Ian Brinton review: Remarks of Uncertain Consequence by Alan Halsey (Five Seasons Press, 2022), and Into the Interior by Alan Halsey & Kelvin Corcoran (Shearsman Books, 2022)

                                      ‘The hard riddle’

In A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters Julian Barnes told us that ‘History isn’t what happened…it is just what historians tell us’ and in the opening lines of Alan Halsey’s new collection of eighty-one pieces of prose and poetry we are introduced to the idea of a funnel plot, a graph which is intended to offer a scatterplot of information which can be both distinct and also connected. The primary use of funnel plots is to detect bias and since Halsey’s mind is focussing upon the twelve years between 2009 and 2021 during which time these ‘remarks’ were written his intention may well have been to come to terms with an accurate and individual perception of history. As becomes increasingly evident in the pieces he is also very aware of how perception needs precision!  

         On the summer solstice
         2013 we were reliably told

         there had been ‘a big
         revolution in transparency’

         in other words a
         funnel plot in which

         ‘the less procedures
         the wider the funnel’.

The 20,000 revellers who celebrated that solstice some nine years ago may also have been aware that it would be followed by the largest ‘supermoon’ of the year and astrologists, not usually associated with the precision of historical analysis, may have been tempted to see some significance in the timing of these two celestial events. The word ‘transparency’ derives from Medieval Latin indicating an ability to see through surfaces distinctly and it was first used in a figurative sense in 1592 when Romeo was asked by his friend Benvolio to contemplate an error of judgement in his perception of female beauty. Romeo’s disdainful refusal to contemplate the possibility that there could be anyone ‘fairer than my love’ predates his appearance at the Capulet feast at which he first sees Juliet. His reference to those who might question the objective beauty of Rosaline as ‘transparent heretics’ has such a naive assurance in his own correct perception that there is an almost comic tone to his later comment upon first seeing Juliet: ‘I ne’er saw true beauty till this night’. Alan Halsey’s ‘remarks’ are of course of ‘uncertain consequence’ since after all we cannot read the future and can only look back on the past with our eyes of ‘now’ and in that way we are all historians. Halsey’s glances may be wryly humorous but they may also be bleak as you stare at ‘The hole where your friends used to be’ and which ‘needs filling somehow’.  
         The past is of course a foreign country, unknowable and yet endlessly interpretable and it surrounds and saturates us as Arthur Miller had recognised in Timebends so that literature can present a man turning ‘to see present through past and past through present.’ In terms of literary criticism it might also be worth turning here to a comment about the writing of history made by Raman Selden and Peter Widdowson in their Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory:

There are two meanings of the word ‘history’: (a) ‘the events of the past’ and (b) ‘telling a story about the events of the past’. Poststructuralist thought makes it clear that history is always ‘narrated’, and that therefore the first sense is untenable. The past can never be available to us in pure form, but always in the form of ‘representations’; after poststructuralism, history becomes textualized.

         Narrative is the quintessential form in which reality presents itself to the human mind and in an early poem from this new collection, Halsey recalls a brochure entitled ‘Extinction Coefficient’ before being immediately prompted to reflect upon what, after all, was never to take place:

                                      I once started
         to write a book of that name        
         but we can’t always be going
         back to the womb or can we?
                                                      (‘I Jan 2016’)

Photographs can provide a narrative but, as Halsey’s six ‘notes on absence’ make clear they can only provide partial truths. In revisiting scenes from his childhood in south London he reflects upon his absence from his late mother’s photograph collection and in the first of these notes, the title of which is aptly bracketed as if to emphasise the sense of it not being central or of it being an after-thought, ‘(snapped & unsnapped)’,  he reports that
        

         The thing about my late mother’s photo collection is for
         me my frequent absence and it’s not only that we didn’t
         share much of my life after I’d as is said grown up for
         there are or were photos I distantly yet distinctly remember of the toddler          me…

Lives are full of different narratives and the camera lens can only capture one of them at a single moment. In the fourth note of absence when talking about his maternal grandparents Halsey returns to the photograph album to discover the earliest picture of his grandfather ‘in which he looks about twelve years old although it’s hard to judge because he’d been dressed up in mostly grown-up clothes as if for the first time and his black jacket worn over a matching waistcoat with prominent watch chain is slightly too big while his three-quarter-length grey trousers seem to acknowledge he’s still half a boy.’ The clear focus of this description is indeed what we would expect of a historian who is able to note the overlapping sense of age and youth and this careful precision is continued with the topographical accuracy of movement described a little later:

There are as you’d expect in my late mother’s collection many photos of Beatrice and Syd from their years in Battersea and when they’d moved south to Mitcham then Thornton Heath and at last escaping from south London to Shirley on the border between Surrey and Kent but they were mostly taken on special occasions requiring Sunday best clothes and behaviour which means that the couple I particularly loved as my mother’s mother and father are also in a distinct and lamentable way absent.

