Editorial note: this essay was originally published in 1996 as an issue of ‘Pages’ magazine, edited by Robert Sheppard. It is being re-published here to coincide with the recent publication of Halsey’s ‘Marginalien’ (Five Seasons), and ‘Selected Poems’ (Salt), which between them encompass the period covered by this essay. The essay is approximately 8,500 words long, or roughly 18 printed pages. The copyright belongs to Gavin Selerie.
Tracks Across the Wordland: The Work of Alan Halsey 1977-1996
Born in 1949, Alan Halsey belongs to a generation which experienced first the privation of the 1950s, then the heady optimism of the 1960s (at a peak point of contact), and subsequently the phases of talked-up prosperity and actual disintegration in end-of-the-century light. That each of these myths is subjected to criticism in Halsey's poetry should not obscure the central pattern of experience: from Robin Hood to Kerouac to Beefheart and so on. Three further biographical facts are relevant to an understanding of Halsey's art. At university he studied Philosophy and although his work resists the label 'poetry of ideas', it nevertheless involves an acute attention to structures of representation in language. Since 1977 Halsey has lived in Hay-on-Wye, on the Welsh-English border, a setting which, in its remoteness and eventfulness, offers a unique perspective on the mix of forces which constitute 'British' culture. Halsey makes his living as a bookseller and this activity has informed his writing in two significant ways: it has provided an insight into processes of economic exchange, and it has encouraged an unusually close and broad reading of texts. The trade, with all its difficulties, has given this writer a contingent resourcefulness.
A reader notices immediately Halsey's preoccupation with the physical properties of the line, whether in the concrete alphabet poems or in the projective and margin-held work. There is little space here to deal with Halsey's graphic designs but it is worth emphasizing that this is another important dimension to his procedures. The presence of visual images in Five Years Out is just a hint of the extensive artwork which has accompanied or supplemented the verbal material. Examples include the cover illustrations for Perspectives on the Reach, taken from a sequence of prints titled North by North, the Stone Texts for my serial poem Azimuth (1984) and the drawings for Kelvin Corcoran's The Next Wave (1990), both sympathetic through-going responses, and a multitude of postcard designs which deserve to be collected in book form. The Sonata cards, which develop out of Dada (and Halsey's Auto Dada Café), are particularly impressive, with titles such as Old-fashioned Modernist Rope Sonata for H.N. Werkman & Queen Ti. Visual collage, with its pressure in miniature, becomes crucially prominent in the pamphlet Spells Against Green Field Development.
Halsey's first mature work is Yearspace, written in 1977-78 at three locations: on the edge of Dartmoor, on the West Sussex downs, and in Hay. The text, which consists of eleven sections, was edited from an erratically-kept verse-journal. Jeff Nuttall, reviewing this book in the Guardian (21.6.80), classed Halsey as a 'wild-life-warden' poet, that is, one of those ex-hippies who have 'retired to rural obscurity ... [to] record themselves and their surroundings.' Description of nature is certainly an important element ('the lovely red wing of a peacock/holds the potato-digger's eye'), and simple, direct observation is combined with a mystical impulse: 'we talked of Blake/and lightning forked across the hills'. But the operation of the structure as a whole, which is more Coleridgean than Wordsworthian, and the pulse of the individual lines, various in tone, make Yearspace more complex than Nuttall's account might suggest. Already there is a sense that meaning is created within linguistic space: 'Tonight/the flight/of swallows/in half-light/that no pen/knows/their open/now closed/—in a second! —formation—/to put words in relation ...' (section IV). Such passages anticipate the concern with verbal fabric which is so evident in Halsey's work of the late 1980s, but this text has an emotional fulness that gets submerged in the work of the latter period. Wordplay ('Haze'll hide me Mountain/ways'll guide me') occurs alongside straighter usage ('picking up conkers like when I was a boy'). There are Poundian juxtapositions, as in the incorporation of Chinese and English historical material in sections I and III, but the effect is never merely imitative.
Halsey's next book, Present State, was written as a continuous sequence ('literally starting at the beginning and writing through to the end, 10-30 lines a day') in November-December 1978. It has five parts. Section 1, dedicated to Bill Griffiths, articulates with a coiling torsion the layers that make a long-grown culture: peoples moving in and over place. There is a scrupulous feel for the weight of words here, with much syntactical energy and inventiveness. A playful element, as often in Halsey's work, keeps the thought sparking: 'for a gnosis/he says "noses"/he sniffs out plague'. Section II, Saxon Ghost Songs, was collage-edited from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It is the most achieved part of the sequence, echoing but not duplicating Anglo-Saxon forms through the use of 4-beat stress, alliteration, and the suppression of articles. Ghost indicates a 'shadow-pattern' as well as voice attribution. Section III, Memorials of the English Affairs, derives from materials which Halsey had gathered in the sixth form. The Digger references are a reminder that Present State, like Yearspace, hovers in the slipstream of 1960s idealism. Up for scrutiny, the impulse is still potent: 'base, be/out of law's/conquerer's reach,/judge judges, be swearing i'th light, fucking lovely.' Halsey's concerns and procedures here parallel Bill Griffiths's ('hacking on barz'—Cycles 16), but they also look forward to his own Robin Hood Book (1995/6). Section IV features Jacob Boehme taking the rulers of the island to task for confusing ceremony and magic. Section V, Albion Bound, deals with the highway along the body of Albion, 'the spinal thread'. Power is dissected largely in terms of finance and there is a more contemporary focus: 'Albion rises in Metal Box/on the FT Index.' A typical Halsey touch is 'Albion's bossed and bound,' an arrangement which allows a play on 'boss' and 'emboss'. Because the text draws on Douglas's Social Cedit the influence of the Cantos may be felt but not in the narrow column ('spine') of the lines.
