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Review: Half-Life, by Michael Hulse

Hulse begins on a power chord. In allowing a poem of fifty lines to stand alone as the first section of a four section book, he acknowledges the weight of the piece, 'Freeman'. The poem tells, efficiently and effectively, all you really need to know of an event that took place in Melbourne, Australia in 2009. Arthur Freeman threw his four-year-old daughter Darcey to her death from the West Gate Bridge. The intrinsic shock value of that act immediately presents Hulse with the problem faced by any writer who attempts to develop poetry from a news story: how to find meaning, resonance or affect that isn't already apparent. This challenge he rides masterfully. Beginning with a deliberately banal exposition, he moves from tying to picture the father's actions to considering his own response, then that of the child's watching brothers, "Ben and Jack, hugging his trouser-legs, begging him to go / back, Daddy, get her". Then we are below the bridge, in the mudflats with the police, finding the girl, "Who clung to living for an / hour or two". That use of the word 'living', rather than the more obvious 'life', is a deft touch, lightly conveying a hint of 'the living', and so turning the word 'clung' into a physical image, full of emotional charge. Finally, perhaps (or perhaps not - the ambiguity is crucial) identifying himself with Freeman, the poet imagines himself under the bridge at the moment of the deadly action, "waiting with my arms outstretched to catch my daughter / when she fell". If this is Freeman, the position is clearly impossible, the incarnation of a conflicted personality; if Hulse (and personal detail makes it clear the speaker is no mere fictional narrator), the empathy is almost unbearably total. He concludes: "there I was, at the dark river's margin, waiting as any father would". Or, as in the case of the true-life Freeman, wouldn't - which is only part of the point Hulse makes in response to the banality, expressed earlier in the words of "my friend" - "There's evil in us all".

With this opening piece, as skilful as it is powerful, Hulse sets himself his biggest challenge. Follow that.