This is a long watch of a poem, a tormented vigil. You want to ask, “Who’s there?” – a question you might, like the guard in Hamlet’s opening scene, call out in the dark. If loss is the subject, who is the loser? And what – or who – has been lost? These questions are not easily answered.
This is the latest volume in an extraordinarily rich period for David Harsent. In 2011, in Night, he made darkness visible. Fire Songs (2014) and Salt (2017) flared into apocalyptic view soon after. The subtitle of Loss is “white nights”, but do not expect any atoning dawns. The form of the new volume is painstaking: stretches of italics describe a figure looking through a window, writing on misty glass. He is a “man in waiting”. Sonnets alternate with trochaics and lead back to the frightening consciousness from which this fragmented narrative poem comes.
It is the permeability of Harsent’s writing that astonishes: global catastrophe, violent incident, mechanical threat – all absorbed into the text. Yet the paradox is that he seems to be on the wrong side of the membrane of what matters to him. “Women of the house – he lay in the dark and listened to their voices… Their talk was a constant, soft, overlapping,/under and over music, soft questions, soft laughter, diminuendo.” It is their music – not his. Repeatedly, women’s hands appear, but their soft caresses do not soothe. Lovers are seen through a glass, darkly. Femininity and domesticity continue like a play on an unreachable stage, as though taking place in another world.
There are several references to “hidden theatre”, as if the stage should be sought (loss can, after all, be about what you never found). The poem is full of sinister commedia dell’arte figures, and we even have a brush with a “dramaturge of mood-swings”. The wakeful man describes himself as a pilgrim – a sinner. But this is no pilgrim’s progress, more a pilgrim’s stasis – written at a febrile standstill. And there is a violence about the way Harsent makes apocalypse telegraphic:
the worst already with us
dogfight politics barrel-bombs
children scorched faceless
deluge and wildfire.
At one point, the man says: “you feel you might/have outlived yourself”. Harsent’s poem pulls off a strange feat, exploring the posthumous while staying painfully alive. It becomes an experiment with absence – an exploration of what happens when you go missing to yourself.
He asks how it would be to be without what makes life worth living. Cityscapes and dreamscapes might release him but the city proves feral – clashing bin lids, bold foxes, toxic streetlights. And his dreams taunt him, too. Art offers perspective, but he tests its limits, and poetry’s too (there is a tension about the unspoken and its relationship to the unspeakable). He notes, “write it down”, a reminder of the small, plucky scale of artistic enterprise. The painters he returns to are Francis Bacon and Pierre Bonnard, as if to consider the distance and, less obviously, closeness between them.
He says “forgiveness is waste” and it is impossible to imagine less forgiving writing. It makes this volume a challenge to read. It is a compliment to its power that I longed to break free. The man in these poems is a figure in a landscape I fear might be ours. And while we might hanker after what Robert Lowell described as “the sanity of self-deception, pricked and kicked by reckless caution”, Harsent detects “a sudden rise/in willing blindness among the best of us”.
It is this blindness that Loss, with steadfast virtuosity, addresses.
• Loss by David Harsent is published by Faber (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15
An extract from Loss
There are forms gathered in the sky that he takes to be angels.
He believes in angels as he once believed in unassailable virtue.
There are voices that can’t be accounted for. There are faces
that come and go. There is a fool let loose in his house
which explains the breakage and wreckage, the faecal smell.
There are rooms in his house that he has never seen.
His heart went like a songbird’s fast and light, morning delayed
nonetheless. He got up and walked about, a man in waiting.
He sat down somewhere, a chill on the place. It seemed clear
there are rules that cannot be broken except by death
there are slums out of which comes greatness that goes to waste
there are things that fall to hand but can never be kept
there are chance meetings that discover a turbulence of love
there are maps that will take you to the edge of things.