Review by Samuel Harris
“Down the years, how your voice, / that phrase, have haunted me.”
Harry Ricketts’s 2015 collection Half Dark reflects on the past and on the way it permeates, or even annexes, our present lives.
This haunting is not a wallowing in nostalgia and melancholy though: Ricketts’ poetry is marked by a dexterous wit and a humane and clear insight. For every line like the one above (from ‘Gap’), there are: “Well! Back then we called things ‘out of sight’ ” (‘In Rome with you’); “Alder D one night after Lights Out whispered: / What’s it got in its pocketses, my precious?’ ’’ (‘Others’); or “…here the desk on which you marked / twenty-five essays on bad sex in The Wasteland – ” (‘Room’), where memory is something vital and to be savoured.
This wit is a skewer in two poems placed next to each other on facing pages, ‘Folly House’ and ‘A modern Creed’. The first pokes fun at a full-of-himself student who “has de-Freudenised himself” and the other neatly pricks the bubble of a fuzzy kind of religious belief: “I believe in God the mother, sharer of crystals and echinacea … / And I believe Jesus was awesome.”
There’s music in “some soupçon about the Hong Kong weather. // On long summer afternoons over lapsang souchong” from ‘Weather’ (say it aloud!), in the half-rhyme of ‘Wolfsbane’: “You test the past for breaking strain,/ for love gone wrong, and who or what was to blame”, and interesting allusions and borrowings throughout, like this from ‘Buchmess, Frankfurt 2012’:
We do our best to do our stuff,
our quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle.
The Lion in the Meadow meets Alan Duff:
We do our best to do our stuff.
The middle third of the book explores the triolet. Ricketts explains in a note that this poetic form can lead to “poems embodying confinement and the inability to break out of particular cycles of thought, feeling and behaviour”. See the repeated “It’s not what happens to people that matters but what they think happens” (‘Preserving the myth’) and the line “Watch the rat in the maze run on again,/ it’s pointless but you do it just the same”, from ‘Wolfsbane’ again.
Where to then, from this annexation of the present by the haunting past? The warmth and wit in these poems indicate that the rat’s maze can, in fact, be exited, and the final two poems offer some kind of summing up.
Hope is right there in the title of ‘Second Chances’ and in these lines:
You were in the middle way,
mire-deep in misery, sinking, clutching.
And then, suddenly, dry land,
new life, the ever whatever. …
It didn’t make sense, and still doesn’t. But you took the chance when it came again, trusted love, not persuasion.
His poems give a fair idea of what Ricketts means by that word love: sincerity, honesty, gentleness. The final poem ‘About’ foregrounds the word, opening with “Love, we knew, was what it was about” but is not a pat sentimental summation. The poem is a villanelle and this form, in its repetition of the first line above and the third “It was easy to believe and not to doubt”, plays with those lines, suggesting that, although love is what life is about, there is both nothing as easy and nothing so hard as taking the chance and loving the people around us.