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Review: Paul Henry's The Brittle Sea: New and Selected Poems


As the poet-critic Nick Laird recently pointed out in a review of the poet’s letters, the influence of Louis MacNeice is everywhere in contemporary poetry. His sprightly, masterly way with form and his sprawling themes – the blurring of past and present, personal and public, darkness and light – have made an impact on some of the best-known British and Irish poets currently writing. Paul Henry may be an unfamiliar name to some, but like the work of many of his better-known contemporaries, The Brittle Sea, his new and selected poems, owes much to the Belfast-born “laureate of in-between-ness”. This hefty volume takes in twenty-odd years’ worth of work, selections from five collections and a batch of new poems, yet like an intricate Venn diagram, all are linked by their abiding themes: how the past haunts the present, and how people and places change, as do our relationships with them.

Despite their MacNeice-ish content and formal bent, however, stylistically Henry’s poems are often expressionistic, even symbolist. Early pieces such as “Double Act” and “Love Birds” – both about couples making the most of the hand that life has dealt them – combine suggestive images and wordplay with short lines, oblique clauses and a subtle music. In the more reflective, avowedly lyrical poems, this restraint and exactitude remain, serving to reign in sentiment and keep self-indulgence in check. “The Visitors”, a sequence from Henry’s third collection, The Milk Thief, conjures female relatives from the poet’s childhood with eerie concision, while “Between Two Bridges”, in which the poet stalks his younger self around a changing city, employs a similar matter-of-factness:
Wind scales the river in its mud.
It squirms and pirouettes to the tide’s score –
dance of a reptile, forging its cast in silt.

Here comes a friendly stray, with marble eyes.
And here, someone’s ditched a fridge. Boats
ghost-boats, Anon’s boarded up work …
The effect can be gripping, but Henry can go too far in his attempt to avoid solipsism: cloaking personal intimations in a wilful mysteriousness that leaves the reader behind. It is the new, previously uncollected poems that best strike a balance between the emotive and the clinical, often with formal skill and time and space-bending panache to boot. Here, a “gap between the railings” becomes “thirty-five years” and a meeting room sprouts wheels, sending us “through tunnel after tunnel”: the imaginative leaps justified, the emotional reach profound. They represent the best work of a lyric poet who deserves a wider readership.



first published in the Times Literary Supplement

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About the Author

Welcome to the website of the English poet and critic, Ben Wilkinson.
Ben was born in Staffordshire and now lives in Sheffield, South Yorkshire. He received his first degree from the University of Sheffield, and holds an MA and PhD from Sheffield Hallam University. He has won numerous awards for his poetry, including the Poetry Business Competition and a 2014 Northern Writers' Award
His debut full collection of poems, Way More Than Luck, appeared from Seren Books in February 2018.
He is a keen distance runner, lifelong Liverpool Football Club fan, and among other things he works as poetry critic for The Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement. You can find many of his reviews on this site.
To contact Ben about readings, workshops, or for any other enquiries, you can drop him a line at benwilko(at sign)gmail.com. Unfortunately, I am not able to consider unsolicited requests from authors for book reviews.

You can follow Ben on Twitter - @BenWilko85 - and on Facebook.

You can find B…