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Review: The Secret History, by Michael Hulse

Writers lives can be emblematic. In writing himself into his work, Byron was concerned to show the impact of a social and historical context upon a particular individual, something Robert Lowell took to 'confessional' lengths which can obfuscate the ambition. For this to work, the writer has to have experiences worth sharing, and in his essentially autobiographical The Secret History, Michael Hulse is courageous in his search for a truth which is not simply 'confessional' but emblematic of all our histories.

With an English father and German mother, finding a sense of being at home has been the social and historical context of much of Hulse's work, but as All Saints' Day in Konz says, A home is made in knowledge and forgiveness, because his own good dead were more than History, / they were my own dear flesh and blood. These are poems of exile, paradoxically at home in Germany but in the English language, seeking ease of the spirit in a life without God. And the quest is central, as The Wind at Vinci suggests, because a man who has not learnt to know his home / in an hour such as this will lie alone / for the rest of his mortal days.

I hope I haven't made The Secret History sound dry or abstract, because these are powerful and moving poems. The formal elegance expresses raw emotion. In the opening sequence, the illness of the poets father brings to life the boy who rejoiced, not an hour before he died, / in this bunch of April forget-me-nots; the adult father working in remote parts of the world, and marrying a German girl who never earned the approval of his mother; the adulteries and betrayals of a marriage no child could hope to understand; the father's loneliness when his wife is killed in a car accident; the child burying the father - until all that is left behind is the random possessions which seem to sum up a life: Your ash stick in the hall. Your pension book. / Your slippers, missal, cardigan, / the coronation spoon we fed you with. History moves through these memories - the history of empire and the history of human endurance - but in the end, the poet asks what the father asked: when did words have power to stay / the bone-old longing for a life / in which there'll be no parting any more?

The density of this opening sequence defies summary, because the truth The Secret History is seeking to explore is the density of particular human lives. Hulse makes real his grief and the personal anguishes of the lives he is honouring, but the deeper point is that these lives tell us something about our own history: not just as individuals, but as cultures. In the sequence exploring his mother's family, All Saints' Day in Konz, the poet has to come face to face with lives hijacked by Hitler and God, a grandfather forced to join the Party because Not to join meant Dachau. What would we do, faced with that choice; what would the poet himself do? These are the secrets of history, but given vivid moral force precisely because they concern this particular poet's family.

The volume moves through histories and cultures with tremendous variety and power, succeeding most beautifully for me in a moving sequence about the end of a love affair, 'Winterreise.' The tone here reminded me of Lowell's Near the Ocean, Hulse also adopting Marvell's stanza, echoing Lowell's monotonous sublime It is form here which provides the distance necessary to shape such grief:

I write this, Dorle, from Cape Cod.
The trees have fretted into leaf,
stating a natural belief.
The moonlit beauty of the lake
quickens the unforgotten ache.
Here, once again, I'm passing through.
And, once again, I'm missing you.

and again:

if only consolation grew
with such a pure and peaceful blue!
Philosophy is all awry:
it simply waits for us to die,
making the old assuaging noise,
providing us with clever toys
to while away the interim
from void to voided Elohim.

The personal anguish in this poem in some strange analogical way succeeds in giving reality to the sufferings of earlier generations - generations and family members Hulse cannot have personally known - so that the final couplet expresses mourning for all that has gone before: Doric, my friend, my infidel, / I love you. And so fare you well.

The Secret History is a heartening volume, because it does witness to an ease of spirit in a life without God, a celebration of survival after the horrors of the last century. And indeed more than survival. The last poem in the collection, To our Unborn Daughter, opens with the words Daughter, this is a world of wonders, and the optimism is earned by both the personal and the historical endurances. A reckless, generous and remarkable collection of poems.