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The Brittle Sea

Paul Henry
Publication Date: 
Monday, October 18, 2010
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"I am at a loss to understand why this poet, who not only concerns himself with themes that would resonate with most readers but has the verbal and musical skill to make them resonate, is not more widely known and admired. When, recently, I had to name 15 authors who were important to me, he came up below Louise Gluck and Edwin Morgan, which still feels about right. -- Sheenagh Pugh

"The new, previously unpublished poems...represent the best work of a lyric poet who deserves a wider readership." -- TLS

"This is a beautiful, moving book concerned with a preservation and celebration of the past: poignant, yet unsentimental. It is a must for fans of Henry's work and a thoughtful selection for readers coming to his poems for the first time." New Welsh Review

This substantial selection from the work of Paul Henry confirms that he has over two decades, been quietly building an oeuvre of beautifully crafted poems. And, by popular request, in the "new poems" section, rugby fans will find the three poems Henry was commissioned to write for BBC2's 'Poetry in Motion', which celebrated the Welsh national rugby team as they prepared for the 2007 rugby world cup. Born in Aberystwyth on the west coast of Wales, into a family of musicians, music pervades his poems on childhood, as do a large cast of aunts, neighbours, friends and relations, many of whom appear in Dylan Thomas-like character sketches. Henry doesn't pin his characters down but allows them to flourish as archetypes, evokes their history and context with a rare empathy and a lyrical lightness of touch. Some of his earliest portrait-poems are set against the Breconshire villages where Henry lived from his mid teens, a move south to Newport, Gwent, inspires poems about the undulating river Usk and the post-industrial cityscape and its impact on people's lives. The individual human voice, the ragged vagaries of the heart and soul, the joys and sorrows of family life feature here but this poetry is personal without being confessional, preferring tender observation to sensationalism or didacticism. For a poet well-known for one-page lyrics it is instructive to be reminded or several of his longer sequences, such as those in 'The Shell House' which vary in tone per section, much like a concerto or musical piece.

Review from Rogue Strands blog

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Review from New Welsh Review

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Paul Henry, described by the late UA Fanthorpe as 'a poet's poet', deserves a far wider readership. It is certainly the right time in his twenty-year career for his achievements to be marked by this publication, which gathers a selection of poems from Henry's five Seren collections, as well as twenty-five recent poems. Henry's confirmed poet-friendly status can be in part put down to his technical assurance, confidence in his material and his voice. There is no showing off no jarring or forced rhymes; his poems are economical but resonant. These subtle sound effects are no doubt a result of his training as a musician. He employs internal assonance and half rhymes that give the poems a loose, informal quality (while always retaining shape and rhythm) and never feel imposed. In an interview with Sheenagh Pugh, Henry says that he form his poems take it often arrived at by accident (by following the music's lead) and that makes a conscious effort to 'bury' his rhymes: 'I think the music has to be there, but as an orchestration of silence. 'There are pleasing consonantal chimes that suggest the cadences of cynghanedd in Welsh-language verse. Reading Henry puts me in mind of George Szirtes' statement that a good poet's job is to make rhyme unpredictable, surprising.

This is a beautiful, moving book concerned with a preservation and celebration of the past: poignant, yet unsentimental. It is a must for fans of Henry's work and a thoughtful selection for readers coming to his poems for the first time.

Tamar Yoseloff, New Welsh Review Issue 94

09/12/2011 - 12:34
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Review from TLS

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"This generous 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, how people and places change, as so our relationships with them.... Henry's poems are often expressionistic, even symbolist... with formal and time and space-bending panache to boot. The new, previously unpublished poems...represent the best work of a lyric poet who deserves a wider readership."

22/07/2011 - 13:54
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Review from North No.47

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Paul Henry has a musician's ear and a painter's eye, and in these poems you also feel the sand underfoot. The Brittle Sea contains selections from five previous books, and twenty-five new poems, woven together by the tides, by the boats that ride them, and by Welsh landscapes - rural and urban. His other trade is song-writing, and the rhythms and refrains in many of these poems demand that they be read aloud, demand to be set to a tune. He seems most at home with music. 'The Busker' from his first collection Time Pieces (1991) begins:

Chagall's black-eyed violinist,
is busking outside Saint David's Hall, blue-handing Irish jigs to the air

As the poem continues he sustains the image with the apparent ease of the skilled improviser, stepping us back in time to another place, another possible life.

