Nothing for it but to Sing by Michael Harlow

Nothing for it but to Sing. Michael Harlow (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2016). ISBN 9781927322628. RRP $25. 64pp. 

Reviewed by Molly Crighton


Nothing for it but to Sing is more like a small book of solo piano sheet music than a book of poetry. Each page is an unexpected modulation — major to minor, minor to major. Keys interact and shift to make poems that are glittering with light but are also dark and deep, like a retina, or a night sky.

Every poem seems to be saying, look — if singing were not the point of it all, then why is the world filled with music? Some poems say this directly:

            Sometimes, I just want to sit down
            and think it over; write a love note

            to someone I’ll never know…
           …Inside the dark
           is the light. To know this—such a relief
           from trying to understand too much.
           (“The night-watch, making the rounds”)

Other poems take a moment or a thought and distil it into an image that is palpable in its potency and its strange, ineffable beauty:

           The twin nuns…
           Their shining elation,
           such unshadowed pleasure, brides of Christ…
           their gold rings kissing
           each other, lightly.
           (“Matrimonial, on a train”)

There is a certain kind of religion that crops up again and again in this collection, which is more akin to light-worship or colour-worship than of a specific divinity. ‘And you are closer to where god / shines a light in your ear’ (“Aftershock”). And in “The holiness of attention”:

           for the barking fox on the hill to be heard.
           This is called at last, the holiness of attention.

In “The company of mapmakers,” holiness manifests in music: ‘trees so musical they are scoring / harmonies of a heaven.’

If there is a tiny god in this book, he is indiscriminate — poems reach from the darkest of circumstances to the most beautiful. In “The late news,” the moment a child is hit by a car is told in stark, raw language:

           You know today is the longest
           day of the year, and it’s
           going to last forever.

 “Reflections: in the wider world” is a zoetrope of ten images: music existing in nature, love flickering in and out of the world as transiently as light, sound as a kind of heaven:

           All this talk flying out
           of heaven, swarms
           of angels, wing-beat vibrato,
           with so much to say
           for themselves—the air
           thick with them.

Reading this book from beginning to end is to be reminded not only what there is to live for, but what we do not even realise we cannot live without. The reader is invited to prostrate themselves before the divinity that lies beneath life’s every moment.

Originally from Wiltshire, Molly Crighton has lived in Dunedin for over a decade. She currently studies English at the University of Otago.

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