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Boy Running

Paul Henry
Publication Date: 
Sunday, February 15, 2015
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Shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year 2016

Paul Henry has gained a reputation as one of of the best poets in the UK. Boy Running is his beautiful sixth collection and the first to follow  The Brittle Sea: New and Selected Poems. We begin in a ‘Studio Flat’. Cut adrift by marital break-up, the poet must sort through the emotional fallout and the various ‘chattels’ left behind; a sea of characteristic props: tables, lamps, metronomes, pianos, guitars. The poet’s sons are at the heart of this section where pathos is balanced by humour amidst the characters of a small country town.

A second section moves to the Welsh coastal town of Henry’s childhood, Aberystwyth, opening with a long poem, ‘Kicking the Stone’ set in the summer of 1969. Also in this section are some familiar characters from earlier poems such as Brown Helen and Catrin Sands.

In the final sequence we meet ‘Davy Blackrock’: washed-up songwriter and modern day alter ego of Dafydd y Garreg Wen (David of the White Rock), alias David Owen (1720-1749), the blind, 18th century harpist and composer who fell asleep on a hill and dreamt the famous song which bears his name. In contrast to David of the White Rock, Davy Blackrock, ‘star of an ashen town’, drags his guitar from street to hotel to bedsit, an unsettled ghost who dreams of the perfect song.


Review by Declan Ryan, The Times Literary Supplement

Friday, March 18, 2016

Paul Henry’s sixth collection opens with “Usk”, a graceful reckoning-up of a failed marriage which acknowledges that “Here is where my past begins”. The opening section of Boy Running is made up of the sort of lyrics Henry has specialized in throughout his career. His diction is straightforward, musical but spare, his image-making rich, surprising and rewarding: “What’s an attic / but a bungalow in the sky?”, he asks in “Studio Flat”, while in “Chattels”, war medals are vividly repurposed as badges of a different failed campaign – “at the end of five rainbows / five medals nobody wore”. Time is practically an embodied sidekick, as Henry the new bachelor relives his marriage through relics and signs, stopped clocks and messy, departed pets. A dog in the reeds becomes a symbol of all that has gone with the relationship, deftly handled, avoiding mawkishness or whimsy, its ending earned by seemingly casual reminiscence which masks a surgical degree of fine detail and phrase-making (“a back-yard’s chandelier of pears”).
Henry’s world is one of the familiar and domestic; his controlled knack for unfolding a thought allows him to toy with near-cliché, turning it in the light enough to retain what’s familiar while alerting the reader to what has, often painfully, been lost. The five-line “Ring” opens with the phrase “I can’t get the ring out
of my finger”, “out of” doing a great deal of work, especially in a poem of such boiled-down intensity (one line for each digit?). The sense of having been branded, which is present throughout this opening set of poems, becomes visceral here. The ring on a finger like a ring on a tree; as love ages, a voice only now counts the cost of weathering experience. This isn’t mere solipsism, however; these poems are not conduits for angst or ennui. In “Ring” the same voice asks “Is it the same with you?” before a clinching, poignant sign-off – “Your fingers were slenderer than mine”. Time is a destination as much as a drinking companion, the speaker’s two “lovely sons” as they sleep can dream “inside the old time again”.
The central section of the book revisits familiar characters from Henry’s earlier volumes, including Catrin Sands and Brown Helen, but also contains a long poem, “Kicking the Stone”, which continues Henry’s self-haunting, with a focus on childhood rather than romantic relationships. There’s a sense of innocence, and of period – “Psychedelic flowers sprawl” – but as before, this is chiefly an obsessive look at time, and all the loss it carries, an attempt to will some reversal in the process made most explicit in the poet’s assertion to the stone: “so long as I kick you / this uneven dustyrise / is the sun’s rubble to build on”. Adult knowledge colours the way the past is recalled, actively and with a furrowed brow. Despite the best efforts of the narrator to recapture faces and sights, the opening doors of neighbours blur into the lids of coffins which now contain them: “all of the hinges / on all of the doors / open their lids / with a deafening roar”.
The final third of the collection sees Henry try on an alter ego, after a fashion, in the shape of Davy Blackrock – part Daffyd y Garreg Wen, the eighteenth-century composer, part washed-up former rock and roller. It’s less a mask, or escape into persona, than another new angle on the book’s obsessions, the loss of love and the failure of ambition both reprised or remixed in a new guise. The high point of this section is “Blackrock: The bedsit years”, a sort of Celtic folk tale as mumbled by a Leonard Cohen fan, remembering days of “murdered mice” before “They slipped a silver ring / onto Blackrock’s finger”. Henry is too exacting and subtle a poet for this to be simply a rehash of the pram in the hall – even as rehashed in the voice of a mythic harpist – but the pang felt in “Blackrock’s Number One” where there are “a thousand Blackrocks / writing the same song” and “for the twenty minutes it takes / he is young” is unmistakable. Henry’s rich, wise and regretful poems should be better known than they are and, like his past in “Usk”, this is a good place to begin.