Henry is known as a poet of fatherhood, but here also are men as sons, brothers, cousins, team-mates, friends, with all their violence, camaraderie and tenderness. To sat these poems shed light on masculinity suggests and earnestness that do not have, for they are grounded in well-observed daily rituals and interactions. 'Conditioning; (surely a double-meaning) gives us a scene from barber's salon in Old Comptons Street coupled with '(at) the other extreme if the motorway', a butcher who scrubs 'another bloody silence from his hands', then blesses 'the sleeping baby's locks', In 'Town Planner, the planner (instantly recognisable) enquires which routes his visitors have take, 'then informs them, sedately, / how they might have come another way.' Some of the most moving poems, such as 'The Breath of Sleeping Boys' and 'The Black Guitar', deal with boyhood and lost boyhood. There's also humorous take on men banding together in search of adventure, even if it's only a car to push;

a make shift pack, crew, squadron
because this is what men do well on a field, at sea, in the air ...
(Six Men in Search of a Car')

The joke is that the car is long gone before they get there so there is 'nothing to put muscle into, / no war, no coalface'. A recent poem inspired by the Welsh rugby team, deftly gathers intimate, national and global concerns:

(there) is time to save
or fumble a planet
to catch its dewy head

and nurse it
close to your chest to your heart

'The Visitors', a playful and intriguing sequence from his third collection The Milk Thief (1998), is an elegy to 'the women of my earliest years': Brown Helen, Catrin Sands, Gwyneth Blue, Nightingale Anne and others. These are more than childhood sweethearts, teachers, friends and lovers; they are also boats with creaking boards, frayed nets, sea rails, or the 'cool airy distance' of a fine white yacht. Sensual and mythical, these characters are reminiscent of Under Milk Wood and or something older, the archetypes of fairy-tales and legends.

As his voice develops, 'the sea's architecture' (from the title poem) becomes Henry's instinctive territory. He takes increasing risks with the surreal, with images that come out of left-field: 'I was twelve when I murdered for silence' ('Twelve'). The metaphors gain immediacy and focus, as in 'Three Women Running for a Bus' where the three women are the narrator's wife, mother and daughter, and he is on the top deck as the bus pulls away, waving at them and 'calling back like a fish / miming its life's soliloquy'.

The recent poems incline towards grief, with elegies for lost love and lost music: 'What song do you sing as the light fades?' ('Arcades'). Read Paul Henry for his essential, filmic images, and especially his music.

River Wolton The North No. 47

18/04/2011 - 16:12
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Review from Planet

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Paul Henry’s unusualness arises from his relationship with symbolism, which no other contemporary Anglo phone poet draws upon as un ironically as he. Symbols such as the sea ad the moon are repeated motifs in his work; he uses synaesthesia to procure surprising collocations; he is preoccupied with the significance of absence in its relationship with presence, and he refers constantly to music as an analogy. These aspects of his work indicate his connection to a tradition that contemporary poetry has mostly eschewed in its preference for imagism and realism, and they account for his ability to evoke a sense of tantalising mystery underlying the quotidian surface of things... Ian Gregson, Planet, Feb 2011

21/03/2011 - 12:46
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Review from Magma

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There's a consistency of tone and voice in Paul Henry's work - gentle, regretful and effortlessly musical - stretching from the earliest poems in 1991's Time Pieces right through to the present day. There's also a consistency of quality that frequently had me wondering why he's not lauded more often and more loudly on the British poetry scene. That debut volume, for example, paints rounded characters and a convincingly real picture of rural Wales. If he's considerably warmer in doing so than his compatriot RS Thomas, against whose standards it's hard not to judge any Welsh poet writing in English, he's not afraid to undermine any instinct towards sentimentality, warning in 'The Village, A State of Untruth' that "You have come back to what never was" before going on to play with the very idea of memories. And while memories - of family, home and neighbours, mainly - are a major concern throughout his work, he never descends into mere nostalgia. That's because Henry's use of language is extremely economical, filling in only the bare minimum of details. That leaves room for you, as the reader, to participate in creating the back-story, making poems such as the heartbreaking sonnet 'The Black Guitar' all the more rewarding. It's a poem that also highlights one of Henry's other great skills - the ability to squeeze an immense amount of genuine feeling out of what, on the face of it, is thoroughly pared-down language. In this case the sparsest description of finding an old guitar in a wardrobe, and the simple repetition of a child's name, build tension and emotion until the moment that the poet: ... left it, brought down the night on it, for fear, Joe of hearing your unbroken voice, or the sea if I played it. That ability to build then suddenly release emotion certainly owes something to Henry's previous existence as a singer-songwriter, as does his appreciation of the fact that, in any music, the notes you don't play are just as important as those you do. So, throughout the book, silence is both a tool for the poet, and a theme. 'Twelve', from The Slipped Leash (2002) describes shooting a singing thrush as a child, with Henry remembering that: Silence played a deeper tune than my father's violin, its bullets swifter and cleaner than any note his dusty bow could fire. The new poems revisit some of the characters seen earlier in the book, but also boast, in 'Steel', a piece which proves it's possible to write good, but far from straightforward poems about sport (rugby in this case, of course), with great lines such as "there is time to look up / and catch an idea as it falls." Elsewhere, they maintain that concern with silence, and especially the silences that punctuate all the closest relationships. Which brings us back to the question of why Henry retains such a relatively low profile. At least in part, it must be because of the very reticence which is such a strong part of his poetry. There's never anything flashy or attention-seeking about it, but there are rich rewards there for those willing to listen. Matt Merritt, Magma, January 2011

