Harry Ricketts, Half Dark Victoria University Press, 2015
The title of Harry Ricketts’s new poetry collection, Half Dark, is apt as many of these poems are like little retrievals from the shade of the past. Poetry as retrieval. As excavation. As reflection. The half dark underlines (as does the blurb on the back) that this collection is dedicated to the gap, and that in these spaces, there is electric life. Poetic life. One poem, ‘Gap,’ makes reference to the haunting voice of the London Underground:
‘When I grow up, I want to be
the man who says “Mind the gap”.’
Down the years how your voice,
that phrase, have haunted me.
Yet ‘mind the gap’ is also like the surrogate, underground voice of the poetry that cautions us to stall in the gap for it is there poetic rewards will multiply. If you think of the poetic gap, you are lead in myriad directions from the silent beat at the end of the line, to the white space of the page, to the tension between what the poet holds back what the poet reveals. All these things are paramount in a collection that pays diligent attention to the pause at the end of the line, the form of the poem upon the page and what is revealed by choice. Yet what animates the poems beyond this is the gap of recollection, with so many examples stretching back in time to record and review. Now the gap is the faltering stutter of history where the past is only visible in pieces and can so easily be misremembered and even diverted to suit a cause. The London-Underground echo resonates on another level when you bear in mind the punning possibilities of the word ‘mind.’ Step beyond the warning (Watch out!) to the need to tend and care for and you reach the subterranean simmer that shows these poems come from the heart. The poet loved and the poet minded.
One striking example is a triloet dedicated to Jessie. The looping lines signal the circularity of families dividing and returning, of life itself though generations of fundamental behaviour and connections. Much is not said, yet the mood that permeates is infectious and moving:
Sometimes we find ourselves quite
overcome and can’t hold back the tears,
but still we walk, talk, laugh in soft November light;
a day to set against all the lost years.
In ‘Broken Song,’ the gap is replayed on the page in the syncopated words, the white space, the withholdings paramount.
Harry has often displayed a predilection for traditional forms; they become vessels for play, for the allure and comfort of repetition, for the challenge of innovation or depth within constraint, for a contemporary licence to laud, rattle and refresh. In his endnote, Harry addresses his current preoccupation with the triolet: ‘I soon found that, like the villanelle, the restrictions and repetitions of the triolet can lead to writing poems not merely playfully or self-consciously ingenious (nothing wrong with that of course) but poems embodying confinement and the inability to break out of particular cycles of thought, feeling and behaviour.’ There are ways in which his triolets do this, as in ‘Jessie,’ yet there is often a word or phrase that acts as splinter. In this poem, for me, it is the word ‘lost’ as it becomes a universal beacon. It breaks out from the individual story (the way you can’t go back as father and son in this case) and spikes your own disconnections and connection, your own missing pieces.
Poetry also sparks on poems as startling neighbours. In some poems, it almost feels as though this intrudes on that, and that intrudes on this, to offer different insights. in ‘The Frick comes to Lake Rotoma,’ it is as though the tracing-paper museum is laid over the tracing-paper lake and you understand that purity of location is perhaps a pipe dream. Something always tugs at you elsewhere and something always keeps you heartily rooted here.
These postcards before you are meant
to bring back the Frick, that sumptuous
room, Fragonard’s Four Stages
of Love: meeting, pursuit, lover
crowned, love letters—all those pink roses,
that jaunty parasol, No,
you’re still here, sweat trickling over
your ribs. They knew love wasn’t that easy.
Perhaps, the feature that I found most admirable was the way in which many of the poems bear witness to an instance. The gaps heighten this effect along with the detail, musical choices and tropes. There is a sense that the poem frames a moment, an incident, a scene, a person (friend or family in many cases). ‘Pewsey’ is a terrific example of this, as is ’10 to 3.’ The latter again catches the circularity of life with a perfect balance of economy (the gap) and detail. The central image comes alive with a trope that evokes vulnerability, tenderness, stillness: ‘your hands bunched like spiders/ the purple eiderdown.’ The poem haunts as it exposes a moment so intimate, in its familiarity, it becomes universal.
Harry’s new collection takes you from Te Mata Peak to Frankfurt to Rome. It traverses weather, old friends and family. What marks the measure of book, is the fact there is so much one could say about the connections that emerge from the spaces. The poems are the heartbeat of a backward look; at times mourning, often contemplative, they revel in humour as much as intimacy, in sumptuous detail as much as the well-tended gap. This is Harry at his poetic best.
Victoria University Press page here
Poetry Shelf interview with Harry here