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Review: The Secret History, by Michael Hulse

In The Secret History poet and translator Michael Hulse has written a collection of autobiographical poems which trace a painful, twenty-year journey of self discovery: finding a sense of being at home in my own life has involved coming to terms with the difficult legacies of the two nations, England and Germany, that were given to me at birth. The result is both courageous and moving. The first two sections, a substantial part of the book - and, with the poem Winterreise, arguably the finest - deal with Hulse's relationships with his father, his mother and her German family.

One is confident of the book's artistry - not always the first consideration in such work - from its opening poem, Caput Mortuum, which beautifully explores an idealised image of home through the artist's creation of pigment, of 'our purest blue'. Then follows To my Father, a poem in 24 parts which seeks understanding of an educated, inquisitive man:

you tell me that a hundred years ago
the chives once planted by the legion
stationed here at Walltown
were growing in the grasses still, sixteen centuries on.

From his father's human failings, the poet learns to accept that nothing human should be strange to me. His relationship with his mother and grandparents seems more vexed. To my Father describes her alienation in post-war England and the accident that killed her. In All Saints' Day in Konz we hear of

A childhood hijacked by Hitler and God...
the bull-blooded hot-collared head of the house
and her autocrat mother, implacable Catholic

In White, his grandfather places a handkerchief over an ant hill to teach that life must accommodate fear. In All Saints' Day in Konz the poet muses on the difficulty of condemning this reluctant, former Nazi party member:

I say only this: I cannot judge the man.
I cannot, as long as I fear I'd have done the same.

The poem's experiences are redeeming for the poet, a step
towards an appreciation of what 'home' means. He concludes:

whatever of the past I should inherit,
I'll want to choose a way to live that tallies with their spirit.

In Part III of the journey we learn that a hitherto long, sustaining relationship has failed. Several poems deal with a broken heart, significant since the poet has come to locate 'home' in love:

September I returned to find
you'd thought it through, and knew your mind,
and had to go. I'd feared you would.
It made no sense. I understood.
Since then I've loved you, hated, tried
to forget you, liked it not and died -

from Winterreise

This winter journey presents the poet at his emotional nadir, but the fourth section of the book introduces him to its dedicatee, Kathrin, and their relationship which leads him 'home'. We first meet her airbrushed in, as it were, to famous photo-journalist images from the war period. She has begun to assuage his preoccupations with war, power and failure. Further, she shares his association of art with what is life-affirming (the nature of art that would turn away / from power to record the gesture). Hulse's sense of having arrived is encapsulated in the thought of his love sleeping: You smiled in your sleep; and I... I knew I was home. This enables him in the book's last section, 'To our Unborn Daughter', to invite their anticipated child to come to our door.

If my synopsis structures the disorders of a life a little neatly, it is not intended to diminish the suffering undergone or the poetry - indeed the trajectory of Michael Hulse's book invites it. The Secret History is highly recommended.