Perspectives on the Reach dates from 1978-80 and thus partly overlaps with Present State. The order of writing was V-I-II-IV-III, 'title section last, to bind the whole.' As one might expect with the beginning of the Thatcher era, there is a more severe appraisal of the State and states: terms and references pile up, the lyric tone dims, and the lines broaden into blocks. The title is explained by the epigraphs, one from Richard II concerning perspective pictures or multiplying glasses and the other from a May 1939 directive concerning archer symbolism and national identity. Perspective pictures 'rightly gaz'd upon,/show nothing but confusion'; yet 'ey'd awry', they 'Distinguish form.' Each part of the text has an epigraph from Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, a pointer that the focus is on 'the workings of our language'. Section I provides different views of Albion, the macrocosm. Place is primed with visionary possibility but an awareness of history is blocked: 'Heresies, trinities split by the civil wars,/were woodwormed & sold in Sussex as antiques'. This Blakean mode gives way to a more personal and local investigation in the next section. The letter form and matter suggest a link with Williams and Olson but the pace and tone do not seem reminiscent of Paterson or The Maximus Poems..The opening of the Third Letter, with its easily delivered epigram, reminds one that Halsey has been a careful reader of J.H. Prynne over the years, contributing a long review of Prynne's Poems to P.N Review. Details of Hay town life are delineated with a conversational edge that sharpens over the line, making small business—in both senses—an index of wider 'change and exchange'. The critique of Church, colonial overlordship and exploitative Finance crystallizes at the end of Letter Six in a call to reach for what the word can do: 'It is time we spoke/of the drainage, channels and currents/we all must tunnel without/dog-priest or guidebook'.
The third, title, section of 'Perspectives' was collage-edited from Keith Feiling's 'History of England' but it also contains some deeply embedded personal material and Hay-references. As Paul Green has noted, the 'seventeen numbered parts [are] concerned enough with English medieval history to be read as personal monologues of the time.' These prose blocks dramatize how life at the margin-to use a capital-biased term-has been gripped, and at times lost, by the radial spokes of London: 'Those lands had a song. The giant was nations of distributed cities, found resources and short-minded passion' (14). Halsey's exposure of strata in an instant takes on a more projective form in section IV. 'Event Horizons' is a continuous sequence of verse text, the slopes and columns embodying cathedral architecture which, for Spengler, is the Western consciousness yearning for infinity. Halsey focuses on the contrast between this 'well-ordered' and angel-driven aesthetic in the springtime of the West and its destruction-specifically at Coventry and Dresden-in the winter of that culture. At the end of Faustian soaring 'we meet our own pollution/coming home.' Section V, '55 Texts for the Journey', was originally a 'reading' of Paul Klee; it was then re-arranged in numbered paragraphs for inclusion in the larger work. The fifty-five statements form a narrative, perhaps as Green says 'an exercise in mythical narrative' with science fiction overtones. Klee images (verbal and non-verbal) serve to mark out the stages of a quest. A band in touch with ancient and simple ideals persists against the odds in journeying north. We are brought full circle to the prospect of Albion waking, but without any fudging of contradiction and difficulty.
The interweaving of myth, its older cultural contexts, and modern phenomena attains a more urgent and grimly playful form in 'The Book of Coming Forth in Official Secrecy', written in the latter part of 1980. Here an article on the training of nuclear missile personnel is intercut with passages and hieroglyphs from the 'Egyptian Book of the Dead (Papirus of Ani)'. The juxtaposition encourages us to look again at the power base of an aesthetic which is often viewed in neutral terms. What interests Halsey most seems to be the process by which language negotiates the plane between personal and public destiny. As Kelvin Corcoran said of this text in an unpublished review of 'Auto Dada Café', 'The culture power is hidden but everywhere present and its business is the management of death.' The rocket motif reappears, with inevitable reference to Pynchon, in Halsey's next work, where 'bombardiering' is, among other things, art across the century. Before passing on to this, it is worth noting the care with which Halsey has constructed a lettering equivalent to Egyptian symbols and indeed how successfully the vignette tradition is recreated. Halsey's proximity to Capel-y-ffin, workplace of Eric Gill and David Jones, has not been merely geographical.
'Sections Drawn Across The Vortex' was begun soon after the completion of 'Perspectives'. The full text remains unpublished [sic] and its cross-genre character may have caused uncertainty about its overall merit. However, this sequence of poetry and prose is a vital part of Halsey's work and deserves to be seen in its entirety. Here Halsey looks in depth at the high modernist sources of techniques which he had been using up to this time. Specifically, there is an investigation and analysis of Wyndham Lewis's opposition to Spengler, his condemnation of Time-philosophy, and his anti-romantic stress on externality in composition. 'The Vortex' takes in the diagonal, surface-cut energy of Lewis's pictorial and verbal art, Ezra Pound's definition and praxis of 'the point of maximum energy', and the 'Blast' moment of revolt against lifeless art and a culture of dulness. Halsey's 'Sections' are drawn across the vortex both in homage or creative imitation (opening) and in disputation (closure). They actively engage with a map of art and thought: are drawn by attraction and inscribe in argument upon, as with a palimpsest. The projected cover design is, incidentally, a Lewis-inspired drawing in the Vorticist Composition/Timon mode. By focusing on The Childermass and-by implication-its continuation in the later parts of 'The Human Age', Halsey is able to draw out the paradoxes of Lewis's position with regard to aesthetic approach and historical process: the blueprint for a new civilization envisaged in 1914, successive restatements, and points of recension. Halsey's purpose, of course, is not merely to assess modernism in its period context but to consider its relation to current artistic practice. The subtext might almost be 'Where do we go from here (or there)?'
