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Bluebell

Bluebell (Photo credit: TimWebb)

On passing through Warminster on our routine pilgrimage to my granny’s house, I hoped for red lights and a short queue. For there, floating improbably by a pavement in the centre of town, was a pocket battleship, a corvette, or some such. Topiary’s never really grabbed me but, for a boy whose head was full of Commando comics, gardening never looked so cool. The ship’s curves and turrets had been rendered in privet and bouncing from the smokestacks were a few untamed sprigs. No lifeless architectural topiary here then, but rather the drama of a ship’s telegraph ringing full steam ahead. One day, as our car slowed, the ship was fuzzy and out of focus, largely reclaimed by the unruly and irrepressible surge of nature. The next time I looked, it had gone. I shivered as we passed death’s shadow.

Ghost ship

Ghost ship (Photo credit: anguila40)

The Point of Inconvenience, A. F. Harrold’s collection of epistolic poems, is addressed to his late mother. In his first poem, If There Is A Beginning, Harrold searches for his first awareness of death which, like everything, must be experienced personally. My seventeen year old self shivered when reading Seamus Heaney’s The Early Purges, where the poet tells us that, ‘I was six when I first saw kittens drown’. However, the ignorance of city life does us no favours, and Harrold’s first flirtations with death were, like mine, largely experienced through pop culture’s lies: ‘It began with the death of Ben Kinobe – / though that turned out to be a cheat, a glowing ghostlife [...] It began with Frodo and Bilbo taking the ship into the West, / but more it began with Sam, left to watch them go, // left to turn around and go back home and just get on / with life’. Harrold’s short line is reserved for Sam’s life without Frodo, rather than for Frodo’s departure and the reader is invited to think again about death, as Sam finds himself the wrong side of the stanza break and far from his friends. Harrold unsettles us to great effect elsewhere in the collection and never lets go of his insight that death and dying are as much about the renegotiation of relationships as they are about physical processes. In Two Texts, the etymology of ‘patient’ is explored: ‘I open the dictionary when I get home, / to answer the question you’d earlier asked – // Why must the patient be so patient? / You’d rung your bell: an unanswered sound. // The word’s from French, go far enough Greek: / from pathos, to suffer.‘ Yet, a few poems later, in Hospice Song, the speaker asks, ‘You know there came a time I hated you? / When all my patient waiting seemed in vain?’

Hospital sign

Hospital sign (Photo credit: BowBelle51)

Harrold’s observational skills are acute and although Larkin’s presence is felt (Ambulances is explicitly referenced in All Streets In Time), Harrold’s view of institutionalised care is even-handed. For example, in To The Consultant, he asks ‘how long ago did you set out / hand-wringing down antiseptic corridors, / through doors that swung as easily shut / as open, through doors that only let / those called by name inside …’ So, for Harrold, hospitals are both the alpha and the omega, whereas in Larkin’s The Building, the scale of the institution turns it into a cemetery. ‘All know they are going to die. / Not yet, perhaps not here, but in the end, / And somewhere like this’. In Aubade, Larkin ends by observing that ‘The sky is white as clay, with no sun. / Work has to be done. / Postmen like doctors go from house to house’. Yet, in Doing The Sum, as he does the sum while ‘birds / peck seed from their feeder / and the postman whistles // somewhere nearby / on his slow way to me’, Harrold’s observational, journalistic style invites the reader to see postmen as postmen. However, this is impossible after Aubade, and engaging with this poem allows Harrold to have his cake and eat it: his poetry is bare yet, at the same time, symbolically rich.

Stratford Ferry

Stratford Ferry (Photo credit: johnmuk)

The Point of Inconvenience is divided into two parts: the first runs to 53 poems, while Part II, the single poem Get Over It, is only four pages long and with this structural device Harrold reminds us of his first poem, If There Is A Beginning. It’s the living who are left with an offensive pile of worthless euphemisms and an unpalatable, unswallowable truth. It’s the living who feel trapped on the wrong side of the river. The poem mounts a sustained assault on the bankrupt metaphorical language of the everyday and, as Harrold finally abandons the poem’s couplet stanzas and rhetorical backbone, he rejects language’s capacity to articulate grief.

The Point of Inconvenience sees Harrold writing at full throttle. Some of these poems, read within the working day, stopped me dead in my tracks and have haunted me since.  He flinches at very little, confessing to feelings of selfishness and disgust which few would have the courage to air when faced with the cultural taboos surrounding death. Yet, at the same time, there’s humour here too – and a certain mundane, domestic honesty which makes AF Harrold utterly memorable. And finally, thinking about that private battleship steaming along the highway, it seems fitting to close with AF Harrold’s Summer Neglect:

Summer Neglect

Things go on growing in your garden,
but order decays. Borders grow old
and ragged, grow green. Thorny arms
reach out for ledges, for hands to hold.

Colour fades as leafy things spring up.
The human patterns grow rare. Thinking
gives way to nature. The pond evaporates,
a damp ring-mark on stones, daily sinking.

Reproduced with kind permission

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