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Review: The Secret History, by Michael Hulse

Life beats art, so to speak, and sense beats eccentricity wrote Randall Jarrell and his words provide one way into Michael Hulse's new collection of predominantly autobiographical poems. In their openness and honesty -they
conform to what Jarrell went on to say ...the way things really are beats the most beautiful unreal visions, half-truths, one can fix up by leaving out and indulging oneself. Sensitive areas of Hulse's life are revealed in these poems full of love and candour about the lives and deaths of his parents, his own past relationships and losses, his friendships, the tensions inherent in his English/German background and the enriching fulfilments that come with love, marriage and the birth of a child.

Two poems stand sentinel at either end of this emotional journey. Caput Mortuum is a verbal and syntactic tour-de-force pouring without pause over seven four line stanzas in an exacting contemplation of the colour blue. To our unborn daughter (after Sophocles) is a more personal and direct message, its language pared down compared to the bravura refulgence of the opening poems chromatic catalogue. It is just as aesthetically engaged but pauses, after considering a range of natural phenomena, human vanity and high artistic achievements, to point out that

These, though not ours to give, are yours to inherit

viz. the deceptively simple yet powerfully elegant gift of a complex insight to an unborn child.

Hulse's hypersensitivity to the insecurities of life are never far below the surface and give his work an edgy truthfulness - as in these lines describing images of our past selves from The Kid:

They never speak to us, those kids. They scarcely seem
to know that we are what they have become. Always
they're looking for someone else.....


.....might we fail our own past?

The metaphysical shiver this invokes is a pervasive element in many of the poems, ghosting as it does around sincere autobiographical detail, darting in and out of historical narratives that, in their telling, are brought to bear on modern life, and moving elusively amongst an array of convincing contemporary detail - Reeboks, subways, fast-food outlets, Anna Kournikova and WALK/DON'T WALK signs. These truthful stories are studded with beautiful lines:

throbbing Latin murmurous as diesel

from The Tunic of Christ

...the muscled confluence
that gave this German town its Latin name...

from All Saints' Day in Konz

Evocations of a peaceful beauty are not the only chords, however, and exist alongside a concise and destabilizing wit.

At the foot of the concrete campanile
of the post-war church like a paper hat...

from All Saints' Day in Konz/cite>

Brutalities are recounted with a clear-eyed directness:

One enemy she had chained to a manger
eating and shitting where he stood,
an ass in all but the braying...

from The Secret History

Contrasting with this is the extraordinary shift of tone from the same poem:

the alabaster light on your upturned
face and the greatness of beauty unfolding
within you like sun on a rose...

Time and again Hulse retrieves an unexpected beauty from the cruelties he is only too aware of and teases out a morality from affectless historical anecdote to give us, in our own brutal world, some degree of hope. Sincerity and brave honesty are difficult qualities to sustain across such a wide emotional register. One of art's purposes, as is clear from many of these poems, is to shape and transform our pain into aesthetic objects - Auden's
Rummaging into his living, the poet fetches / The images out that hurt and connect... Unmediated, however, pain and hurt remain simply that. So, if I do have any misgiving about this collection, it is that sometimes, for me, the
autobiographical truth, told with fidelity, is not entirely transformed and so does not always pass beyond having a documentary interest. Where this is most apparent, most exposed, is in the occasional tell-tale failure of craft.

Technique is a line of defence as well as a tool for exploration and when it breaks down it can alert us to a sensibilty becoming, under the stress of too great an emotion, fatigued. Some of the poems in this collection do contain these faultlines. All of the poems have virtues but some, for me, are marred by such problems. 'Wintereisse' is a sincere and ambitious poem in three sections written predominantly in octosyllabic rhyming couplets. Hulse would not, I think, normally settle for such well-patented phrases as 'surprised by joy' and 'come to dust' or the inversions 'liked it not' and 'The touch of fire it is I've lost' or lines such as

.. .and act as if I weren't unduly
Troubled by the grace of Julie...

But then, in the same poem, he astounds with a skilfully turned insight:

the pyrrhic victories of art
Over the knowledge of the heart.

It is, perhaps, art impertinence to complain about perceived stylistic shortcomings when such strong emotions are in play. Paramount in Wintereisse is the poet's need to convey an intense and complex set of feelings and it is probably unfair to quote out of context. All writers who are remembered, however, are taken out of context at some stage and a telling test of a poem is its ability to survive credibly when dissassembled, as.it surely will be, even if only by a notoriously faulty public memory. Just as Jarrell gave us a way into this collection, he also provides a caveat to place on these reservations:

Really one expects most of a good poet's work to be quite bad - if that isn't so it's the 30th February; it's amusing to have reviewers complain that some of the poems in a poetry book aren't good, because that applies to every book of verse there ever was.

This is an intelligent and moving collection. Michael Hulse has set out to be unflinchingly honest about his own life set against the wider background of European history, the heights of its artistic achievements and the depths of
its falls from grace. He writes with a controlled passion, close to the spoken word, using sophisticated effects to locate the significant and develop its larger emotional truth. Such art and honesty make us all want to believe that
tomorrow could be the 30th February.