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Friday Favourite: David Harsent

Harsent's poems remind us how alive we still are in times of crisis.

There is something about poetry that makes it more potent than fiction in times of need. With its raw, brash and yet strangely beautiful depiction of the darkest parts of humanity, the work of award-winning English poet David Harsent is the perfect example. Though often put on an inaccessibly lofty plane, Harsent showcases the gritty, emotional realism poetry can depict, and though sometimes apocalyptically bleak, his works remind us how alive we still are in times of crisis. 

There was admittedly no crisis when I first read my favourite of Harsent’s extensive works, his 2011 collection, Night. It came out of an ordinary Google search when I spotted his name in a book review, and I was expecting just to scan a poem or two before forgetting about the whole thing. Instead what I found was, in an ironic cliché, like nothing I had ever read before. It was instantly unforgettable. 

As soon as you open Night, there is a sense of trepidation, of letting yourself into something with an intensity beyond the everyday. For someone not used to casually picking up poetry collections, I was surprised by its accessibility, the immediacy with which the language captured my focus. The tension is palpable: in the final lines of the unnamed introduction, Harsent warns the reader that “there’s a smell of scorch in the air. And the time to be gone has gone.” The night is upon us, and there is no turning back. 

This onset of darkness sets the tone for the whole collection, opening up a world of depravity and intense feeling that can, as the titular poem suggests, ‘only occur at night’. From the opening poems, “Rota Fortunae”, and “Ghosts”, death, life, grief and sin are splayed across the pages in ‘black and white’; the following series of exquisite “Garden” poems capture a scene at varying times of night, intensifying this strangely raw atmosphere, dreamlike and yet wholly nightmarish. Harsent packs the collection with a myriad of rich cultural allusions, and yet it doesn’t feel vital to understand them. The many reoccurring motifs – night, dreams, gardens, the open road – guide us instead, weaving together a world in which these disturbing sensations can emerge from the darkness.

Yet despite the ‘hum in the air’ as the collection powers on, buzzing in adrenaline in “The Duffel Bag”, murderously dark in “The Death of Cain’” its merit does not come from mere shock factor. Beneath the visceral imagery (Harsent’s successful career in crime fiction is unsurprising), and behind the pulsing heartbeat of masterful rhymes and tumbling rhythms, at core, Harsent displays a sharp perception of emotion. 

Poems such as “Scene One: A Beach” provide these profound moments in their slower pace and stillness: the first three stanzas, though possessing their own internal motion – ‘the subtle traction of a rising tide’ – are hauntingly meditative. We ‘begin in silence, the sea drawn back/ to a distant smudge beneath a fading moon,’ moving through a landscape of ‘dust’ where we hear a voice declare, ‘your starting point is grief; you must/ get used to this’. It feels an especially poignant notion in our current times, navigating a world where, as Harsent puts it, ‘everything I once recognised as mine/ is strange to me now’. 

The final poems, “Night” and the sixteen-page “Elsewhere”, give little closure in their winding cyclical nature, but the open-ended journey is oddly comforting. Harsent’s poetic ‘wilderness’ reflects many of the longings and uncertainties of our own lives, yet seems driven by the bitter inevitability of human survival, ‘whatever the truth of it is’. His work is surprisingly not auto-biographical, instead filled with ‘little fictions’, but this is perhaps what gives it more universal understanding. Though in recent years, Harsent has begun to read his poems aloud, I feel his previous decisions to refrain were sensible: the shock, the stillness, the vivid beauty of his words are at their best and most blinding in print. There, we cannot avoid that brutal confrontation with our own condition. It may not always be pleasant, but I can never tear myself away from the explosive intensity of Night. The words seem to read themselves countless times over, always as potent as when I first encountered them. Harsent’s extensive works contain countless other gems, but it is this collection that first showed me the force of his style and skill, and the value of a living poetic voice. His expert choice of language, his genius for rhyme, creates something fantastically immersive, and I think it is this sheer vitality that resonates so acutely with me today.

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