The historian and poet merge perhaps in the way the list of places and the length of the one sentence both conclude in a single word of loss. In terms of the grandfather, Syd, the photos ‘don’t show the homelier man in his oilsplashed raincoat with the sleeves cut off to make a jerkin when he was out in his garage doing whatever he seemed constantly needing to do to keep his jalopy fit for the road while the cigarette apparently attached to his lower lip gradually burnt down to a tube of ash as I followed him around for whiffs of shared smoke.’
         However, memories consist of more than the archive and the narrative which constitutes our individual personal history is a wealth of ‘remarks’ which are not recorded in those albums put together to provide an official history and to be placed perhaps in the cupboards of easy retrieval to be kept for family occasions of assumed social reality. Photographs are sections of narrative contained within edges and the reconstruction of history depends upon the sharpness of the viewer’s focus. As one of the later poems in this collection asserts you have to find the edges and increase the contrast as well as testing the brightness:

         it’s neither what you see
         nor what your camera’s
         witness to whatever
         you might have seen

         supposing you had
         digital vision and
         whatever it was would
         only show on-screen –

         whether fiction’s history
         or history’s fiction’s the
         hard riddle always posed
         & hidden behind scenes.

Contrast is a variation in luminance that makes an object become distinguishable and any increase in contrast in some parts of an image must necessarily result in a decrease in contrast elsewhere. One company promoting its web development in terms of digital vision offers ‘an ultimate forum for capturing organic traffic to boost up visibility’ but an awareness of what constitutes the individual and personal past is more than just what might be ‘on-screen’ and it remains ‘hidden behind scenes’.
         When Alan Halsey and his wife Geraldine Monk returned from a visit to Worcester they discovered No Particular Place to Go, the Australian poet Laurie Duggan’s collection published by Shearsman Books in 2017 which had been sent to them by the poet. Laurie Duggan’s kind of history, the sort that is happening on the side-lines, concludes in a way that is convincingly pertinent to Halsey’s remarks of uncertain consequence in terms of the way in which they are going to be moving. As the title of Duggan’s collection implies it is ‘an unholy gathering of discrete pieces written over the last fifteen years.’ In his notes at the end he says that there are quite a few ‘747 poems’ here: ‘things written in transit that I hope escape their circumstances enough to be of amusement.’ Appropriately enough the collection also includes a ‘barcode’ joke ‘for Alan Halsey’:

         if it’s not a free country
         at least it’s a free house

That sharp edge of humour in Duggan’s little quip is very much in sync with the tone of Alan Halsey’s reflective glances over the past few years, a range of glimpses which, as the book’s blurb tells us, is ‘so good as to be chameleonic, super-histrionic, shape-shifting’ whilst always being gifted with ‘a sideways mockery allied with a very serious intentness of political purpose.’ When Simon Smith wrote a review of Halsey’s earlier volume Reasonable Distance (Equipage, 1992) for Angel Exhaust 9 he had noted the tension ‘mapped in the writing between economics, politics and the poetic’ and had gone on to recognise a poetry that was ‘sensitive to decline and the thin veneer of prosperity where ‘a lone yachtsman’s nightmare / screaming down isles where / recession meets recession and horizons / come home’. The grim humour pulsing beneath Alan Halsey’s poetry was there in the poet’s awareness that nobody keeps a reasonable distance in one place for very long since after all

         Nobody steps on
         a mine of information
         twice.

