Thursday, 8 September 2011

Review: The Brittle Sea, by Paul Henry

The best book I’ve read this month? This year? Just what do I mean by best? I don’t know. All I can say is that Paul Henry’s The Brittle Sea, New and Selected Poems (Seren 2010) has enthralled me.

On getting hold of a collection, I immediately glance at the back cover, ready to grimace at the blurb. In this case, however, it grabbed me with a quote and wouldn’t let go:

“Shall we stay or leave then, love?
It’s only the years moving inside us
and everything hurts in autumn.
Where shall we put them,
the years, in our new house?
the years we are moving out of?

I flicked straight to the poem, titled Sold. It’s tremendous. I was trying to write a poem on a similar theme at the time. I don’t think I’ll bother.

As I greedily continued reading, I noticed how Henry seems to combine Brian Patten’s exuberance with Hugo Williams' restraint in a delicate balancing act that’s all his own. The everyday is stirred into the lyrical with a transforming imaginative touch. What’s more, Henry’s thematic reach is wide, fatherhood featuring prominently. He’s particularly strong on the changes that take place in a paternal role as a child grows. Daylight Robbery, in which a father accompanies his seven-year-old son to a barber shop and sees an older boy emerge, ends as follows:

“Turning a corner
his hand slips from mine
like a final, forgotten strand
snipped from its lock.”

The above quote also shows three other qualities in Henry’s work: firstly, he’s excellent at gorgeous endings that close and then open out beyond. Secondly, there’s delicious aural patterning, intoxicating yet never cloying. Thirdly, compression leads to expansion, as every word is made to work like stink for its keep.

Paul Henry writes the type of poetry that made me fall in love with the genre and keeps me captivated. These poems make an immediate impact that resonates in the mind long afterwards. I could carry on quoting from them all day, as they’re littered with spectacular turns of phrase which never seem showy. However, that would keep you from the book itself. Why not get hold of a copy as soon as you can? You won’t be disappointed - I’ll be going back to The Brittle Sea for years to come.

1 comment:

  1. I thought the same when I reviewed it, Matthew. He's astoundingly underrated, probably because he's too reticent for his own good. You might be interested to read the interview I did with him on my blog at - he says a lot about his methods of composition and the background to some of the Brittle Sea poems.