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A Bird’s Idea of Flight
David Harsent

A Bird’s Idea of Flight
David Harsent
Faber & Faber
London 1998

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‘Challenging’ would be an understatement; this is downright difficult. A Bird’s Idea of Flight is a complex and bewildering sequence of 25 poems, an investigation into death and dying which takes the form of a journey – thirteen poems out, followed by ‘The Turning Point’, then thirteen poems back again to the point of departure. The speaker goes in search of his own death, in pursuit of death as an abstract and as a concrete, travelling by land and sea. In his search for a revelation of death, the speaker has a series of encounters with evasive, gnomic characters who appear both as manifestations of his own self, and also as figures of death itself – or herself, or himself. Characters such as archivist, curator, vintner, pub landlord, whore and hare (yes, hare). The sequence is impelled by sensations of flight and pursuit, and of capture and evasion. It has throughout the intrigued and intruguing air of a thwarted or partially thwarted detective story, at times strongly reminiscent of the early narratives of Paul Muldoon, such as ‘Immram’, in which the object of quest is similarly shadowy and semirealised. Verbally, phonetically (‘clak / clok-clak‘) and syntactically, Harsent’s learned weirdness is often very close to the more familiar rhythms and idiosyncrasies of Muldoon.

The Romantic figure of doubling exerts a strong hold on the poet’s imagination in Idea of Flight. Characters are said to be confused and conflated with their doubles, which are in turn doubles of the poet’s own writing persona, itself a double of the poet. Poem VIII is actually entitled ‘The Double’; this is one of the whore poems, in which the speaker recounts a seedy / sacramental encounter with a seasoned and weary prostitute. Who is the double? whose double in that case is she or he? The whore is the traveller’s double? The doubling motif has a way of doubling and proliferating itself into all departments of the text, hall of mirrorsstyle; as the prostitute thumbs through a sheaf of photographs prior to the business in hand, she marks out for herself other possible and impossible identities:

‘I guess I could be like her
if I fixed my hair; but not like her or her.
And Mother of Christ, I could never
if I lived my own life twice

once look like her.’ But suddenly
she did, for the empty eye, for the half
cocked head, as she spread and readied herself
with a dollop of spit
to her fingerips…

‘XVIII A Room with a View’ – exactly as many poems after the reflectional midpoint as ‘The Double’ was before it – resumes the theme, and has the whore becoming a figure of female multivalence. The multiple identity of the whore, who is for a short time whatever her client wishes her to be, is embraced by the traveller as a figure of the ultimate shapeshifter, (feminised) death:

… and when she enfolded me, herself
was who she became…

The counterpart female presence of the multifarious whore is the hare – a teasing, testing character who provokes the traveller to further self-defeating, self-fulfilling searches. The hare herself also becomes the object of morbid display, when she is flayed of her pelt; this image doubles and resonates with the dissector of Rembrandt’s anatomylesson painting (‘III The Slab’). The hare, especially in conjunction with the moon, carries with it a strong charge of Celtic paganism; Harsent also makes use on occasion of imagery drawn from the tarot.

‘XIII The Turning Point’, the pivotal poem, is one of the briefer pieces in the sequence, but no less brilliant for that. The central trope is cartography – cryptic treasure-maps, mythologicaly embellished maps, navigation, negotiation of passage. The map of terrain, either geographical or intellectual, gives way to a mapping of the human body as the traveller himself becomes a semiotic field, the context and object of search, his own and others’. The injunction is to turn back, to make a circular journey, to seek out his origin, to find that in his end is his beginning. The obscurantist combination of density and flippancy in the poetry begins to betray that the text also can be regarded as unreliable cartography – at once your guide and pathfinder, and your decoy, red herring, worst enemy:

and bottom right, about east
south east, a brass
bound chest, the lid thrown back
to show the toenail
yellow vellum scroll encoded
with the magic square, abraxas,
abracadabras, all manner
of jiggery pokery and waterworn

The whole book is fraught with accident and adventure. It’s funny too (see especially poem XVIII, in which the traveller scrapes himself off a pub floor after a killing bout of drinking, a particularly Muldoony moment). A Bird’s Idea of Flight is inventive to a fault, fertile, littered with bananaskins, seething with ideas, and brilliantly written. Quite unlike any new book of poetry I’ve read for years.

Reviewed by Michael Bradshaw


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