Wednesday, 9 March 2011

The Antidote: Review of 'A Cure for Woodness' - Michael Haslam

This is the last volume of a trilogy by Mike Haslam - which started with The Muse Laid her Songs in Language, continued with A Sinner Saved by Grace and now ends here, with this book full of beautiful, funny, humane, intoxicated post-modern pastoral verse.

In a decent world, its publication would be a seen as an important literary event. However, the literary world seems to have shrugged its shoulders, smiled politely and passed on by, which is a shame.

It's difficult to describe Haslam's work except in a set of paradoxes or antitheses. It is both traditional and experimental, elegiac and funny, narrative and abstract, social and mythological, political and pastoral, silly and passionate. The subject matter of his poems is never entirely stable, surfaces are exposed, words take on a life of their own, even the poems sub text is sometimes made explicit and then done away with. This is language poetry which is being pulled towards narrative and then away again, elegy which is drawn into light verse and vice versa.

In an earlier volume, he identified Michael Drayton as a model for his work; Woodness is much nearer to the spirit of Robert Herrick. It's obvious theme is getting older and remembering the joys of sex, but the verse is drenched with sounds and images of nature which suggest an on-going passionate reaction to the physicality of the world around him and its capacity to be rendered in language, which he sees itself as a natural object.

In a revealing introduction - a sort of Biographia Literaria - Haslam traces his own literary and intellectual development, and explains how over time he has rejected 'French' post-modern thinking, with its emphasis on experience as a form of text, and now believes that everything we do and dream is rooted in nature. However, far from this being some sort of reductionist socio-biological explanation of how we live, he has an expansive definition of what is natural. Thus, even forms of ideology, like Bush-era 'neo-con' belief, is natural, he explains. So nature is not an imprisoning set of rules, but an ever-expanding set of possibilities, some of which are marvellous, some, comic, or perhaps tragically ridiculous like right-wing thinking in the United States. Alas, he tries to prove this by saying that language - far from being some sort of post-structuralist construct - is a reflection of nature by reference to onomatopaiea. This is hardly persuasive.

Nevertheless, his commitment to the physicality of language means it's actually fun to read his verse aloud. And his range of experience and reference, and fertile imagination make this volume endlessly rewarding.

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