David Harsent, Fire Songs – review

Fire Songs by David Harsent, Faber and Faber, 80 pp., £12.99 (hardback), £9.99 (ebook).

For all its darkness, Fire Songs is a fluent, stylish, brilliantly exhilarating read. Line by line, stanza by stanza, section by section, the evocativeness of the writing and the beauty of its sounds and cadences are simply astonishing, whether for the sharpness and surprise of its visual impact, the abruptness with which it plunges us into crowded, sensuously alive, rapidly developing scenarios, or the rapid flickers and huge elusive shadows of suggestion that the images and the movement of the lines seem to cast. Harsent can seem like a magician who barely needs to move his wand to have you both hallucinating a scene outside you and inwardly vibrating to the changing frequencies of rhythm, suggested emotion and tone, like a myth-maker and visionary who taps equally, often at the same time, into the recesses of the individual psyche and the big global fears of military apocalypse and environmental collapse.

Several individual poems have “Song” in their title, and the sequence of “Songs from the Same Earth” was indeed written for sung performance. Simply reading the book, though, the most striking affinities are often with fiction and film. Harsent is the master of the poetic moment as brief multi-sensory video-clip, pregnant with suggestions of befores and afters we can only guess at, inhabited by characters we don’t know but who make strong, immediate impressions, and saturated with atmosphere, often of threat and foreboding. The way these moments are stripped of narrative context gives them their tantalising power, but can be a challenge to the reader. I need to live longer with the twelve page poem “A Dream Book” to have a clear sense of how it all holds together. So far, reading it has been like watching yards and yards of beautifully atmospheric and suggestive footage shot by brilliant cinematographers and cameramen, extremely impressive in detail but frustrating at the same time because I haven’t sufficiently grasped the story or directorial idea that would make it cohere. A section will show its power:

A path with seven gates and then a path through 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.

In the end, this is very much a collection to be taken as a whole, with its densely interwoven themes and motifs, a collection in which however beautiful and vibrant the individual piece or detail is in itself, it’s always tantalising us with a sense of how it clamours to be seen in a wider context, and of how that context will change what we make of it.

That said, as well as “A Dream Book”, individual poems I’d specially like to  mention are “Bowland Beth”, about a shot hen harrier; the marvellously exuberant four page prose poem “Sang the Rat”, which encapsulates many of the volume’s themes of amoral predation, atrocity, physical repugnance and nightmarish dread, epitomises Harsent’s ability to change tone on a pinpoint, and ends up making the rat himself our unlikely hope and hero; “Trickster Christ” for the stunning chutzpah of its biblical revisionism; and “Icefield” both for its paradoxical conjuring of a polar “beauty in absences” and for the delicacy with which it modulates from apocalyptic drama to elegy, ending on a note that touches on a fundamental calmness, a fundamental resignation or acceptance that seems to me to coexist with all the emotional shifts and agitations of the volume.

I would like to thank the editors of Acumen for their permission to repost this piece here.


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