In an inspired interpretive gesture Halsey conflates the magnetic city/plain of 'The Childermass' and the city of Ecbatan/Pisan plain in the Cantos (see particularly 'The Childermass', 1928 edn., pp. 1-10, and Cantos 4, 5, 74 and 77). Lewis's hero Pullman, with a hyphen added to indicate drawing, is identified with Pound at the beginning of Our Dynasty. Lewis's reference to 'the heavenly north' (Childermass, p. 1) may provide a further clue to the end of 'Perspectives'; at least it is an interesting coincidence. Other key texts here are 'Enemy of the Stars', Lewis's first exercise in philosophical fantasy, and 'Time and Western Man'. Halsey also brings in Burroughs (The Ticket That Exploded). As Paul Green comments, 'Both Lewis and Burroughs have worked in areas which could be regarded as sci-fi.' The issue of representation is rigorously debated, with the century itself considered as fiction:
The Twentieth Century's failure as a novel results not from its intricacies of plot or uncertain time-structure so much as from its obvious symbolism, its emphatic allegory, its surcharge of meaning; the characters fade like the covers of BLAST, the red walls of the universe (Uncollected Lyrics of the Individual Soul)
If language 'is a tornado of archives', what solid (in Lewis's terms) is left? The century seems to exist 'only as a conglomerate', its mythology veering 'between "life assurance" and "black holes"'(Our Dynasty). Halsey's concern with 'raids on the linguistic' operates at a larger philosophical level and in ironic personal terms as an auditing of collage-method.
Formally, the text ranges from the strong concrete opening ('Tree, and the sun-axe/ ... leaf into sunset. leaf into stone') through long prose blocks, both low and high-pressured, to the terse abstraction of '4 Propositions for A Monetarist Theory Of Time'. It is an interesting mix, the parts existing in dynamic tension. 'Spring Ode' for Wyndham Lewis, a kind of brother-text to 'Event Horizons', is particularly forceful, its 'red/horns along the day breaks' neatly anticipating-in reverse-the ending of the whole work, a sci-fi burn-out in the Tudor/Blundell Hotel.
There is a vein of critical reflection running through most of Halsey's work. 'Sections Drawn Across The Vortex' indulges this to the full and makes an interesting parallel to the more recent discursive-active texts. However, it marks the end of a definite period. Around 1982 Halsey became dissatisfied with the attempt at project-writing, with that expansive/intensive structuring of themes and materials. The work collected in 'Five Years Out' and in 'Auto Dada Café' (most of which comes from the middle of the 'Five Years' period) is less driven by particular preoccupations and less systematically worked out. These fragments and variations have a more improvizational character, even as, paradoxically, the purely formal element in language has greater emphasis. The impulse is, say, closer to Kerouac's in the choruses of 'Mexico City Blues'. For instance, 'The Capitalist Twilight Revisited' was not originally envisaged as the conclusion to 'Five Years Out'; it coincided with the willingness of Peter Hodgkiss to publish a substantial-size book. Nevertheless, as Tim Woods observed in a detailed review for 'fragmente', the work which 'encompasses the formative years of the new Conservative economics' has a direct political thrust; it 'acts as an explicit critique of the values that have been spawned during these years.' This is done through involvement with and subversion of the language of the marketplace. If Beckett and W.S. Graham are major influences on that operation-the word-placing which embodies-it is necessary also to stress the use of materials which keep this writing of-the-moment: media reports and business bulletins. One is reminded of Nuttall's comment apropos 'Yearspace': 'writing like this naturally gravitates towards the journal form. The day-to-day is the whole subject, no day taking precedence over the others.' With a very different edge this remains true of the later (i.e. middle period) texts.
Woods draws attention to Halsey's exploration of the liquidity of signs and words. As he says with particular regard to Klondyke, the poet 'acts on objectified language by jerking it out of an old, established order, to reveal its "other", hidden facets and strands.' The game 'Klondyke' involves releasing concealed cards so that the suits can be arranged in piles which ascend from Ace to King. Cards from the waste heap may be used again in order to complete the pattern. Thus a portion of the text reads: 'It is 1984/the miners' strike & the mini-skirt/no/more waiting for eternal recurrence/but the sepia fades/at once/in the period flavour/as the red shift shades/into purple/à la Spengler/in the cabinet/reshuffle'. The lines are indented across the page with a sense of repeated effort. Here it may be relevant to quote from Halsey's 'A Note on Clark Coolidge', which appeared in 'The Many Review' (no. 1,1983):
That poetry has always been the 'language at play', relieved of the burden of mere information, is perhaps a merely retrospective insight-made possible by recent developments in poetry itself and made necessary by the increasing burden. Yet if we notice in places a far too deliberate play or an all too encompassing freedom we see also that in Coolidge's best work the play is made free by unusual controls, a 'ratio sharp or hard', as of Zukofsky, 'instrumental'
Although Halsey's adoption of 'political content' may be an oblique riposte to the Language poets, his reading of structuralist/deconstructionist writers and his interest, particularly, in Coolidge point to an avoidance of the too easily referential. As is common, reaction implies absorption. What can be said confidently is that 'Five Years Out', with its subtle hold on ephemera and its investigation of larger forces, could be read as a poetic map of this era. (Exile, exploration, oblique bearings, extraction, amnesia and memory are implied in the title, which neatly straddles space and time.)
