Full Disclosure: The debacle that permitted one of Harsent’s work colleagues and a former student to be two-thirds of the judging panel for the country’s biggest poetry prize has been well covered. My feelings on transparency remain unchanged. Content warning: the book depicts often sexualised violence against women, which is discussed throughout this review.
Fire Songs kicks off with a poem about Anne Askew, a historical figure best known for being the only recorded woman to be tortured and burned at the stake at the Tower of London. She was also the first woman to ask for a divorce, left her arranged marriage to preach the gospel in London, where she was arrested twice and returned to her husband’s custody, and was finally interrogated and tortured and died at the age of 25. Harsent’s poem is interested only in her torture and execution. Curiously, the poem is titled ‘Mistress Anne Askew’, drawing attention to the fact that she dropped her married name during her time away from her husband. A close read of the book as a whole makes the prurient tone of the poem’s interest in her abused body seem deliberate:
‘Some stood close enough […]
to hear the shrivel-hiss
of burning hair, to see her sag and slump, to witness
the pucker and slide of her skin, the blister-rash on her eyeballs.’
On first read I tried giving the poem the benefit of the doubt, that it might be simply drawing attention to a historical injustice and abuse of power. However, the lines
‘Anne, you are nothing to me. Only that you knew best
how to unfasten your gown while they waited at the rack.’
do little to support that theory. The poem gains momentum in its final passage, the third time it describes the burning body in clinical detail:
‘My dream of her puts me in close-by: her poor bare
feet, her shift just catching a flame that chases the line of the hem…
[…] as she browns from heel
to head, as she cracks and splits, as she renders to spoil’
The passage is uncomfortably voyeuristic, and the narrator’s positioning himself in extreme close-up leaves little doubt as to the sexualised nature of the viewing, or the condescension and infantilisation in calling a torture victim’s bare feet ‘poor’.
This is by no means the only time Harsent depicts abused or violated women’s bodies; along with the book’s medieval-apocalypticism, it seems to be one of the book’s major themes. The word ‘blood’ and its variants appear a full twenty times, with nine ‘bones’ and five ‘ghosts’. But of those twenty ‘bloods’, four refer specifically to menstrual blood (including the highly quotable ‘the smell of menses, deep and ripe’), several references to unnatural breastfeeding (once of a rat from a human corpse), five instances of either ‘bitch’, ‘slut’ or ‘whore’, and in the poem ‘Sang the Rat’:
‘[the rat] came as familiar to Philippa Flower tested as a witch entered her vagina stayed there hidden while she was hanged’
The book has no qualms about depicting sexualised violence, pushing the idea of female bodies as disgusting and female desire as inherently untrustworthy. Again, if the intention here is to raise the issue of sexual violence and misogyny, the book only does so by reproducing those abuses without critical engagement, and certainly without a sympathetic or sensitive eye. Fire Songs’ apocalypse, however, is one that leaves adult male bodies curiously intact.
It also has a bizarre obsession with witches. On its various imaginative trips to the sixteenth century there are references to the Malleus Maleficarum, a witch-hunting primer, and to Leechdoms and Starcraft, a tract of supposedly historical witch wisdom. In ‘A Dream Book’ the male character says ‘Now thee aroint!’ to the female character, ‘the pale executrix’. A quick search reveals these to be the words of Macbeth to (guess who) the three witches, and indeed later in the poem ‘She comes in as Columbina, comes in as Lady M’. Columbina is a stock character in commedia dell’arte, the mistress of Harlequin; Lady Macbeth is, of course, the worst woman in English literature. In the same poem, here’s the poet’s bid to become the first laureate of meninism:
‘Man of Secrets; Woman of Guile.
His artless mime; her winning smile.
They meet this side of an open door.
His touch is light; her touch is sure.
The door shuts on the rank-and-file.
He plays the fool; she plays the whore.’
This poem is the longest in the collection, and forms a kind of centrepiece. Its title and form (three sections of six lines each) refer to Berryman’s Dream Songs, but the tone is of that authoritative prophetic-portentous everything’s-dead melodrama that seems quite en vogue, with little of the wit and nervous impetuousness of Berryman’s work. A sample:
‘A path with seven gates and then a path through deep corn
under rolling clouds. They went knee-deep. The torn
bodies of hare and hen, of rat and crow;
the dog at full stretch; white eyes of the skinned doe,
her dugs wept milk; and the buzzard, then, its slow
drift onto roadkill. Storm-light on the fields at dawn.’
