Thursday, 19 March 2015

An endless struggle with the years, Paul Henry's Boy Running

Some poets seem to shed identities with every publication, but Paul Henry’s individual books lend themselves to being seen as a part of a whole. Each of them engages in a dialogue with its predecessors. In that respect, this review will focus on his new collection, Boy Running (Seren, 2015), while also contextualising his recent work in the light of what has come before. In fact, Henry implicitly asks his reader to do so. The notes at the back of Boy Running state that Usk, its opening poem, answers “Sold”, the last poem in Ingrid’s Husband  (Seren, 2007), his previous collection.

Let’s look at how the relationship between these two pieces unfolds, starting with “Sold”. Cards on the table: I’m in love with this poem and have carried it in my head since first reading it several years ago. I’ve long been interested in the dynamic of how a house becomes a home and vice versa, a process which Henry captures exquisitely as his family prepares to move. He ends with questions:

“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?”

“Usk” starts by providing unexpected answers to those questions with a brusque lyricism:

“So we’ve moved out of the years.
I am finally back upstream
and, but for their holiday dreams
on every bookcase, the boys
were never born, it was a dream.
Here is where my past begins…”

As a stand-alone piece, “Usk” is already moving. However, in the context of Henry’s earlier poetry, it’s an emotional earthquake. I’m not just referring to the afore-mentioned link with “Sold”, but with his entire body of work: I know of few poets who are as capable of treasuring and portraying fatherhood as well as Henry, such as in the outstanding poem “The Breath of Sleeping Boys” from Captive Audience (Seren, 1996), yet here we find him stating “the boys were never born”. Furthermore, the sudden shift from first person plural to singular is packed with ramifications that reach out through Boy Running.

The first section in the collection, “Studio Flat”, is explicit in these concerns. Of special interest is Henry’s changing use of the term “the years”. In previous books, it was charged with ambivalence. Now, it’s a torturous reminder of what has been lost, as in the opening verse of “The Bright Room”:

“Every night you turned away,
your back a door closing on me,
untouchable, over and over
on the hinges of four seasons,
your dark door closing on the years…”

The book’s second section, meanwhile, is titled “Kicking the Stone”.  Again, it goes over familiar ground for Henry aficionados with a fresh twist. The Welsh suburbia of Henry’s childhood is beautifully evoked, and we revisit several characters who cropped up in Captive Audience, such as Catrin Sands and Brown Helen, although the poet’s perspective of them is once more shifting from ambivalence to something darker. Yet again, ”The years have/slipped their mooring” and there is the presence of “your teenage ghost.” Henry is finding himself reflected in these very characters who seemed so different from him back in the 1990s.

And so to the third and final section of Boy Running. Titled “Davy Blackrock”, this is perhaps the most wide-reaching part of the book. Davy Blackrock is a modern day alter ego of Dafydd y Garreg Wen, both musicians who dream of a perfect song. Of course, there’s also an extra alter ego to layer in: that of Paul Henry himself.

“Davy Blackrock” interweaves the personal, the pastoral and the urban. Where Henry reduced the space between the poet and the page to a maximum in “Studio Flat”, here he’s stretching it out. One such example can be found in this extract from “Blackrock: the Bedsit Years”:

…”They slipped a silver ring
onto Blackrock’s finger. It shone
when he played to his children,
up and down the neck as he sang
with a black guitar on his knee.
But they hid in his dreams,
the years, biding their time,
the dust on the attic’s L.P’s.

The first child flew, the second.
Come back, carnival years!
If I should lose your love dear…
sings the fire to the wind.
And the lost years are calling,
the mousehole bedsits, the sex.
Inside a stairwell’s vortex
Blackrock is falling, falling…”

Once again, we encounter the guitar of Henry’s earlier books, the children, the ring that branded his finger in a gorgeous piece in “Studio Flat”, all filtered through another character in this instance. Boy Running might seem a disparate book at first reading, but its coherence is deep. Above all, however, Davy Blackrock, Dafydd y Garreg Wen and especially Paul Henry are in an endless struggle with “the years”.

As you’ve probably gathered by now, I thoroughly enjoyed Boy Running. If anything, Henry’s lyricism has been distilled still further by his suffering, and has led to his most ambitious work to date. I very much recommend you get hold of a copy, but why not read The Brittle Sea, New and Selected Poems (Seren, 2010) first, and accompany him from the start of his journey?

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