One of the strongest features of this book is its graphic matter, both visual and visual/verbal. Perhaps these prints provide a clue as to how to read the series as a whole. The Cubist and Constructivist Designs for a 'Black Sun Deck' reinforce the sense of a play on planes, while the emblem sequence 'Six Devices' telescopes 'resemblance' in such a way as to set up perceptual tensions and semantic inquiry. Two of the latter feed back directly into the preceding verbal section, 'An Alphabet of Emblems'. Halsey exercises wit and ingenuity in setting up and displacing possibilities for the construing of meaning: 'Horace on/azure,/ horizon/assured?' (first text); 'Horace/on azure:/horizon/assured?' (second text). In combining picture and motto Halsey is reaching back through Hamilton Finlay to sixteenth and seventeenth century emblem books. The pictorial handling of words (i.e. within the dimension of standard typeface) is reminiscent of the metaphysical poets. Rosemary Freeman speaks of Henry Vaughan's 'habit of handling abstract ideas as if they were tangible and visible objects' and of the deceptive 'clarity and simplicity' of George Herbert's images. She goes on to say that 'the preciseness of [Herbert's] imagery and the austerity of his language do not preclude intensity of feeling.' These remarks seem equally applicable to Halsey's work. Its relation to the pattern poems set out by Puttenham, and those of Herbert and Herrick, is more obvious.
'Auto Dada Café', like 'Five Years Out' and most of Halsey's books, has a cleverly resonant title, the main play being on 'auto-da-fé' and the café in Zurich where Tristan Tzara coined the word Dada. The cover design also evokes Schwitters's 'Ursonate'. Over the years Halsey has worked on a number of projects with Glenn Storhaug of Five Seasons Press and both the layout and reproduction in this book do fine justice to the text. Kelvin Corcoran has noted the presence of three modes of writing here: 'poems which work through a paronomastic impaction and are designed to a specific shape'; 'fragmentary pieces which are however connected to one another'; and compositions which flow in a more integrated way 'on sure feet'. The concern is very much with the politics of art and language, and the public issues are traced in a way that is faithful to the interface with private or domestic life. Presumably this is intended to echo the interaction of personalities in any movement such as Dada; see the juxtaposition of 'Group Portrait and One (Platonic Relations Maintained)' on facing pages, and the lines 'She shouts Esse est percipi, she turns on the light,/he says nothing' in Five Accounts of the Arrest of English Poetry. There are absurdist shifts and utterly lucid statements, the whole achieving an integrity of half-coherence: 'So the edge of/language on one side is events and/damaged information,/on another is the sentence paid back' (Transcript). Five Accounts covers some of the territory explored in 'On Poetic: Notes in the Black-Out' (Rock Drill 4, 1983) and An Interview with Alan Halsey (Acumen 18, Oct. 1993; recorded 1989). There is no concession to sentimentality or to simplistic notions of a programme but equally no evasion of the lethal damage endured by heretics. Halsey speaks from the line of hazard. The throw of dice in 'A Ramification of Mallarmé's Theorem' plays back into the dice-playing of nuclear politics. As Artaud says in 'Group Portrait': 'If there is a culture, it is always alive and it burns things up.' Halsey's book revocalizes the cruelty and excitement of the Zurich-Paris-Berlin axis of 1915-1923-its anti-musical music-as a means of dealing with the 1980s.
Much of the work from 1987 to 1993 seems to represent a continuation of the above procedures, as Halsey engages in a more relentless dalliance with form. Yann Lovelock has described this as a 'shift from manner to mannerism' reminiscent of developments in seventeenth century poetry, and Dr Leslie Paul remarked to Halsey after a reading in Cheltenham: 'You'll disappear into your own paradoxes one day.' There is perhaps a decadent element here. But if it is such, the further forcing out through language is a reflection of the state we are in, as Halsey's 'Capitalist Twilight' image insists. For Halsey, literature, more than any other art, needs its past. The 1990s offer an analogue to the last fin-de-siècle tendency 'to regard all things and principles of things as inconstant modes or fashions' (Pater, The Renaissance). Halsey's take on aestheticism is both to immerse the word in that spirit and to 'speak noting origins constantly' (As of Military Domains & Salvation Rituals). The temper of the era is, as it were, subjected to its face beyond the mirror.
'Eleatic Electric' (1987-88) is a consideration, or enactment, of language codes and signals. Halsey is concerned with how messages are shaped, transmitted and received in a high-tech-world, and specifically with how the image functions in poetry. The subtitle of the second section is 'Terminal Devices', an allusion to end-points and recurrent phases. As the overall title implies, the sequence examines ways in which a Parmenidean continuum may be maintained. The laser, a device for converting light of mixed frequencies into a narrow and intense monochromatic beam, is envisaged as a kind of super-bow: 'Zeno brazens it out with the laser./Is this the way writing looks/looking back?' If the arrow can never leave the bow what is the situation with the laser beam, instrument of star wars and printing? Zeno's arrow-in flight and at rest-is the central image of An Eleatic Dirge for William Empson, master of paradox, puzzles and ambiguity. Another section, Notes on Key-Words, proposes a performance of the 64 sentences of Eleatic Electric (on the Beckett model); ironically, the performance of the script is in the writing. As words and sentences are built, broken down and put through different permutations they are simultaneously changed and the same. Halsey wittily applies system-terminology to other contexts ('One key-word head-locks or/sentences another') and philosophical theory to scientific process ('Zeno fits the last "arrow" in the laser'). The 'key-word' suggests a means of plugging into areas of material, both via computer technology and the resources of language itself. The pun on 'quay' allows 'the daily/task of the hero's/mind' to carry voyage associations. (W.S. Graham is an influence here.)
Likewise Halsey evokes various senses of the word 'beam' and its compound 'beam-ends': the ends of a ship's beams (as in The Odyssey); the beam-ends of a culture, with the sense of used-up resources (as in Spengler); and the ends of a laser beam, a device which marks and illuminates at some risk. A further play on 'votive/motive-pit' develops the Homeric and Virgilian theme of descent to the underworld. The hero has to go to the realm of the dead to meet his father. The implications of this semantic journey-into the blackness of print, into the unknown of word-formation-are pursued in a companion text. Of course, the act ofreading may be seen as distant travel on a static space (or spot), as Barthes has noted.
