Martin Harrison’s Happiness

Martin Harrison, Happiness (UWA Publishing 2015)

1742586864.jpgI’d pretty much finished writing this blog post when I discovered the special issue of Plumwood Mountain, an ‘Australian journal of ecopoetry and ecopoetics’, dedicated to the memory of Martin Harrison who died in 2014 while Happiness was being prepared for the press. I won’t be offended if you click over to that and don’t bother with the rest of my post. But here it is anyhow:

An email is doing the rounds with the subject line ‘Poetry Experiment’. It asks you to do two things: 1) send a poem – any poem – to the first on a list of two people; and 2) alter the email by moving the second person on that list to the top and adding yourself in second place, then Bcc the altered email to 20 friends. If everyone follows instructions, 400 poems will soon arrive in your inbox.

I did as instructed, and received 4 poems: four famous lines from William Blake, a prose quote from Mahatma Gandhi, Emily Dickinson’s ‘He ate and drank the precious words‘, and a Leunig verse. The person at the top of my list sent me copies of the poems she received. There were five from my friends: some lines from Auden, Shakespeare, and Rumi, and whole poems by Judith Wright and (again) Emily Dickinson.

Tentative conclusions: the vast majority of people don’t take to poetry, or at least to a combination of chain letters and poetry; people are generally more willing to share poetry than to ask other people to do so; and we’re more likely to share favourite lines than whole poems.

Which brings me to Happiness. There are any number of excerpts that would do perfectly for the poetry experiment. For example, this lovely evocation of a landscape in ‘Summer Rain Front, North Coast’:

the mountain mirrored in the instant’s stillness
of the calm sea flooding into the bay
the mountain photoing its image on the waters
over the grounds where dolphins track    and then its scarves
hanging high in the air like drifted parachutes
white against blue

But probably none of its poems is chain-letter material in its entirety – they’re too long, and mostly proceed like conversation rather than performance. That is, the pleasure of reading them doesn’t come so much from brilliant turns of phrase or striking metaphors as from the sense that one is being invited to join the poet in his experience of the world, his loving embrace of it, including that part of it he addresses as ‘you’, which at least sometimes is his lover Nizat Bouheni, to whom the book is dedicated, and who died in 2010. There are love poems, poems filled with meticulous, immersive observations of nature, forty-five pages of elegies. There are a couple of awkward but trenchant poems on the politics of climate change, and an ‘experimental’ poem that an author’s note (kindly) informs us is ‘made up of responses to a randomly sorted set of instructions repeated four times’. And there’s one satirical description of some US Americans abroad.

One of my favourite moments in the book, which is in some ways representative, is in ‘Wallabies’. After three pages of  two-line stanzas evoking the sights and sounds of a particular Australian landscape with something approaching ecstatic fervour (the absence of punctuation may make this hard to decipher at first, but patience pays off):

nothing is dead here the spaces between them are
inhabited leaves twigs debris fallen white-anted trunks

slopes rocks grass parrots galahs floating down
in pink streamers again the grey lack of edge

around sprays cream waterfalls of turpentines flowering
in high irrigated air-blue reaches

and much more, there’s this:

that twenty mile shadow across the claypan’s a fence

which as dusk comes is a lightning-quick snake
momentarily distracting the way they appear

as if from nowhere like sentinels weathered stone
camping in that stubble sunset-toned no like mushrooms

wallabies two of them and then three over there then more
pale half-red underfur letting them melt into late light

alert as the slanting hour’s alert to earth cool as wine
then the shriek as they scatter

I love how the poem enacts the way you often become aware of the presence of wallabies in a landscape rather than see them arrive: they’ve been in the poem for three lines before they are named. They may be the subject of the poem, but they are part of a much bigger field. Harrison’s poetry often seeks out and celebrates the tiny or the evanescent – a blue wren nesting under the eaves on a sweltering day, a moment in a changing skyscape, a half-heard sound in the upstate New York woods. These lines from ‘A Music’, which is the second part of ‘Two for You’, an elegy for Nizar Bouhemi, could be describing much of Harrison’s poetry:

________The singleness
of each event in

its own swerve and
sharpness, drawing

attention and attentiveness
making it seem as if anyone

could just see it, grasp it,
wait to understand

what no one understands

Martin Harrison’s death of a heart attack in 2014 makes this book’s attention to the fleeting and its grappling with the realities of death incredibly poignant


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