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Review: Half-Life, by Michael Hulse

Michael Hulse's poems (also) base themselves in the well-balanced sentence. His sentences are much more discursive, are often simply longer, bearing their message across the pages in beautifully constructed verse paragraphs. These paragraphs are ideally built to describe the wide world in which Hulse moves: Mexico City; the boat-building village of Wewelsfleth on the banks of the Elbe; a view of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. In these locations, Hulse moves almost as a flâneur, but a flâneur whose view is almost political, sardonically wondering how we justify the works of man to man. In the poem 'Wewelsfleth', Hulse gives us the words of a boat-builder, '"The American who thought he wanted it / tired of it quickly and sold it on to a sheikh. / The sheikh had marble flooring laid throughout. / It added tons to the displacement. When he got rid of it, the present owner, another billionaire, / had all the marble ripped out again. / Might as well burn your millions. Still, it means jobs."' Thus, like James Fenton, about whom Hulse has written, there is political charge to these poems. And, like Fenton, Hulse brings to an often insular contemporary British poetry, a necessary engagement with a wider, equally fascinating world.

If there is another European influence on Hulse - the translator of Goethe, Rilke and Sebald, it is that of the European fabulist, and I include Borges in that European category. The other fabulist that underlies Hulse's more fictive pieces is some like von Hofmanstahl who takes the history of mittelEuropa and slightly stylises it so that it becomes a kind of magical realism. Such a fable is written through in the sequence 'Foreknowledge Absolute', which presents a number of first person narratives whose 'point', it seems to me, is that the absolute foreknowledge we all have is that we are going to die; indeed, Death is a presence, as in The Seventh Seal, in all the separate poems. The poems in this sequence range from the narrative of the baby in the womb, through a woman discovered hiding in a cupboard probably in Berlin at the end of the war, and discovered by a Red Army soldier whose intentions are not 'honourable', and finishes with Beethoven's late quartets which are seen by the commentator as absolute 'things' 'like a potato or a stone'. Here and elsewhere, Hulse's supreme skill in all this is to guide and hold these narratives so that we trust to his voice and follow his writing through all its twists and turns.