In 'Companion Studies' the phrase 'reality maintenance' functions both as an index of our vulnerability to slick-word invasion ('ensuring that anybody's business becomes somebody's concern') and as a reminder of the erosion of nature at large:'Twenty-five acres of trees and three/species of beetle have vanished/in the wordland in the space/of this sentence'.'Fact' loops back into the means of observing and recording it. That W.S. Graham is an inspiration behind this text is confirmed by the inclusion of the second part of Halsey's epitaph for Graham ('Dear WSG ...') at the end of 'New Emblems for Death's Jest-Book'. The full text of the poem is to be found in Halsey's 'Epitaphs & Variations', which also contains the dirge for Empson. 'Companion Studies' and its successor 'Table Talk' form a kind of 'Implements in Their Places' for the late 1980s. The 'companion' of the title is one's other self, friend, relative, or partner (looking) and a second, parallel instalment of book-matter (existing). Halsey's play with linguistic surface, particularly through line-breaks and recurrence with variation, fuses Graham's dry philosophical intimacy with seventeenth century wit.
'Table Talk' indicates a casual, social context for the exchange or propagation of ideas, as in the collections by Hazlitt and Coleridge or for that matter Cowper's poem. Halsey's use of the term also suggests a philosophical dimension: Plato's table, obviously, and the object-as-commentator. Again there is much play with questions of identity and relatedness: 'Try recalling 1968/or was it sixty-seven or 1644/our condition is their pre-/condition, are you with me?' Tight epigram modulates into a conversational ease which is never in fact at rest; there is an injunction to remain alert, the words, as it were, attentive to their own shifts. The work of this period, particularly, highlights the ways in which reality can be reconstructed through the adoption and dissemination of a new terminology. It is difficult to discern any influence but Halsey seems to be doing in British terms what Edward Dorn has done in 'Hello', 'La Jolla', 'Yellow Lola' and 'Abhorrences': namely to expose the fault-line in certain forms of discourse. A 1977 interview with Dorn is actually called 'Road-Testing the Language'. The aphoristic element is more complex and kaleidoscopic in Halsey: there is greater self-consciousness about the verbal medium. Yet there is something of the same relish for linguistic absurdity.
'Reasonable Distance', written in the period 1987-90, brings the above phase to a seeming close: the penultimate poem is called 'Resignation Mimes'. It was, of course, the end of a mind-rocking, or -numbing, decade, even if eras stretch over the mathematical cut-off. The 'reasonable distance' of the title is ironic since the phenomena which are spoken of in clipped, cool terms are sinister and all-pervasive. As Simon Smith has noted (Angel Exhaust 9, 1993), the book 'records the damage of an unreasonable epoch' and the paradox by which 'the whole [hurtful] ideology is reliant on the very English inclination to pretend all is well'. There are continuities with previous books, although the pace is different. 'On Change & Exchange: A Letter to J.M., Back in England', 1990 recalls 'Further Letters on Change & Exchange' (in 'Five Years Out') and the 'Letters' section of 'Perspectives'. However, this text winds on with hardly a pause, its thirty-six lines forming a single sentence. Structurally it is a tour-de-force, the syntax pressurized but fluent, the diction technical, abstract but musically operative. Here, as elsewhere in the sequence, the effect is at times Audenesque: epithets are delivered with-and-without insistent reference, cliché is brought on to self-destruct, inversion and line division pitch meaning across a field of radiant nodes. There is, nevertheless, an avoidance of the theatrical flourish. Halsey's 'enemy salvoes' strike with a mordant humour (cf. frappe, striking of coins and typewriter keys): 'Looking like/matters more than liking looks/ and letting things run their course lets/cross purpose into chaos you insist/as the auctioneer's patter rains so hard/on the comedown' ('Event Horizon for the Winter Solstice '88'). The poem 'Self-Portrait in a 90s Bestiary' gives a further twist to the 'companion' image: 'watch how my/opposite number in companion/studies eats his tail then/my hat'.
It is regrettable that the 1987-90 texts have not been collected in a more concentrated and permanent form. A tape of Halsey's reading at the Prince George of Cumberland, London. NW1 (19.10.90) is in limited private circulation. This emphasizes the connexions between, say, 'Eleatic Electric', 'Table Talk', and 'Reasonable Distance', and indeed with 'The Capitalist Twilight Revisited' (from 'Five Years Out'). A gathering of this work might take in some of the short texts from the 1990s too. Halsey, incidentally, is a powerful reader whose performances balance energy with precision. As is crucial to an understanding of the work, he gives careful weight to line-breaks and to the linkage of sounds. His quietly dramatic manner ensures that aspects of private reading are not lost in a more public context.
'Song-Cycle' (1991) is a crossover text which marks the extreme of turning-on-a tanner (see 'Shadow Recension: Mayday') and the release into a freer mode. Here Halsey is trying to explore 'the modes of transition from a public political language to a personal if not private one; and the space between.' With its compression of highly emotional content and its interlocking but separate motifs, this is a remarkable sequence. The scenario is public strife-the Gulf War-and domestic crisis. The cycle is framed by a bracketed section which deals with an earlier conflict, the Falklands War, and by a description of closing time in the lounge bar, with the prospect of the road back or ahead. The first section explicitly recalls the opening of Five Years Out by its reference to 'military domains' and 'origin'. There is a grim pun on 'infamy' and 'en famille'-the point being that warfare has on one level become a form of home entertainment. Study of a 'key-word' can reveal how one reality is displaced by another, creating a climate by which horror is normalized. The epigraph from Beddoes's 'Death's Jest Book' is relevant here, for this poet is the laureate of the death-wish. Halsey, as ever, is alert to the kind of conversion code 'in which "anti-personnel/device" is a shifter/meaning "mine"'. Section three cracks-or impresses-the jest that when 'History is being done for us ... [it] is us being done for'. Through a riddling logic 'one state's lot/is another lot's state'.
