Renoir’s Bicycle, Michael Harlow, Cold Hub Press, 2022
In the past, I’ve edited a couple of Michael Harlow’s poetry titles, but I’ve loved arriving to his new book like a house guest, rather than as one of the electricians or scaffolders tinkering during the final stages of its construction.
Renoir’s Bicycle is a mysterious, atmospheric, idiosyncratic, compelling collection. It seems to me that it’s often a celebration and delicate understanding of the private, interior life; the foundations of identity; the inner-scape of secrets, wishes, dreams, whimsy, reveries, desires, the unspoken, or the unrealised: all the hidden things that can either drive us — or block us; even make us deeply, psychologically unwell, if they’re unacknowledged.
I wanted to use Michael’s line ‘the imagination never lies’ as a mantra, for a while, after reading the collection; and also found myself writing down other phrases to pin to the corkboard in my study: ‘the rondeaux of astonishments’, say, or ‘rondels of light’; or ‘call it love, a lush wilderness in the mind’. Phrases that themselves seem like sun landing on a gem or a silver hook: phrases I wish I could wear, somehow: as earrings or lockets.
Several of the poems ring with authentic, detailed memory and leave a feeling of nostalgia, even when the life in the poem isn’t your own; some trace fleeting states of mind; others work through the comical switches and non-sequiturs of dream language.
They might outline the strange rituals and comforts humans invent for themselves to cope with the dark, with loss, and death:
She took a clean, white bone from her apron pocket,
rubbing it over the warts on both my hands.
Then she said a prayer in Italian reciting it
backwards. And then she kissed the white bone,
crossing herself three times, and buried it in the earth;
where I could hear Father singing his heart out.
And my Sister too.
from ‘A song in the dark’
On the other hand, these short pieces might evoke a certain disposition, or lean on our responses, the way music does. By this I mean that despite the fact that the front cover of th book calls these prose poems, the music of their syntax, the emotions that the rhythms, hesitations, refrains, and prosody convey, seem to be as much a part of the meaning as any nuggety little quotable, extractable bit of, say, ‘advice’ or ‘belief’. The feeling of spell and flow, sound and song are powerful in Michael’s work.
I’ve talked about the interior life of the mind, and things that might feel a bit nebulous and vague, like music and mood — yet these pieces also call on tangible forms like the fable, or riddle, the tragi-comic skit; or the love song. Several struck me as strange, compressed and compelling psychological or crime case notes. (‘Round the bend’ and ‘In the mood’, to name just two). All of them, in some way, even the skits or riddles, document and diagnose what it’s like to carry a self through all the puzzles and buffetings of time, and alongside other people with all their own quirks, attractions, and neuroses.
The collection is given a sense of weave or pattern in its repetitions of light, dark, music, birdsong and other motifs; and by lines that echo each other from poem to poem here (and even from earlier poems from Michael’s other collections). I came to think of those repetitions as perhaps like characteristic gestures by which we might recognise a loved one: the drawn out syllables in their way of sighing; the way they hold their elbows when they slide in their socks across the kitchen floor; that favourite, Fanta-coloured hat. Michael’s refrains are the fingerprints, the laughter lines, by which we know him.
I have at least ten particular favourites in the collection — but perhaps the top top favourite is the poem ‘Unspeakable’— which is also a perfect and sorrowful micro story, as a character looks back on his life, and struggles with how to articulate his origins, his history, the losses that have, in a sense, brought him to where and who he is now. Poets might be more obsessed with language than the average punter, and the poem could be an analogy for the poet’s role, but in its suggestions of loss of faith, desecration of a trove of myth, separation from personal and cultural heritage, I think what it addresses is far broader and deeper.
I’m reproducing it here, with permission from Michael and his publisher, Roger Hickin of Cold Hub Press:
Trying to write of the unspeakable.
In the white-washed room with
the broken statues of his ancestors.
At the oval table, the lamplight
drawing a circle. Inside it the cast
shadow of his hand and the stub
of a pencil. Trying to say something
that would take him back to the time
when he had no name in the streets
to call his own. And then he wrote
‘Every word is a crossroads.’
Michael’s work often makes me think about the lies we harbour. Reading it alongside Martin Shaw’s Courting the Wild Twin, Michael’s poetry also seems to be about the shadow selves we try to fling out the window, or run from, but end up having to live and reckon with in some way; the chimaera versions of reality we piece together as young children when we’re only told a portion of the truth going on for the adults in our lives, or when they push down too punitively on the wild in us; how after childhood we can both carry gleams of Eden at the back of our minds and yet be damaged by our parents’ own hidden wounds; how we can both mirror and yet distort those wounds at the same time. And yet, even all of this is paraphrase and abstraction from me, really. What the reader often comes across in Michael’s work are small, dramatic re-enactments of scenes that quietly suggest, rather than announce, this kind of psychic tunnelling. They’re scenes composed with a kind of melodic, sonorous touch, which means somehow we can lift and carry even the most tragic stories without smashing into stone fragments ourselves.
Cold Hub Press page
Emma Neale is the author of six novels, six collections of poetry, and a collection of short stories. Her novel, Billy Bird (2016) was short-listed for the Acorn Prize at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards and long-listed for the Dublin International Literary Award. Emma has received a number of literary fellowships, residencies and awards, including the Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for a Distinguished Contribution to New Zealand Poetry 2020. Her first collection of short stories, The Pink Jumpsuit (Quentin Wilson Publishing, 2021) was long-listed for the Acorn Prize at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. The mother of two sons, Emma lives in Ōtepoti/Dunedin, where she works as a freelance editor.
Michael Harlow is one of New Zealand’s leading poets. He has published twelve books of poetry, including Cassandra’s Daughter (2005, 2006), The Tram Conductor’s Blue Cap (a finalist in the 2010 New Zealand Book Awards), Sweeping the Courtyard, Selected Poems (2014), Heart Absolutely I Can (2014), Nothing For It But To Sing (2016, winner of the Otago University Press Kathleen Grattan Award) and The Moon in a Bowl of Water (2019). Take a Risk, Trust Your Language, Make a Poem (1986) won the PEN/NZ award for Best First Book of Prose. Residencies he has held include the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship and the Robert Burns Fellowship. In 2014 he was awarded the Lauris Edmond Memorial Prize for Distinguished Contribution to New Zealand Poetry, and in 2018 he received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry.