Michael Harlow – Nothing for It but to Sing

Nothing for It but to Sing by Michael Harlow.
Dunedin: OUP (2016).
RRP: $25.
Pb, 64pp.
ISBN: 9781927322628.

Reviewed by Erik Kennedy.


If, as Elizabeth Smither writes, Michael Harlow is one of the few poets who can ‘make, through their body of work, an entire world,’ it is certainly a diverse world. Harlow is one of those poets who refuses to work in one style only (like Claudia Rankine, or SJ Fowler, or Bill Manhire, for that matter); he won’t wear the same thing to the club that he’ll wear on the tennis court.

By ‘style’ I don’t mean formal presentation. The poems in Nothing for It but to Sing, his tenth book of verse and the winner of the 2015 Kathleen Grattan Award, largely look the same: they look like standard-issue English lyrics. But they operate chiefly in two different modes. They either suggest or they signify.

As an example of the first mode I quote from the title poem:

You say your life is a narrow time in a black box.
That you are blanked. That there is only the one painting
before painting yourself out of the picture—heart’s arrow
to the target, falling before it leaves the bow.  (p 11)

And it goes on like this, yearningly, for two more regularish stanzas, except the last stanza has an extra line. To use the Longfellow metaphor about the arrow, I think that the heart’s arrow fell to earth I know not where. At the risk of invoking a cliché about Harlow, these poems seem to trawl the depths of the collective unconscious that he is doubtless familiar with through his work as a Jungian therapist. There are both strong (“Eating the silence”, “The discovery of morning”) and weak (“Let’s do it”, “Not love’s fault nor time’s”) poems like this, so it’s not the case that Harlow has made a terrible mistake, nor is it the case that he has hit on a successful formula in writing this way. I don’t find that these poems generally agree with me, but my tastes run to the specific.

On the other hand, as an example of the second mode, there is the obviously accessible poem called “Short Talk on Hats”, which begins:

If hats can talk and tell as well as show, this story
our family’s treasured one by father favoured, returns
in all its winning ways. Oh, mon chapeau, his small shout
of celebration. Streetwise, in all weathers of the year,
his old fedora for the common touch; and touch there
was much of snappily to the brim. Such lifting and doffing. (p 16)

The Jungian therapist is nowhere to be found here. This is more like a writing instructor teaching his charges, by example, that you communicate by presenting concrete imagery. The odd syntax (‘this story / our family’s treasured one by father favoured’, ‘and touch there / was much of snappily to the brim’) lifts the poem slightly but definitely out of the everyday. It is a nostalgic poem that avoids sentimentalism: ‘A good man / he was, there’s no bluff or vaunt in speaking so’ (p 16). Like a clever ship’s cook, Harlow here does quite a lot with very little.

In “Cage-masters, their want”, Harlow applies this attention to detail to a wholly imaginary scene. There is what appears to be a farm of cages, which are ‘waiting. / For centuries they have been waiting. / Even before they have been hammered / and welded together, waiting to be stroked.’ For some reason there are ‘cage-masters’ who ‘embrace their want to cage a song’. These cage-masters conduct themselves precisely and logically, and they build the cages exactly ‘the size / of a bird – the one in search of a cage’ (p 34), and this is how they will cage a song. In this little parable, Harlow depicts dark but understandable urges with a clarity that is to be respected.

It may be wrong to say that Nothing for It but to Sing is an uneven book. Perhaps it’s better to say that it’s an ambitious and uncompromising hybrid of varied efforts. And who’s going to complain about that?

Erik KennedyErik Kennedy lives in Christchurch. In this hemisphere his poems have appeared in (or are forthcoming in) Atlas, Catalyst, Landfall, Mimicry, Snorkel, and Sport. He is the poetry editor of Queen Mob’s Teahouse and is Honorary Treasurer for takahē.

First published takahe 88
December 2016