17/01/2011 - 13:41
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Review from Poetry Wales

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How apt that a quote from Louis MacNeice spreads its brilliant autumn light over this gathering of Henry's work: 'Round the corner is - sooner or later - the sea.' The sea is always close to Henry's poems as a container of the past, reminding us, as MacNeice does, of the body, absence and transience. The more I read Henry, the more I respect the way he revisits his subjects and deepens his consideration of their meaning. The intensity of his metaphors and lyricism give Henry the force of Michael Longley, another poet passionate about MacNeice and whose work increasingly focused on loss and time. Henry's tenderness towards the people in his poem, his ability to elevate the spirit, are other qualities he shares with Longley. This body of work contains nearly twenty years' worth of poems from five collections, as well as 25 new ones. It shows Henry is one of the most inventive and consistent contemporary poets. He appears to sit with, metaphor until he understands it, can nurture it and offer it the best opportunity to thrive. Consequently, it's no surprise that so much of his work is about the empathy that keeps love going. This emotional craft is evident throughout The Brittle Sea but the weight of it is particularly expressed in 'Sold' from 'Ingrid's Husband.' His new poems bring back a band of women 'of my earliest years' with intriguing names, Catrin Sands, Brown Helen, Gwyneth Blue, Prydwen Jane, Edith, Janina and Geta. Many of them are from his 1998 collection, 'The Milk Thief' and they have the power of childhood landmarks, their names forged in landscape. Let's hope this is the opportunity for Henry - praised by the late U A Fanthorpe, Hugo Williams and Carol Rumens to enjoy the wider respect he deserves. Jackie Wills, Poetry Wales Winter 2010/11

17/01/2011 - 10:12
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Review by Sheenagh Pugh

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I'd heard most of these new poems at various readings, and been so impressed by them that I turned to the end of the book first to read them. But don't do this at home unless you already know Henry's work well, because some of those new poems, including "Penllain", which I've blogged before, derive part of their powerful, brooding nostalgia from reprising characters who first appeared in earlier work, notably 'The Milk Thief' (Seren 1998). Henry, a musician and song writer as well as a poet, has always been one for using the techniques of reprise and refrain; there are poems from Ingrid's Husband, like "The Snow Dome" and the section of "Gestures" beginning "I want you close before I go" that are effectively, though unobtrusively, rondeaux, and the whole of "Penllain" is a verbal fugue, with motifs, images and people from the past endlessly shifting and recurring, coming around again as things do. When I think of some of the almost unsayable, and certainly unmemorable, prose in lines that passes for free verse, and of some highly praised competition-winning poems that resemble determinedly quirky exercises rather than an attempt to articulate anything important enough to need saying, I am at a loss to understand why this poet, who not only concerns himself with themes that would resonate with most readers but has the verbal and musical skill to make them resonate, is not more widely known and admired. When, recently, I had to name 15 authors who were important to me, he came up below Louise Gluck and Edwin Morgan, which still feels about right.


Sheenagh Pugh's Blog

02/11/2010 - 13:55


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Review from The Sunday Times

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“Like the city he grew up in, Liam Carson’s memoir of life in Belfast winds like a tangled web of streets, dreams, cultures and philosophies, where every page, pavement and street corner offer another dab of colour to a fascinating picture… Carson’s natural push against his parents in the 1970s coincided with the devastating change in Belfast’s complexion. Its nascent punk scene offered a soundtrack to life in a war zone. While Carson read new-wave science fiction and moved to London, his mother, Mary, drifted away from a language partly hijacked by republican violence. His father, though, retreated to his books. It seems he was living, writes Carson, ‘just off reality.’

