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Review: Oli Hazzard's Between Two Windows

Early on in Between Two Windows, Oli Hazzard's debut collection of poems, a description of a journey through a frosty landscape leads to the layered image of "your car, / the image of you / in the image of your car, squinting / out through the windshield for the road's / slick shields of black ice". "Kayak", the collection's final poem, ends with a similar vision of a figure staring into a lake, attempting to look beyond himself. As both poems suggest, reflections in the broadest sense are ubiquitous in Hazzard's writing. Wavering between a conversational tone and an occasionally florid diction, this is poetry that wanders through language's lonely hall of mirrors, making a show of questioning its own observations. Here are speakers who wonder if the windows in which they see their outlines are rooms in themselves, who find the sound of water falls "too quickly", and who - somewhat bizarrely - greet the morning as "colours laid on top of one another". The narrator of "Sonnet" notes how "I count myself, count myself again".

With a handful of his British compatriots and many an American contemporary, Hazzard's presiding influence is John Ashbery. Ashbery appears in the poems' syntactic jump-cuts, sometimes abstract imagery, and vague but persistent sense of unease. "Some Shadows", an atmospheric lament on the shortcomings of language and one of the book's most striking pieces, surely owes some of its success to Hazzard's study of Ashbery's sestinas. The latter also fuels numerous formal experiments in which Hazzard embraces Oulipian word games. While a poem that consists entirely of palindromic lines or a list of definitions of obscure words will never make for more than a minor curiosity, "Pantoum in Which Wallace Stevens Gives Me Vertigo" achieves a surprisingly witty homage to an American master, as well as to the peculiar pleasures of poetry in general. This playful streak, also apparent in the moral imperatives of "A Few Precepts" ("Keep your mind / on a short leash"; "If you pick at that thread / you'll be caught with your pants down"), offers a welcome reprieve from the tendency to overblown description and windy philosophizing found elsewhere. By the same token, the book's second half contains a few vignettes that shine with lapidary, clear-cut phrasing, proving that less is often more.

first published in the Times Literary Supplement, 9 August 2013