REVIEW by Michael Bartholomew-Biggs, London Grip

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Paul Henry’s new collection Boy Running contains three sections: ‘Studio Flat’ deals with the dislocations of life after a marriage breaks up; ‘Kicking the Stone’ follows a small boy as he wanders through memories of a 1960s housing estate; and ‘Davy Blackrock’ transposes the story of an 18th century musician into the present day. Three distinct groups of poems – yet their themes and images intertwine and overlap.

The first section begins with the painful process of moving out of one life and into another. In ‘Usk’, the poet tells us Here is where my past begins // in a garret beside a bridge. In ‘Studio Flat’  he faces the aching question And where are you, my sons? – and ‘Usk’ has already provided the answer that they are present only in their holiday grins/ on every bookcase. Initially, objects, such as photographs, are what chiefly preoccupy the poet/narrator as he seeks a new context for himself. Two fine and pared-down poems ‘Ring’ and ‘Piano’ capture the large and the small of it. At one extreme I can’t get the ring out of my finger/…/ this ghost ring, twenty years deep; and at the other there is First shame, then guilt, then a piano – / you left me this piano. / It strikes me I buried you inside it.

Mentions of doors, windows and skylights suggest possibilities of escape or refreshment or illumination; but doors may prove to be closed and skylights are sometimes darkened. Many readers will have had dreams like the one in which the poet rings the bell of a house where he no longer belongs and offers the sorry excuse I’ve lost my keys. It is not only doors that have keys: a stopped clock may stand between the poet and his future:

Either I wind it now
and believe there is time
beyond seven twenty-five
or I post you the key

Later in the section, the poet allows his gaze to move away from domestic objects and furnishings around him and he begins to speculate about the lives of other people – like the picture framer responsible for the displayed photos of his boys on the bookcase. He writes to an absent landlord, complaining about the man in the upstairs flat (who, one suspects, is himself): He is too quiet. / His thoughts are deafening. Particularly movingly, in ‘St Julia’s Prayer’, he looks for ways in which consolation might reach him in his solitude:

I’ve closed the skylight for the night.
I hope that your prayer slipped in
in time, and was not too exhausted
The lamplight makes me monstrous
on the far wall. Perhaps your prayer
forgives such ugliness...

The poems in this fine opening sequence are likely to find the tender spots in the psyche of anyone who has at some time felt themselves to be bereft.

‘Kicking the Stone’ takes us on a journey through remembered suburban streets with the suggestion that former residents are all dead: In place of graves, front doors / name the neighbours. But a few lines further on he imagines a kind of resurrection as

... all of the doors
open their lids
with a deafening roar

As the boy and the stone make their erratic way up the road we meet the inhabitants – or at least we see some traces of their presence. For instance

The Bachelor’s in the boot
of his latest Anglia
testing the suspension.
He keeps on his cap and coat

I wonder if it is Henry’s intention that I should be reminded here of Lennon & McCartney’s banker with a motor car who never wears a mac in the pouring rain. ‘Penny Lane’ is certainly from the same period as the one in which the poem is set. There seem to be other playful allusions in the lines which follow. It may be stretching a point to see a hint at Heaney’s ‘A Constable Calls’ in the observation A bicycle sleeps on its side, its back wheel still spinning, … Tick,tick,tick,tick; but there can surely be little doubt about the implied reference behind the speculation Do I dare to / ring a bell?

It is also plausible to infer that the boy kicking the stone is Henry himself. The descriptions of estate life are an adult’s skilful honing of a child’s experiences. They range from imaginatively accurate observation of children priestly in duffel coats or the one white hair / in Siân’s ginger dizziness to a fantastical account of a tea-trolley whose brakes don’t work.

Its scones wear goggles,
hold the tatted doilies down.
Its casters laugh, hysterically

as they round the barking bend.

It is quite something to coin a variation on ‘barking mad’ and sound a little Dylan Thomas-ish at the same time. Such artful language captures both the precision and the craziness of memory running free.

The main character in the book’s third section is Davy Blackrock. The back cover describes him as ‘a washed-up songwriter’ and calls him an alter ego of a real 18th century harpist called David of the White Rock. But of course Davy Blackrock has much in common with Henry himself, who is also a musician, singer and composer. The poems bear some similarity to the bleak household descriptions in ‘Studio Flat’: A tap warbles all night /in Blackrock’s flat / where the mice have wings. Blackrock’s ‘bedsit years’owned a rent book / and sometimes fell behind and they sang between cracked walls / made plans, murdered mice. But they also slipped a silver ring/ onto Blackrock’s finger. It shone / when he played to his children. And from this point on, the trajectory of Blackrock’s story – his song writing, his touring, his successes – curves back towards the possibility of loss and the memories of a boy skimming stones / with his old man and the dreams of a man who inspects his clouds through a skylight much like the one through which St Julia’s prayer might have slipped in.