The plot is submerged by this kind of high-symbology, but seems a story of infidelity and humiliation, resentment and miscommunication, related with an almost moving bitterness. Somewhere in the poem is regret or even remorse: ‘Love is a kind of greed: // they know that and live by it, faux bridegroom and faux bride’, but these moments are overwhelmed by poetic name-calling, and the sheer hatefulness elsewhere in the book.
‘Trickster Christ’ is a decent example in that regard, a poem that expands on the Docetic belief that Christ’s physical body was an illusion. The poet pursues the idea that many of Christ’s miracles were double edged, that for people cured of blindness ‘The sudden blaze of daylight all but blinded them’, that the man ‘who cut himself with flint for love of pain’ in being cured ‘felt the fight / go out of him […] as if he should be speechless and shamed and meek and well’. This is not a particularly nuanced view of mental illness. Equally so is the closing stanza, where ‘Mary of the seven devils’ is cured, naturally, by bleeding out the evil, after which:
‘she walked at his side, no longer the slut
though his hand on the dip of her back was surely the start
of whatever would come to her that night as she slept.’
I don’t even know where to start here, though it may be of trivial interest that this image also appears in ‘A Dream Book’: ‘she feels his hand on her hair, on her rump, on the small of her back’. If nothing else, this is a pretty grim and under-examined scene of unequal sexual politics, and the hint of abuse in ‘Trickster Christ’, while par for Fire Songs’ course, is deeply irresponsible. See also ‘Tinnitus: May, low skies and thunder’, in which ‘bands of bitches and claques / of crones with their pots and pans’ come to chase a woman, ‘love-child lapped in blood / and safe at her breast’ from her home. It may be worth noting that this woman with a newborn baby is perhaps the only female character presented sympathetically in the book, and I’m not optimistic about her survival prospects.
On the apocalypse side of things, ‘Fire: end-scenes and outtakes’ enacts some thoroughly questionable appropriation of historical detail in its fragmented scenes of human suffering. Here, Kristallnacht is invoked:
‘The round-up lasted all night. They could take:
Clothing, one parcel. Food, a half-ration […]
Glass breaking everywhere.’
However, this is not a poem specifically about the Holocaust. It quickly moves back to the book’s doom-saying prophetic register, a list of general evils that prove the narrator’s argument:
‘When troops deploy at the crossroads, when they line the abyss,
when the glorious dead desert the necropolis, […]
when rape is a sweetener’
There is no doubt that these things have happened and continue to happen in the world we live in. However, Harsent’s handling of these instances raises difficult questions about authorial responsibility when dealing with war crime, in particular his running them together without respect for the individuality of the victims. Much like his treatment of Anne Askew, the subject matter has not been treated with due respect, and the question of the author’s right to use these images to promote a message little more complex than ‘bad people do bad things’ does not seem to have been duly considered. A worthwhile alternative is Kevin Powers’ Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, also Eliot-nominated, which deals directly with the ethics of aestheticizing war, or even fellow nominee Michael Longley’s poems on the Holocaust, which remain some of the finest non-combatant war poetry in the language.
Behind its doomsday utterings and engagement with apocrypha, Harsent is a traditional Romantic. His narrator is repeatedly alone with his emotions in a rural/natural setting, as in ‘Icefields: ‘A place of ice over ice, of white over white / and beauty in absences’; ‘Pain’: ‘Pain in birdsong, pain in rough weather, pain in the sound of the sea’; ‘Songs from the Same Earth’: ‘Silence of slow water, silence of the rose / that burdened the summer, silence of the still unopened book’. Fire Songs is dedicated to a poetic tradition, is obviously well-researched, well-composed and devoted to its poetic forebears (particularly the Ted Hughes of Crow, of whom Harsent’s Rat is a direct descendent), and there is no doubt that Harsent has been refining his craft for years. But the thing I love most about poetic tradition is when it is creatively undermined, when the power of generations-old rhetoric is turned on its head and challenges the assumptions of the great and glorified; Fire Songs is content to repeat the lessons of its peers and forefathers. Much has been made of the lack of transparency in the Eliot judges’ decision, but the quality of the work they chose is just as disappointing, and should not be overlooked.
Tl;dr: Will it or not, the TS Eliot is the most prestigious prize in poetry, and as the art’s most visible advocate needs to be held to a high standard. This just isn’t good enough.