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Review: A Cure for Woodness, by Michael Haslam

A Joyous Bubble

Michael Haslam's compelling, densely musical work emerges from a joyous cauldron of babble, the place where folksong comes from, or even further back: its combination of emotional directness and compact, ornate language is reminiscent of the medieval Pearl poem, or of Old English verse. This is political poetry, but it is the visionary politics we find in Gerrard Winstanley's tracts or in Piers Plowman:

forms of men
are changing money in an endless market.
I entered the creaky dream-house, death ...

We are familiar with northern poets who write in a flinty, abrasive manner as part of their attempt to register a distinct, dissenting identity; Haslam reminds us that there is another method.

Although A Cure for Woodness presents itself as the third volume in a trilogy called Music, there is no narrative as such, and this volume makes as good a starting point as any. Haslam's sound-patterning is as Puckish and self-delighting as ever:

Give us a break, ye scholars schooling us
syllabic feet, caesural intervals, some solemn
syllabus without the holy silliness. We should be
taking syllabubs off buffet trestles, making accolades
of ale for Easter Day, or plucking milkmaids
from the ditch ...

The play of sound and etymology is by turns sophisticated and wittily opportunistic:

The dairy cans were clanging churns.
The churches ringing bells for Anglicans ...

The beat is usually iambic, but Haslam's control of pace and his love of full-throated, vowelly cadences mean that his poems can surge like a river or turn back on themselves in maddening eddies:

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

Haslam lives in the Calder Valley, the birthplace of both the industrial revolution and Methodism. Back in the day, Pastor Grimshaw used to round up his flock there with a whip, and there is something of the dissenting, radical, slightly hare-brained aspect of Puritanism in the language with which Haslam rhapsodises and eroticises his place: he stakes out his territory with a missionary zeal, converting the everyday into vision. The drama of this collection begins when notes of self-doubt creep in. Haslam worries:

My tropes are lies;
I'd fail lingual geology

and

I slipped onto my knees on being told there really is
no landscape-language linkage: all the rides in pine
are over-run with quibbles, brambles, puns and rhyme.
The pit of farmyard scrap is not the hellhole of the soul.

Self-doubt is one aspect of the woodness for which the poet must find a cure. Wood, as Haslam reminds us in his introduction, is an archaic word for mad, encompassing everything from furious to depressed. Haslam's woodness has its roots in age and circumstance: he had worked as a manual labourer all his life, mostly doing unskilled factory work, until a legacy freed him from this a few years ago. Haslam is ruefully despondent about the loss of the drudgery that provoked a lifetime of imaginative resistance - and much sexual and alcoholic excess:

The unreal
melancholia of recall.
Look back on all that bacchanal,
the tipples and the falls ...

Ultimately, the poetry must provide the cure that it seeks, taking solace in the triumphant beauty of its own vision:

The spell is bound to shine and calm.
The spectre of a witness drops its qualms.
It is a charm of stillness, mist and light,
a mirrored wetness, image of a present absence
last for life. I fancy it recalled intensely
at my last demise.