         The names of a wealth of poets and friends appear in these ‘Remarks’ and each one gives a glimpse of a social world in which poetry and living are deeply bound together. Whether it’s riffing with Tom Raworth or César Vallejo, Ted Berrigan or Jack Spicer, or whether it’s recalling moments in Hay-on Wye when ‘pubs opened as / evening became morning’ or remembering that Lee Harwood ‘had a thing about pangolins’, these remarks of uncertain consequence always bring flashes of the past sharply into focus.
         In 1995 Five Seasons Press published Halsey’s The Text of Shelley’s Death in a limited numbered edition of 200 copies. It was bound in thin green card which had reproductions of Shelley’s work printed on both the front and the back and when the Leominster press put out an attractively printed booklet of advertisement for it there was an account of Halsey’s fascination with language incorporated into the last page:

The metamorphosis of the word is something that is fascinating in Halsey’s writing… All language appears to act in this kaleidoscopic patterning mode…an integral spectrum between the upper and lower limits of ‘language as infinite possibility’ and ‘language as dead speech’…Time and again, Halsey acts on objectified language by jerking it out of an old, established order, to reveal its ‘other’, hidden facets and strands.

One of the moments from the past which draws itself up to make an appearance in dream in these new ‘Remarks’ comes from the kaleidoscope of Hell itself:

         I was in a radio studio in Hell
         & the technicians were playing back
         their recent recording of The Text
         of Shelley’s Death with actors best
         known from The Archers distributing
         the voices. Squeaky Shelley, glum
         Mary, blabbermouth Trelawny,
         Lord Napoleon Byron mocking
         Hunt & his Hottentots, flirty Jane,
         laconic half-husband Williams
         & the rest. I kept saying ‘Please
         please. I deliberately didn’t put
         names to the voices. The point
         is the text does the talking.’

The squabbling phantasms repeat themselves ‘word for word’ after he has awoken and then gone back to sleep and ‘even the boat had a / speaking part.’
         This collage style of merging different surfaces of reality is there in the lines of ‘notes towards a poem for Paul Merchant’ in which ‘Facts and yarns do get skewed / when we’re writing poems’ and those years Halsey spent ‘driving around England / because every small town had two or three / secondhand bookshops’ become merged with Jacob Cnoyen, King Arthur, Mercator, John Dee, Thomas Cromwell, Geoffrey of Monmouth and Henry VIII. The poem concludes with the acceptance of interlinking stories, tale-telling, reconstruction, the writing of history:

         But however it went
         one thing led to another.

         In the ‘last last words from the message parlour’ we glimpse a woman screaming outside Waitrose ‘I don’t want to be Me. Ever. Ever. Ever’ and in response to this cry Halsey’s sharp retort comes without hesitation:

         Just try telling her that anyone from
         an uncertain point of view’s Anonym.

The truth of this is of course incontrovertible but to register the compassionate voice that merges with the humour of Halsey’s ‘Remarks’ one could hardly do better than turn to the collaboration of one poet with the work of another as a Shearsman chapbook, Into the Interior, also appeared this year. As the blurb on the back put it Alan Halsey’s series of diagrams and quatrains here is suggestive of a journey ‘through the rebus-like territory of thought itself’ and Kelvin Corcoran ‘doubles the quatrains in answering him back, as if such a dialogue might be how to talk to a friend exploring the enigmatic signs of the journey remembered from long ago and made present again.’ In terms of funnel plots used as a form of surveillance activity commonly used in healthcare for comparing the outcomes of organisations and providers which may depend, amongst other things, upon geographical status then the concluding quatrain of Halsey’s glance into the interior is both central and moving:

                  Let’s go home
         Where’s home asks the other
                  If you know which way
                  you’re out on your own.

Corcoran’s reply is almost like a reading of the Remarks of Uncertain Consequence itself:

         I remember home but not going to it,
         a river runs below a hill, fields, other pastoral features;
         there the weather touched my face
         and she lay back in the grass.

         Go on then, take me home, wherever that is.
         Somewhere here in this picture implied,
         somewhere between these thinking dots,
         the conspiring trees and house of stars.

 

 



[Ian Brinton’s most recent publications include Language and Death, a translation of poems by Philippe Jaccottet (Equipage, 2022), Paul Valéry’s Selected Poems (Muscaliet Press, 2021, prefaced by Michael Heller), Paris Scenes, a translation of Baudelaire’s ‘Tableaux Parisiens’, (Two Rivers Press, 2021) and Islands of Voices, the selected poems of Douglas Oliver (Shearsman Books, 2020). His translation of de Nerval’s Les Chimères will appear from Muscaliet Press in 2023. He reviews for The London Magazine, PN Review, Litter, Long Poem Magazine and Golden Handcuffs Review; he co-edits SNOW and helps curate the Cambridge University Library Archive of Modern Poetry.]

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