Review - Alan Halsey's Selected Poems

Steve Waling

“Selected Poems” by Alan Halsey, pub. Shearsman. 260pp. £12.95

There are two ways of reading a poem, both of which can run concurrently alongside each other. Poems have meanings and subjects, themes and are able to be interpreted, often in more than one way. The other way of reading is to pay attention to the words: to the sound and appearance of them, to the syntax and sentence construction, the mix of verbs, nouns, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs etc., alongside the puns and anagrams and tongue-twisters that language can throw at the reader.

One of the features of Halsey’s poems is the attention to language as a performance in itself. Take this passage:

          Finding chocolate by echolocation
          a pipistrelle would call mere trompe-l’orielle.
          ‘I always knew Roman spelt trouble’
          remarks Ahab in rehab while proving
          that his prophecies for 1999 were really
          only grasping the wrong end of the compositor’s stick.

          (from "Rushes and Stills for ‘Gutenberg, the Movie’")

Which came first in the poet’s mind, the meaning of the first line, or the aural connection between ‘chocolate’ and ‘echolocation’? or the rhyme of ‘pipistrelle’ and ‘trompe-l’lorielle’? These kinds of connections happen all through this collection.

This performativity at times seems so all-pervasive that meaning seems to get lost under the word-salad; but it’s such a virtuoso performance that it carries the reader through to thinking more about the meaning. And that meaning, as often as not, is political, questioning as much the linguistic status quo as the economic. So the verve of:

          Dark arts desecrated Descartes!
          Socrates secretes dead certs!
          Fortress vortices cavort!
          Thoughtless votaries default!
          (Don’t tell latterday economists.
          They’re all working men. When they’re
          not frontloading they’re backfilling.)

has a sting in the tail. That’s from a sequence called Austerity Stuffing, and a concern with the limitations of language and culture as well as with the economic puritanism of austerity politics lie behind the incessant punning, verbal flights and strange diversions of these poems.

There is a lot of erudition in these poems: references to obscure writers, histories, mythical creatures and inventions, words only found in obscure dictionaries. He revels in strangeness and in looking under the dusty carpet of language for interesting fragments.

I’m reminded at times of Charles Bernstein’s version of Language Poetry, with its asides, its misprisions and jokes. I’ll confess I sometimes get lost in the poems and don’t always understand the poems; but he can also speak remarkably clearly, as in Soon after the Tories Returned to Power:

          the astronauts landed on a planet
          where they found the Old Testament prophets.
          All of them. Not the ghosts of –
          they were there in the flesh
          deaf & blind but still at their foretelling…

It’s an enjoyable collection, that fulfils that most Stevensian of strictures: it gives pleasure. It is also at times very abstract and challenging, puzzling and suddenly clarifying. Alan Halsey is one of the more interesting linguistically innovative poets writing today, full of life and obscure little corners of knowledge and insight. Well worth taking the time to acquire and love.

 

 

Copyright © Steven Waling, 2022