The problem of divided perception in society at large is throughout related to that which can occur between individuals. In section five Halsey returns to his theme of the disafforestation of the wordland by martial or commercial imperatives. The idea of 'love' is brought in, initially in the context of the word's relation to the reader. The rest of the sequence examines the possibilities residing in that often-abused word, as 'bargains once made/ ... are struck/dumb'. The hope is for a different kind of alliance in a sphere which 'won't hum money'. Mention of 'the laser on its beam-ends' is a clue that this text is about listening in at both ends, and section seven identifies an occasion where coincidence of thought in the private domain is paralleled by missile guidance in the public one. The key polarities come to a climax in the comment 'ruin called the tune rejoice', with its quibble on the different meanings of 'call'. One should not forget that this is a song cycle, or that Beddoes, referred to in section eight, is a master of the lyric within the dramatic. Halsey's variable stanza pattern is close enough to song to suggest the conversion of a familiar dry music into 'liquid letters' of a new kind.
'Shadow Recension' (1991-3), which is printed in this issue [sic], anticipates the more open, fluid mode of the poet's most recent work. There is a noticeable loosening of consciousness and a more direct acknowledgment of the interface between personal and public concerns. The title glances back at The Book of the Dead, which is known as 'The Theban Recension' on account of its agglomerative and revisionary character. The section names, which involve terms such as 'Affinities', 'Reunion', 'Translation', suggest a reordering of materials and outlook. Local politics and bookselling jostle with the hieroglyphics of the wordland. The separate 'Coffin Text', Radnor Recension' (1994) draws on an Egyptian spell for preventing a reversal of posture ('walking upside down') in the other world. This relates to a walk organized to defy the building of a windfarm on a remote hill in Radnor. Details of the poisoning of the landscape are juxtaposed with an episode of food-poisoning. Spells Against Green Field Development (1994) rises out of a specific campaign to prevent the building of a theatre and carpark on farmland on the north bank of the Wye. The verbal spells are accompanied by hieroglyphic designs. Both are powerfully arranged as a summoning of hidden links to fight hidden links (viz. the agenda by which one change in land-usage permits further encroachment). There is an overlap here with much of the material in 'The Art of Memory in Hay-on-Wye' (1995), a work which explores the historical background to such border dissension.
Despite its short and seemingly occasional form, 'Lizard Abstract' (1994) occupies an important place in Halsey's writing. The cover illustration is an 'abstract' which conveys simultaneously: lizard or other reptile with a scaly skin; onion/egg; bauble; and ear, across a field or net. The text mixes scientific description with dream matter and (mainly) childhood memories. This meditation grows out of a lifelong fascination with lizards, dinosaurs, crocodiles and dragons. As Halsey says, coming upon a 1972 letter from Iain Sinclair, 'There is a terrible continuity in things.' Naturally the fear of dangerous forces is mixed with awe:
I am ill in bed, about eight years old. I am reading an encyclopaedia of natural history which I think belonged to my father when he was a boy. I return again and again to the section about crocodiles and alligators. The pages have a dull sheen, the pictures are grey and blurred. Iguanas. Iguanadons. The great prehistoric lizards. Our particular devils, our next best thing to a mythology, these dragons which have always lived just off the margin, scribbled beyond bounds. In the crevice between page and page of my father's book.
Halsey considers the alchemical implications and 'interrogates' the writer in this process, but the images also have a literal, independent life. To put it another way, the letting in or out of memory allows the material to settle with unusual clarity. We are in a different realm from the dream-abstraction of the middle portion of Sections Drawn Across The Vortex, even if Freudian concerns-by definition-remain.
Halsey's most recent work has ventured into ground which falls somewhere between poem-writing and old-fashioned essay-writing. 'The phase beginning with "The Text of Shelley's Death" seems to have been a return to project-writing, but negotiated via the phase from '82 to '93 when I was intent on as it were the emptying of preconceived content, taking what came as it came while I was taking the words for a walk à la Klee.' Klondyke speaks of 'passing through the phase/they call "Shelley"'. Halsey's examination of the contradictory accounts of Shelley's death, and of the relationship between the work and the life, sprang partly from a visit to Tuscany. This was followed by the acquisition of a large collection of Shelley material for The Poetry Bookshop. As the blurb states, The Text of Shelley's Death 'is a collage prose-poem, a biographical and critical study, a mystery.' It is a beautifully designed book which reproduces some of Shelley's habitual boat drawings within manuscript text on the covers. Implicit in these illustrations is the extraordinary line by which Shelley's literary and social precoccupations lead to his drowning in the Gulf of Spezia. It runs from the paper-boat-building on the Serpentine through the Lake Geneva sailing to the reckless expeditions of 1822; and from Alastor through Prometheus Unbound to the last lyrics. Desmond King-Hele, commenting on Alastor, neatly summarizes the matter:
This theme of the frail boat adrift on stormy seas appears again and again in Shelley's poems. Boating was one of his favourite pastimes. He relished first the spice of danger, then the sense of domination, as the boat rises bravely to the crest of the wave which seems about to overwhelm it. Since he couldn't swim, this was for him an exhilarating challenge to Nature ... [We] can see why he came to use a boat's progress, across the ocean or down a river, as a symbol for a soul's journey through life, representing emotional crises by rough waters.
