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Review: A Cure for Woodness, by Michael Haslam

A Cure for Woodness is not so much a cure as a tonic, a shot of vitamin B12 into our awareness of language. Drawing on a tradition which runs from Chaucer to Shakespeare, which encompasses Spenser and drafts in Hopkins from three centuries later, Haslam reawakens us to the knowledge that poetic language is nothing if it does not transform a reader's consciousness. The sequences in the book, Woodnesse, Abscence, Despondency & Oddness, Regressions, Cures for Woodness, and an Appendix are verbal music where much of the current decorum in poetic craft is transgressed. Random and internal rhyme, cheek-by-jowl internal assonance and alliteration, dreadful puns abound, and yet to read the poems is an exhilarating experience. Quite simply a poet is transforming the language, bringing to the surface connections long hidden, and creating verbal opportunities ignored by conventional poetic practice:

I have bunches of lyrics. Rolling sheafs in clover.
By lad law lay by me. A ballad of
a bad bye-law. A tale of love
adulterated in the hollows.

In Lyric in Blemish Haslam confronts the notion of poetic decorum itself in an imitation of Hopkins. The poem also quotes Robert Bridges' infamous comment on Hopkins's blemishes in the poet's style: Blemish is the native tongue / I speak in song. In the opening lines of Belabouring in Reverie I am reminded of Mandelstam's essay on Dante, where Dante's walking pace is cited as the underlying rhythm of the Divine Comedy. Haslam writes

Reface the lintel with a lump and scotch
and wire brush. Align and realign a line
by reck of eye and rule of thumb. Pull faces
thinking phrases for the lyric graces, lilac cordial
vanilla curlew and so on.

Haslam's art is kinaesthetic. A poem is not only heard and seen, but its rhythms are physically worked out before it is set down.

Some of the longer pieces such as Old Hall Down In The Hollow; Spring Up Sunny Bank have a symphonic structure, and even a Tennysonian musicality, which is constantly subverted, as in a movement from a late work by Shostakovich. The music emerges from a tuning of my own invention as Haslam writes in Prince Phoebus Columbus. The book is so rich in individual poems and sequences, but perhaps The Love of English sounds most deeply in this reader:

Some days it is I want to cry, why who am I?
Such depth of pathos surely cannot all be mine.
It could be you down drinking by the stream
white wine in rain. It could be anyone...