“In time, the detached universe William created offered his son profound truths that defined the rest of his life. His father often spoke of tearmann—the idea of the Irish language as sanctuary where the language’s power to shape culture could be celebrated and explored. It is a daunting idea, but Carson handles his journey to accepting the ideas with great skill, successfully conveying the concept of the Irish language as a living, breathing organism without alienating the simplest, most compelling episodes of family life that make this book so moving in parts.

“His description of his mother’s Alzheimer’s disease and eventual death are blessed with clarity, gentleness and a heart-wrenching sadness. His memories of shared moments with his father are beautifully rendered… Carson’s greatest achievement is recycling a complex mix of emotions and ideas on language into a deeply moving read.”

Michael Foley, The Sunday Times

04/07/2012 - 15:28
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Review from The Sunday Telegraph

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"A tender, contemplative memoir examining Carson's upbringing in a happy but complex Irish-speaking household during the Troubles; it eulogises not only his parents but the Irish language itself"

The Sunday Telegraph 2012

17/12/2012 - 10:43
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Call Mother a Lonely Field New Welsh Review

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"Amy Mc Cauley discovers language is sanctuary in this memoir nominated for the Ondaaje Prize"

Liam Carson’s Call Mother a Lonely Field is a memoir of a very strange kind. Although it features some of the standard characteristics of memoir: family narrative, the odd humorous anecdote, photographs, etc, the book is much more than the sum of its parts, chiefly because Carson turns the usual chronological format inside out. Time here is fluid; like memory, it doesn’t simply represent the accumulation of events in a sequential manner. Carson instead puts forward an alternative view – one popularised by JW Dunne - which argues that ‘all time is eternally present. In other words, the past, present and future coexist.’ Carson goes on to suggest that ‘we exist on two levels, both inside and outside time.’ This idea is absolutely central: it relates not simply to the philosophical atmosphere but to the structure of the text, which embodies the very concept it proposes.
The book is also about our experience of identity. Carson comes across as a protean character – a man who reads, dreams and wanders. At various stages of his life he adopts different selves, each of which he rejects. But his relationship to these selves is alive with the spirit of enquiry. Carson is careful to resist the monomania of autobiography, however. This is firstly (and most importantly) a paean to his parents, and secondly a love letter to the Irish language.
Carson, who was born in 1962 in Mooreland, part of the Falls area of Belfast, writes lyrically about his parents, ‘the Ma’ and ‘the Da’. He says:

My parents were Falls people, with all that they entailed. Catholic people. Nationalist people. They belonged to a particular world with particular values […] In the ritual of the mass they were bound to their neighbours, to the world, to God. In the incense, the statues, the Stations of the Cross, the rosary, the stained glass, the Latin, they reaches a from of communion and community that held up their daily lives.

He goes on to say that ‘One afternoon [my Da] told me if he’d been in Iran, he would have been a devout Muslim. Perhaps it was not so important to be Catholic as it was to believe.’
‘The Da’, for me, is the most fascinating character. His singular strength is underlined by a story Carson hears only after his father’s death. When the Da joins the IRA in the 1940s, he soon realises he will have to kill. Unable to square this with his strong Christian faith, the Da leaves, only to find himself arrested and jailed. When he is released from prison he returns to work (as a postman) he finds his pay has been docked for his time spent inside. Carson writes, ‘He took a court case, logically arguing that since his employer and his gaoler were one and the same – the Royal Mail and His Majesty’s Prison Service, in other words, the King - then it followed what his employer was the cause of his absence.’ The Da wins the case and sets a legal precedent.
Call Mother a Lonely Field is full of these unrecorded, ‘unofficial’ histories. Personal family mythologies – songs, stories, poems and dreams – stand shoulder to shoulder with violent reality of Belfast’s ‘Troubles’ from the 1970s onwards. Structurally. I is like a home, each chapter is a different room witits own distinctive atmosphere and pressure, while the presence of dreams is a brave and valuable addition. They represent the hidden strand – the inner supports – of a person’s experience, and it is Carson’s unification of physical, human, linguistic and psychic geographies which make this a real stand-out read. If I had to pick a weakness I would say the ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ section of the book (detailing Carson’s love of comic books) felt slightly out of place, but otherwise I found it quite gripping. Most powerful for me was Carson’s suggestion that language is an environment we inhabit - a sanctuary which can be used to represent the various visible and invisible environments we occupy both physically and in our imaginary lives. The hidden places of memory, childhood, identity and dreams therefore become achievement is the meshing of the public and private worlds so often kept separate by the official records of history.

Amy McCauley for New Welsh Review

04/09/2013 - 11:45
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