So much is obvious to any sensitive reader of Shelley's work. What Halsey investigates, more tellingly, is the way in which various accounts of the final voyage constellate and scatter across the years, as adjuncts to a poetic oeuvre which is seen increasingly to be disjecta membra held in a fragile order. A subtext of The Text might be that The Triumph of Life, arranged by Mary Shelley, is a harbinger of more intentionally provisional writing.
Part one presents first a summary then a fuller range of information or opinion concerning Shelley's death. The bare facts prove more and more contradictory as letters, journals, memoirs and poetry are placed side by side. Halsey pieces together elements of the story like tesserae from a mosaic, but it is a mosaic with a shifting pattern, a changeable representation of a water-narrative. There is a link here with Perspectives, with the cut-up technique sounded in Sections, and with the voyage concerns of Eleatic Electric. The treatment of materials is equivalent to, say, Zillman's 'Toward A Modern Definitive' edition of Prometheus Unbound, except that the inconsistencies are highlighted in imitation of events. Halsey's incremental method, taking in a vast range of sources from Trelawny's Recollections to Mary's The Last Man, moves back and forward in loops even as a progress is sustained from the departure to the sinking, exposure of the bodies and cremation. Much of the text runs continuously in blocks but any one sentence might be derived from a number of contexts. Thus the statement 'His mode of life makes him again go to sea' (p. 38) is from Mary's note to Fragments of an Unfinished Drama, but the sentence then segues into the Frankenstein-like: 'an elemental being, enshrined in a frail image.' The latter is also reminiscent of Alastor, and this clustering of root Shelleyan ideas reveals a deep acquaintance with the literature and letters of the Shelley-Byron circle. The Faustian, Frankensteinian or Promethean attempt to recreate that world in our terms is scholarly but beyond the reach of most scholarship.
The inclusion of variant words and phrases shows how much can hang on the substitution of one for another, as with 'Sullenly/Suddenly' (p. 9). Different voices present alternative and often opposite versions of events: the boat is either named Don Juan or Ariel (mirroring tension between Byron and Mary); it is either efficient and beautiful or wrongly proportioned and awkward to manoeuvre; Shelley was either reading Sophocles, Aeschylus or Keats when he got into difficulties. Comments from one context resonate elsewhere: 'a strange web which I am trying to unravel' (Mary speaking of Trelawny); 'I write nothing but by fits' (Shelley of The Triumph of Life); 'She looks to every one like his first love' (Byron quoting Shelley's translation of a key line from Faust); 'The wish to escape from the third person' (Shelley anxious about Trelawny's involvement with the boat). The suppression, for the most part, of specific sources allows for an active and unpredictable inter-referentiality. The text is like a game machine where the pressing of one button lights up an unknown sequence of signs.
'Part two, Reversions on the Text', seeks to draw out and interpret the data provided above. Halsey explores the psychological currents which inform the behaviour of the various people-particularly the ménage at Casa Magni-and which are so strangely echoed in the external forces which 'cause' the deaths of the three victims. Mary herself, of course, mythologizes the process by which Shelley 'anticipated his own destiny' in successive notes to the 'Poems' and in 'The Last Man'. But the network of associations is brought out more objectively and more exhaustively here: 'Shelley is in love with his boat, the sea, the storm, death'; Shelley and Williams are in love with one woman and 'in control (nearly) of one small boat'; 'These people are all ... loving and hating.... In the later recensions everyone loves Shelley.'; Shelley has darkly suggestive dreams and visions (as does Jane Williams); Shelley possibly falls prey to the Italian authorities' distrust of subversives or to robbers' greed. Halsey muses on the way in which the text always comes back to Trelawny, whose various accounts spawn most of the later ones. Substitution here 'is part of the telling'. Was it the heart or the liver-with its 'Prometheus Unbound' precedent-which was saved from the burning body? Byron has two names for Shelley, Shiloh and the Snake, both of which were chosen for their mystical overtones. The latter recalls Faust, one of Shelley's last areas of inquiry. Jane is Miranda and Mary is Marina to Shelley's Ariel, for practically everything and everybody in the text 'has two names, or more'. As soon as Shelley was dead the process of recreation began, including at the centre Mary's idealization of a difficult, at times callous being.
Part three, 'Towards an Index of Shelley's Death', arranges lines or phrases from Shelley's work in alphabetical order: 'A boat within our being' ... 'My spirit's bark is driven' ... 'The wreck of his own will' ... 'The words are like a cloud of wingèd snakes'. We come back to the poetic word as source and summation. But Halsey adds a prose coda whereby the death text is viewed as an esoteric rite with Shelley as the initiate. The snake sloughs off one skin to gain another; the boat-soul disappears into unity. The outsider-teller 'is bound to the endless repetition of an ever-shifting story'. Even in this account of Halsey's book, I am forced back to cycles of quotation. It is a haunting and acute registration of sensibility.
'The Art of Memory in Hay-on-Wye' (1995) draws more obviously on personal experience but there is a similar interweaving of materials. The book is set out in numbered sections and much of the text consists of journal-type reminiscence which is, as it were, unfolded by activator-points. The earlier history of the town is revealed by stages and is shown to co-exist with or recur in contemporary culture: 'Considered as a speech act Hay-on-Wye is a constant digression.' This book indeed has something of the loose, casual progress of border-town talk, but its at times languid manner conceals the most hard-hitting critique of people and events which Halsey has produced. Halsey plays with the tourist question 'Why are there so many bookshops in Hay?', averring that the correct answer is 'I don't know'. However, the cumulative matter collected here is rather more than a 'blank space' in memory. The selectively chosen references to local politics provide a provisional answer at least. Many of the anecdotes are humorous yet some have a bitter edge which pitches the reader back to the Letters of/on Change and Exchange:
I cam in crepusculo. The town, said Anne Stevenson, is full of people who have limped this far and don't have the strength to limp any further....