This is a book whose power is extended with each re-reading. Much of its conviction comes from Henry’s often startling ability to make us look afresh at familiar things in ways which give us a glimpse into the emotions of others. Observations like Socks hang like bats from the skylight and conjectures such as What’s an attic / but a bungalow in the sky are as memorable as lines of Henry’s which still come back to me from his earlier book captive audience (1996): The Sorting-Office factory-farms the mail;and (sadly appropriate to this new book) Glazed marriages hang by a single nail. Henry’s skills have clearly not diminished in the last twenty years.


Review by Matthew Stewart, Rogue Strands

Thursday, March 19, 2015

An endless struggle with the years, Paul Henry's Boy Running

Some poets seem to shed identities with every publication, but Paul Henry’s individual books lend themselves to being seen as a part of a whole. Each of them engages in a dialogue with its predecessors. In that respect, this review will focus on his new collection, Boy Running (Seren, 2015), while also contextualising his recent work in the light of what has come before. In fact, Henry implicitly asks his reader to do so. The notes at the back of Boy Running state that Usk, its opening poem, answers “Sold”, the last poem in Ingrid’s Husband  (Seren, 2007), his previous collection.

Let’s look at how the relationship between these two pieces unfolds, starting with “Sold”. Cards on the table: I’m in love with this poem and have carried it in my head since first reading it several years ago. I’ve long been interested in the dynamic of how a house becomes a home and vice versa, a process which Henry captures exquisitely as his family prepares to move. He ends with questions:

“Shall we stay or leave then, love?
It’s only the years moving inside us
and everything hurts in autumn.
Where shall we put them,
the years, in our new house?
the years we are moving out of?”

“Usk” starts by providing unexpected answers to those questions with a brusque lyricism:

“So we’ve moved out of the years.
I am finally back upstream
and, but for their holiday dreams
on every bookcase, the boys
were never born, it was a dream.
Here is where my past begins…”

As a stand-alone piece, “Usk” is already moving. However, in the context of Henry’s earlier poetry, it’s an emotional earthquake. I’m not just referring to the afore-mentioned link with “Sold”, but with his entire body of work: I know of few poets who are as capable of treasuring and portraying fatherhood as well as Henry, such as in the outstanding poem “The Breath of Sleeping Boys” from Captive Audience (Seren, 1996), yet here we find him stating “the boys were never born”. Furthermore, the sudden shift from first person plural to singular is packed with ramifications that reach out through Boy Running.

The first section in the collection, “Studio Flat”, is explicit in these concerns. Of special interest is Henry’s changing use of the term “the years”. In previous books, it was charged with ambivalence. Now, it’s a torturous reminder of what has been lost, as in the opening verse of “The Bright Room”:

“Every night you turned away,
your back a door closing on me,
untouchable, over and over
on the hinges of four seasons,
your dark door closing on the years…”

The book’s second section, meanwhile, is titled “Kicking the Stone”.  Again, it goes over familiar ground for Henry aficionados with a fresh twist. The Welsh suburbia of Henry’s childhood is beautifully evoked, and we revisit several characters who cropped up in Captive Audience, such as Catrin Sands and Brown Helen, although the poet’s perspective of them is once more shifting from ambivalence to something darker. Yet again, ”The years have/slipped their mooring” and there is the presence of “your teenage ghost.” Henry is finding himself reflected in these very characters who seemed so different from him back in the 1990s.

And so to the third and final section of Boy Running. Titled “Davy Blackrock”, this is perhaps the most wide-reaching part of the book. Davy Blackrock is a modern day alter ego of Dafydd y Garreg Wen, both musicians who dream of a perfect song. Of course, there’s also an extra alter ego to layer in: that of Paul Henry himself.

“Davy Blackrock” interweaves the personal, the pastoral and the urban. Where Henry reduced the space between the poet and the page to a maximum in “Studio Flat”, here he’s stretching it out. One such example can be found in this extract from “Blackrock: the Bedsit Years”:

“…They slipped a silver ring
onto Blackrock’s finger. It shone
when he played to his children,
up and down the neck as he sang
with a black guitar on his knee.
But they hid in his dreams,
the years, biding their time,
the dust on the attic’s L.P’s.

The first child flew, the second.
Come back, carnival years!
If I should lose your love dear…
sings the fire to the wind.
And the lost years are calling,
the mousehole bedsits, the sex.
Inside a stairwell’s vortex
Blackrock is falling, falling…

Once again, we encounter the guitar of Henry’s earlier books, the children, the ring that branded his finger in a gorgeous piece in “Studio Flat”, all filtered through another character in this instance. Boy Running might seem a disparate book at first reading, but its coherence is deep. Above all, however, Davy Blackrock, Dafydd y Garreg Wen and especially Paul Henry are in an endless struggle with “the years”.

As you’ve probably gathered by now, I thoroughly enjoyed Boy Running. If anything, Henry’s lyricism has been distilled still further by his suffering, and has led to his most ambitious work to date. I very much recommend you get hold of a copy, but why not read The Brittle Sea, New and Selected Poems (Seren, 2010) first, and accompany him from the start of his journey?

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