is my favourite English romantic poet.' Small 'r' romantic, note, and note also, 'English', not 'English language'. Ashbery was the lover to whom Harwood's most yearningly-romantic poems were addressed, written after Harwood met Ashbery in Paris in 1965, after retuning to England:  
 
but John
now when we're miles apart
the come-down from mountain visions
and the streets all raining
and me in the back of a shop
making free phone calls to you
 
('Rain journal: London: June 65')
 
So the adjective has a personal as well as categorical valence, for those in the know. 
 
Still, the interpretation of these poems as 'romantic' depends, perhaps, on the validity of their claims to self-expression, or the documentation of an individual experience or emotion, in a more traditional lyric vein. Those claims are often disturbed, or interrupted, by subdued tension between the impulse to narrate, in historical time, from the vantage of personal experience, or a blend of the two, and a textual presence that foregrounds surface texture and in doing so necessarily disrupts the forward motion: as 'New Zealand Playback' has it, 'stumbling around in and out of history.' 
 
The sensation of tranquillity is familiar through the (footnoted) influence of the Classical Chinese poets:
 
         'Gently I open
my silk dress and float alone
on the orchid boat. Who can
take a letter beyond the clouds?' 
 
('Departures') 
 
This imported voice is a quotation from Li Ch'ing-Chao (c. 1084 – c. 1151), and is not alone in a volume—typically for Harwood's work—stuffed with other voices, shielded from the already multiple lyric speaker's utterance by buffering quotation marks. 'It All Comes Back to Vassilis Tsitsanis', for example, interrupts it own narrative with what might be fragments of speech or signage ('Welcome to the orphanage'; 'Where are the orphans' toys kept?'), and 'A Steady Light' ends on an enigmatically localized/un-localized note:
 
And a choir sings
'People get ready for
the train to Jordan.' 
 
Here the poem asks the reader to supply a possible connection between the hanging verb 'sings' and this narrative observation marking the beginning of another journey, betraying a similar uncertainty over place and time to that questioned, seemingly without anxiety, earlier in the poem:
 
Could this be Alexandria?
– I think not –
but some provincial city? seaport?
And the year?
 
As ever with Harwood's work the dynamic tension of the poems is drawn from quietude, which occurs in and through those mysteriously unmarked quotations (the footnote for Li Ch'ing-Chao is one of five in a collection that contains much more unreferenced quotation), and through the many cesuras. These blank spaces occasionally and almost unobtrusively divide the seemingly smooth surface textures of the poems. Gaps of sense between superimposed material, divided anyway by understated disjunction of space and time, quietly pose the simple but sometimes weighty question of the relation between discrete linguistic events, kinds of experience, even people. 
 
Some poems in The Orchid Boat exhibit their studied diffidence more successfully than others, however. 'Winchester Pond' and 'Ornithology' are unable to break the untroubled texture of 'the pond's surface' imagistically literalized in the former, without really doing anything or going anywhere. In both, the questioning feels faux-gnomic, rather than carrying any profundity:
 
What message from out there?
('Chirpy chirpy cheep cheep' doesn't help much.)
 
('Ornithology')
 
When the poems don't extend, either temporally or spatially, instead contenting themselves with occasion and a singular sense of locale, they can seem merely unremarkable, rather than generative. 
 
But then, perhaps the flat quality of this informational failure is a form of commentary on the method. Of course the bird call, so beloved both of 'romantic' and Romantic poets, only signifies (for humans) to the extent that signification is imposed on it, and Harwood's cod rendering here may be a translation of the work caesura is doing elsewhere, anyway. As, perhaps, in 'A Steady Light', 
 
Mid-afternoon       a light breeze
sways the worn blue curtain. 
 
[…]
 
Evening dreams       stories of emperors and patriarchs, 
stories of moments when it could have been different
but wasn't. 
 
The spaces here are subtle, hardly more than a breath pause, but imply potentially vast expanses of history, abridged between a dreaming speaker and the unfolding of 'stories of moments', hinge-points in historical time. 
 
'Departures' and 'Sailing Westwards', the first and last poems of the volume (excluding the sentimental acrostic 'Stella' that alone comprises the fourth part of the book) exemplify this technique. Landscapes and quotation from Classical Chinese poetry are interspersed with a less marked expedition, perhaps closer to home:
 
Plodding along the mountain path – 
drifts of rain, streams sweeping across the path, 
cloud so low you can barely see the path
as you stumble on loose rock. 
 
('Departures')
 
The repetitive incantation of 'path' gives it a mystic quality: any old 'mountain path' becomes 'the path', the way of enlightenment, open to the pilgrim or tourist who submit themselves to the toil of the mountain. This is then picked up and returned to 'the T'ien-t'ai Mountains' in the first line of 'Sailing Westwards', as 'Centuries ago the sages plod up the ivory mountain', the recurrence of the verb suggesting that, irrespective of time and place, a mountain always demands that the walker plods. The following stanza relocates once more, to the present personal, as 'I – no sage – reach a summit cairn […] as ravens glide by, two buzzards circle, / and a flock of goats clatters across the scree below.' In the temporal overlap between formally rhyming spaces, The Orchid Boat retreads the tone and techniques of Harwood's earlier work, interpolating the personal into the historically and geographically far-flung, eliding Chinese landscape poetry or the persistence of Welsh hymns in North East India with 'the come down from mountain-visions', a shifting and half-familiar intimacy. 
6 August 2014