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March 25, 2010
Joy in making, seeing and connecting; simplicity without simplification: complexity without complication: that’s a single-breath summary of Martin Harrison’s hugely impressive poetic technique, a technique I feel caught out by in all the nicest ways. His work was entirely new to me yet I felt immediately at home in these fresh, vivid poems. I’m sure most British readers will feel the same especially if they are familiar with the techiques of Robert Frost, Les Murray, Elizabeth Bishop, Raymond Carver and Allen Curnow. Yes, those influences are there but Martin Harrison is very much his own maker: he’s simply assimilated the best of these poets as he travelled through their diction.
Harrison has travelled the world; his early years were in England. There’s a fine and painful poem about his father, a travelling wine salesman and amateur poet in Northern England who in the evenings ‘jotted screeds of ‘nature poetry’’:
He called it doing the accounts.
Sincerely, he hoped I’d do more, with more success:
but “study money, not poetry” was his long-lived, bleak
advice. In his 80s now, his steady observation:
“I’ve given up making sense of things. Work only
for yourself.” A palimpsest is what’s scraped away:
a scarping which reveals a trace, a ‘beneath’ that’s covered
over with new scrawl. Are memories like that trace?
‘Letter from America’
Harrison spent some time in New Zealand before settling in Australia. He’s an exported - now imported - writer of unusual range and observational skill, and that sense of being outside things helps him write some of the most brilliant metaphyical nature poems of our time, for example in ‘The Platypus’:
…it can shift from one medium
to another—from scrabble to dig to swim.
Fur, blood and bones, it lives out a warm theorem:
how cells communicate with mode and shape.
It’s pure exuberance of style. No post-modern,
it benefits from natural history. No victim,
it even shows how to adjust thoughts to
that maya, that dream, where illusion’s both true
In poems like ‘The Platypus’, ‘The Coolamon’, ‘Stopping for a Walk in Reserved Land Near Murra Murra’, ‘Late Western Thought’ and the two ‘Letters from America’, Martin Harrison takes a natural setting or creature and explores it scrupulously, writing it sideways - or should I say Harrison allows the pressures of the developing poem to write him sidelong: images blinking in at themselves, birdlike in their movement through his mind’s eye and the mind of the reader.
Sometimes the process risks sentimentality, but that’s one of the recognised hazards when writing such technically brilliant and emotionally alive poems, and Harrison gets it right each time. I recommend Wild Bees with extreme prejudice; this book altered my mood, my whole day and made me write a new poem.
Many thanks to Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review, in which this piece first appeared.
Wild Bees: New and Selected Poems, Martin Harrison, Shearsman Books, pb., 168 pp., £7.95, ISBN 978-1-84861-008-8