‘Sometimes there is nothing for it but to sing;
to discover what there is in you to attain, when the light
comes stealing in’
from ‘Nothing but for it Sing’
Nothing for it but to Sing, Michael Harlow, Otago University Press, 2016
Michael Harlow has published ten poetry collections, one of which, The Tram Conductor’s Blue Hat, was a finalist in the New Zealand Book Awards. He has held numerous fellowships and residencies and his latest collection, Nothing for it but to Sing, won the Kathleen Grattan Award for an unpublished manuscript.
This shiny, ethereal collection, full of paradox and light, follows curved lines, follows song. The poems are written out of being and unbeing, out of the unconscious and the dreamed world, out of lived experience. More than anything, it almost seems like there are no things but in ideas, because this is poetry of an itinerant mind, of a heart absorbing a world that is hypothesis, abstract thought, love, attachment and continuity.
This is poetry of the unlived as much as it is of the lived.
The poetry is of strangeness to the point it delivers philosophical relations to the oxymoron: ‘What it was he saw ‘beyond’/ where his looking had gone, there’s no telling.’ ‘I’m looking for nothing/ you could put a name to right now.’ ‘[M]y mother died before she was born.’
Some of the poems are like songs for the departed:
‘And you know,
drawing the ‘short straw, you are finally
going to have a crack at the silky darkness.’
‘Until one morning when no birds sang,
emptied of all that can be said,
soul-window open—he woke up dead.’
More than anything, Michael sings his poetry into being. Song is there, steering the line, but it is also there as an echoey and insistent motif:
‘All his life
he kept looking for the one song
to sing him. A high-wire troubadour
on air, he said that writing
is the painting of the voice.
His wish that not one word be unsung.’
Elizabeth Smither writes on the blurb: ‘His poems ask the hardest questions we are capable of and answer them in fables, discourses and unquenchable curiosity.’
The book did set me thinking about my attachment to things in poetry. Is it necessary? Do I want the grit and the everyday settling along with the mind daydreaming along the course of a line? This collection overturns our contemporary insistence on locating feelings, ideas and human activity in the world of physical things. It is what I am so often pulled towards as I write. It is what I am drawn to as I read.
This is a very lovely, overturning, uplifting collection.