Review – Imtiaz Dharker, Luck Is the Hook

128 pp, £12.00, Bloodaxe Books Ltd, Eastburn, South Park, Hexham, Northumberland NE46 1BS

In Dharker’s last collection, Over the Moon, nearly all the poems were very specifically rooted in time and place. That concrete grounding gave them a great deal of their power. Luck Is the Hook works in a different way, making it both a departure from and a complement to the previous volume.

It’s essentially lyrical, concentrating on exploring emotions in themselves rather than their causes. One result is a smoother, more musical style. Another is the flowering of a mythical or fabulous mode. Over the Moon was dominated by poems about the poet’s husband and his death. Indirectly continuing this theme, some in this book adapt the stories of Persephone or Eurydice, and stories about ghosts or water spirits falling in love with mortals. As a group they express impossible yearnings to cross the gulf between living and dead. Dharker gives them emotional power by the convincing way she imbues insubstantial or inanimate things with feeling and desire. In “Flight”, for example, the speaker looks down a well “to where the stones are green / with longing, and the water / wants us in”. So although not grounded in particular and apparently true circumstances, these poems are concrete and vivid in their own way.

Dharker’s lack of timidity about sex contributes to her fineness as a love poet. Against the poems of longing and loss there’s the lovely stillness of secure possession in “To have all this”, a poem that captures the perfect physical and mental harmony between two people:

The certainty of waking in your eyes,
you in mine; the quiet drifting
in and out of each other’s sleep, this calm;

these mornings – count them –
when snowfall hushes the outside
and the bed is our only country

Such eternity in a moment is precious precisely because wider experience tells us it can’t last.

The knowledge that all things pass is woven throughout the book. Dharker can sound bleak, as in the beginning of “This Tide of Humber”. However, the very phrase “to have all this” suggests gratitude and celebration. Moments of strangeness, beauty and joy are repeatedly held up for our embrace. What we seem to be asked to feel is not sorrow at their inevitable passing but gladness that they’ve been. There’s a charming instance in “The Elephant is walking on the River Thames”, one of several referring to the last great frost fair on the river in 1814. Dharker describes the crowning wonder of an elephant’s crossing the ice and how stunned everyone is as “the creature sails by, more / graceful than any stilt-walker or skater”. The moment passes, like the days of the fair, but later those who saw it will recall it “like something suspended in time.”

Dharker is a visual artist as well as a poet, and her haunting black and white drawings are another pleasure of the book.

I would like to thank Peter and Ann Sansom for permission to post this review, which was originally published in The North 60.




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