Robert Harris’ first book, Localities, was an unremarkable piece of work. The style was uneven, but promising, as is the case with many first books of poetry. It is usually a poet’s second book that shows, however uncertainly, in which direction the writer is travelling.
This is the case with Translations from the Albatross. It is a confused book in many ways, yet there are things in it that seem to have a sense of direction.
Superficially it is a bit of a mess. The title is given on the front as Translations from the Albatross; on the jacket blurb as The Translations (of Albatross); the blurb goes on to say that ‘their focus is a principle which allows that anything is possible.’ Some focus.
There are several misspellings and apparent misprints in the text, no title page (which makes the page numbers irrelevant), and no hint or clue anywhere in the book as to what the translations are translated from, or what point the ‘albatross’ might have. Scattered through the text are copies of a messy sketch (used also on the front cover) of what appears to be a seagull defecating on a blot of blue ink — a clue, perhaps, to the title.
Another superficial point, though one that has to do with Robert Harris’s abilities as a poet, is his slavery to syntactical cliches of a type common in apprentice writers. In his case it is the construction exemplified by the following: ‘holed walls of cathedrals’, ‘limpid texture of voice’, ‘slim realm of yield’, ‘grandiose volumes of sunlight’, ‘white chunks of wood’, ‘manifold generosity of a line’, ‘sheer pips of sunlight’... and so on through the book. It is at this level of basic technique, the sort of thing a creative writing course would fix, that Harris falls down.
In a young writer of limited aims this wouldn’t matter so much. One expects skill and ambition to grow together at a steady pace with any new writer who is not a born genius, and in the first parts of the book Harris has restricted his ambition to match his abilities.
The poems about trains, factories, trams and city figures and landscapes work well: ‘Doors open and close / Along close, quiet streets / Like a trick with a deck of cards.’ A modest conceit that works effectively in a simple verbal framework, as does ‘the twilight / voices of children dawdling home.’ Most of the poems in the first half of the book are successful in this way.
Many of these poems are marred, though, by awkward intrusions of another tone of voice, that of the borrowed muse, the prophet, the great poet speaking. At the end of Firefly, a well-handled meditation on trains and other things, we have the phrase ‘The fire and limpid / texture of voice,’ which seems to me to be out of place.
In another poem about renovating an old house, Harris switches from the domestic to ‘the declamatory: ‘We sing. / Clumsy nails will pierce the forest’s daughter / the sap
will tremble and not know why.’
And in a poem about a thing as simple as tobacco, with such effective lines as ‘And it will be fine to sit at noon / On a broken drum in the loading bay / smoking and nodding the universe by...’ the descriptions of tobacco smoke is puffed into ‘becoming... a flock of wings / Beating above an imagined bay / Gull’s wings, a gull’s beak / Opened to large blue areas in a cry.’
What is beginning to show here is the ambition to inflate ordinary events into great poetry, and the technique for this is the liberal application of ‘poetic’ rhetoric. It reaches full flood in the second half of the book, when the romantic rhetoric takes over from the poetry: ‘The silence is a kestrel,’ ‘The sky rebounds rage, careless noise / Shelley... is right out,’ ‘bully a little, be mystical,’ ‘fires / sweep into their hearts,’ ‘arise, like a kite / Trout leap out of the river, command the night’, ‘We speak now of the dignity of hulls’, ‘the ocean heaves with blood’, ‘we call our silver wake / phosphorus’, and so on.
In other words; the complete Robert Adamson color-in-the-numbers romantic poetry kit. It is a pity that this particular brand of pretentiousness has been allowed to spoil Harris’s work, for the last poem in the book, ‘Homage to Edith Piaf’, has the skeleton of a very good poem in it somewhere. I doubt that Harris is quite up to the task of probing into the mystery of a great artist’s life and death, but he makes a valiant attempt to come to grips with the facts of Piaf’s life, and many of the images that grow out of the poem are arresting.
But the piling up of what, are, to the reader, meaningless, names, places and addresses distracts annoyingly from what the poem is trying to say.
The fault behind all this is a refusal to think through his statements clearly. Where he says ‘and closing your eyes / in the vestibule / between sleep / and paris / whose teeth are doors,’ he has made an effective point. But then, a few lines later, he repeats the image of sleep in a lamentable example of the kind of labored periphrasis that one would have thought died with the 19th century: ‘Oh, far now / in morpheus’ kingdom.’ Which means that someone is fast asleep, and nothing more.
Robert Harris has demonstrated in various places in this book that he can write poetry well. The remedy for his present malaise is simple: throw out the pseudo-Romantic bilge that threatens to sink his vessel and try to say it like it is.