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Review: A Cure for Woodness, by Michael Haslam

Michael Haslam's writing is an eerie combination of late High Modernism of the Bunting and David Jones kind, and an unswerving allegiance to the poetics of the 'Cambridge Axis' of Prynne, Crozier and the Rileys. Like the Bunting and David Jones, Haslam reaches back through Modernism to the alliterative foundations of Early English verse, and then returns to the present day via Manley Hopkins and the wayward surrealism of Dylan Thomas. At the same time, however, Haslam is willing to wrest the signifier away from the signified just sufficiently to see what might be moving in the darkness between.

A Cure for Woodness is the third and final volume in Haslam's Music Laid her Songs in Language trilogy. The title of the second volume, A Sinner Saved by Grace announces Haslam's other great divergence from so much contemporary writing; Haslam is deeply religious. This religion is not organised and certainly not Christian. Haslam's religion also reaches back to the Pantheist paganism that inhabited these islands before and during Christianity's takeover. He walks the hills around his home in the Calder valley and reports back on what he finds there; the spirits in the trees, rocks and streams. Which suggests that Haslam's writing is dubious stuff, if you're not a Druid. But Haslam's technical achievement is to meld both nature and deconstruction in a heady mixture in which, somehow, one buoys up the other.

This book is not, perhaps, quite so complete as its predecessor; a volume that contained small masterpieces such as Balladic Idyll of George-a-Green called Bettris and The Vagrant Tinker and the wonderful Arcades in Ruins. If Haslam claims Wordsworth as his immediate ancestor, it is Keats who seems to dominate this trilogy. In Old Hall down in the Hollow: Spring up Sunny Bank, Haslam describes the slow decay of the old hall and its haunting not only by its ghost but by Haslam, himself. Haslam moves from the landscape to the pub bar back to the land and in each situation there is a slightly melancholic presence that is ultimately sustaining.

Recent contemporary poetry has manifested a deep distrust of the word; not only in the minimalism of much mainstream writing, but also the rending post-modernism of much of the language poetry. Haslam has no such distrust; this is clotted, adjectival poetry that forms a very rich diet. It is also intensely musical and his performances of his own writing will set you toe-tapping. A Cure for Woodness is just that a cure for the over-delicate palid music of so much contemporary writing; a real breath of fresh air.