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"Simple tokens of death": Salt by David Harsent - review

If poems are like other people’s photographs in which we recognise ourselves, David Harsent’s writing catches us at our most vulnerable, vicious and unnervingly visceral. Reading through his back catalogue gives you the measure of his oeuvre: A Violent Country, After Dark, Dreams of the Dead, Mr Punch, Night. Stalking through an often nightmarish territory of half-apprehended horror and bleakness, the narrators of his poems survey human fear and frailty against the backdrop of an elemental, unforgiving world. Like a scene from a Hitchcockian movie, the worst always seems to be held just out of shot, all the more present for its apparent absence. Redemption and absolution are rarely on offer. Harsent may have a beautiful technical facility for language, its measure, weight and texture, but the ends to which it is put are as black as a darkroom negative.

Salt is Harsent’s first collection since Fire Songs, winner of the 2014 TS Eliot prize. Its poems form a strange sequence of sorts, though their author is resistant to such definitions: “the poems belong to each other”, we are told in a prefatory note, “by way of certain images and words that form a ricochet of echoes”. Fragmentary, fleeting and impressionistic, the poems in Salt are rarely longer than five lines, issued from an anonymous speaker who gives next to nothing away, just as the poems so often explore the apparent next to nothing – a moment, seemingly insignificant, is mined for its sudden significance, as revelation, brief history or omen. Take the following piece, quoted here in full:

He untangled the thing that had snagged in her hair, his hand
through a spectrum, spectral, blurring, a rail of fingers,
to lift the thing in her hair. It would rain that day, cloud low
to the hills, morning as nightfall, her window open to that.

While Salt seems to mark a stylistic departure for Harsent – he has surely written nothing so sparing and eerily suspended – this thematic terrain is all too familiar. Delving into harm, hurt and danger, relaying our little human urges, grievances and tragedies: loss and pain skirt the edges of almost every poem, with the precise, unblinking eye of their shadowy narrator. “She turned towards him, then she turned her back”; “She thought that loss might be measured best in poundage”; “The door was open and the room was dark”; “Hanging rain on a slow wind, open your mouth, give up”: these are just a handful of opening lines at which the book might fall open.

On the one hand, Harsent’s gift for conjuring an entire narrative in brief, gestural utterance pierces through the surface gleam of our petty but all too present human world with startling ease. But on the other, the poems’ seeming refusal to morally engage with the darkness and depravity they evoke will strike some readers as cynical, perhaps even irresponsible. “Sanctum sanctorum, bad breath, smegma, spillage and swill. / Diary of the suicidal child. Broken glass, graffiti, blood. / Ungovernable anger of the convert. Dogshit, the bloom on rot, / the locked book broken and burned”. More than one poem revels in this kind of grim list-making, an inverted litany in which we are challenged to hold our nerve as unblenchingly as the speaker. Is the poem’s suggestion that in such moments we might find our collective true measure? It is hard to tell.

Salt is a more probingly intelligent and involving read when it variously collapses the boundaries between what keeps us clothed, fed and comfortable, and that looming world of genuine pain, horror and destitution to which we could so easily fall. As someone living in the midst of apparent regeneration in a northern city, I see shiny and brash building work occur next to abject poverty and abandonment every day. Harsent’s depictions of homelessness are all the more affecting for being so shorn of sympathy and political anger. “Smell of the alley you might have to come to: piss and piss and piss. / Might have to live in, might have to make your home: / piss and piss and everything you own.” As “rough sleepers turn away”, the narrator matter-of-factly states how we “go by, go by”, a devastating observation as much as a scornful imperative.

Contemplating “the swipe of the butcher’s hand”, the speaker of one poem asks: “What is it you lack / that you should think like this?” The question echoes throughout the pages of Salt. Salt itself tends to surface here as purification, just as “we scatter salt / over slugs to have them writhe in cleanliness, / just as we lavish salt on the flogged man’s back”. But no amount can cure the sorry depths and ills to which these poems bear witness.

However we choose to see and feel and think (or not), Harsent’s poems suggest the unmentionable “stain that runs under everything” is here to stay. Sink to dreams, as the poems’ speaker sometimes does, and the nightmares resurface; turn away, and those “simple tokens of death” are still there, looming. As these poems flicker and shift, haunted by “the spectre of yourself” and a persistent feeling of resigned regret, the sense is of time’s inexorable demands, and the vast unhuman forces arrayed against us. Salt is Harsent’s most precisely bleak book to date, and makes for haunting reading.

review first published in The Guardian