Setting up the shop took months, says Geoffrey, builders and everything, it was finally done, good bindings, the best French antiquarian stock you'd find anywhere, I open the door and this fellow walks in, Lancashire accent, and says 'Ave you any 'Enty?
There is a powerful sense of the dynamics of speech in this book and it could almost be regarded as a drama text (cf. memory theatre).
'A Skeleton Key to DEATH'S JEST-BOOK' (1995) is a new reading of the major work by the poet who is most obviously Shelley's heir: Thomas Lovell Beddoes. Halsey looks at the extreme identification of sex and death in this play, at the attempt to reinvent Jacobean tragedy, and at the structural complexity of a frequently reworked but unfinished text. He notes the continuities with 'Marston's or Webster's language-gravity', with Shelley's 'lyric endeavour', and with the Romantic notion of 'The Last Man'. After summarizing the plot, which has been variously defined, Halsey shows how 'Every facet of the story mirrors another'; for example, each character 'becomes a fool at one point or level of the play'. Again, a name such as Ziba may be read backwards as 'abyss'. (The author of 'Eleatic Electric' no doubt relished the discovery that Ziba first appears in the 1823 prose draft of Love's Arrow Poisoned.) There is analysis of the attenuated Egyptian thread and of the crocodile imagery. Beddoes himself comes over as a man of self-mocking intensities and obsessions, driven from one location and preoccupation to another, as the various pseudonyms attest. The extracts from letters to T.F. Kelsall and B.W. Procter form one skeletal path to an understanding of this development. The juxtapositions are wittily made. Halsey's fondness for the alternation of poetry and prose is of course paralleled in Death's Jest-Book. Beyond that the availability of older forms and materials-their capacity for rebirth in other contexts-is a shared interest. One can read Halsey's discussion of this revivalist enterprise, a raising of a dead form, as a continuation of the dialectic in 'Sections Drawn Across The Vortex'.
The as yet unpublished [sic] 'A Robin Hood Book (1995-96)' subjects another familiar story to extended scrutiny. At one level a romantic children's narrative, the 'Littel Geste' (as one of the early ballads is called) offers possibilities for a reading of contemporary society. As with the 'Diggers in Present State', the outlaws of the greenwood serve as reference points for opposition to the current semi-feudal system. Halsey treats the castles and abbeys of medieval England as equivalent to business parks and quangos, places or forces which represent special interest with regard to the overall economy. The interchange of moneys, from government to development board to individual enterprise, is largely hidden. A quango, responsible for 'inventive ideas', can build a shabby warehouse and sell it at 46% of construction cost to a local 'baron'. Robin Hood is a people's hero who exposes and attacks those who use the law as an instrument for their own profit. His small band is ranged against a network of corporate interests which is constantly shielding its depredations beneath 'neutralized' language. Halsey responds with his own word substitution whereby 'Castle' becomes 'Evil Hold'-as in many of the late nineteenth century sources-and then 'Business Park'. The quangoists call Sherwood Forest 'a key settlement.' The opponents of ring-roads and industrial estates are 'lads of misrule redistributing grant aid'. To the Development Boards 'the rites of May are anathema.'
Halsey makes considerable play with period juxtapositions:
The distinctive outfit of the quango man, the cut of the suit always a little too sharp, the cloth not exactly the right stuff, the armour of the sheriff's men is a recurrent motif: they sweat in it, they are over-encumbered, they are beetles on their backs when unhorsed and yet they need this protective shell since they are slightly less than human-unlike the greenwood men whose armour is their outward humanity and whose tunics of Lincoln green are at one with the summer leaves. (III)
Essentially the division is one of language: the Sheriff and his men see the forest merely as 'a tangle of old trees and undergrowth' which is suitable for development, whereas Robin and Will Scarlett see 'a different order of value', a longer reach of connexions between need and supply. The outlaws are 'fundamentalists whose texts are written in a language which the quangoists believe is long dead.' The run of the arrow is one of perception, as previously in Halsey's work. Robin is a shape-shifter who can appear in disguise in anyone's dream. He is simultaneously a yeoman and of noble stock. His lover Maid Marian is also a person of contradictions and her allegiance is split between security and freedom. She is the Queen of May, witch Maudlin, even perhaps Mary Magdalen. Both Robin and Marian revolve through a change of sex, registering the volatility of natural energies. In the background stands Richard the Lionheart, who is similarly opposed to the abuse of order. He also besieges the 'Hold' and in some variants manages to return the country to a state of content. His 'absence in the Holy Land is contemporaneous with Robin's retreat in the forest', suggesting a kind of identification between the two. The fact that both Richard and Robin are 'killed by an infection of the blood caused by the chance flight of an arrow' leads on to some speculation about a Cathar link. Heresy as a geological fault-line running under Western culture is uncovered in this text as with the Shelley.
The book is attentive to the layers of accretion by which a legend develops, and with the work on Shelley and Beddoes it could form the third part of an investigation into textuality. A good deal of source-hunting has gone into the analysis of strands in the story, but always with an eye on present parallels. Halsey's play with language includes the observation that 'Robin is five-sevenths of robbing' while 'Hood rhymes with good'. Likewise Marian is 'a rhyme for merry men'. Alan -A-Dale, lover, singer and player ('a troubadour of sorts') may be a persona for the author, who is part of and outside this narrative. We are reminded of Nuttall's term 'wild-life-warden poet'.
This brief survey has, I hope, brought out both the variety of approach and the thematic consistency of Alan Halsey's work. His writings unite formal experiment, linguistic precision, and concern for a vital relation between people and place. Standing with no particular school, he has managed to speak across the divide which exists, say, between J.H. Prynne and Bill Griffiths, or between W.S. Graham and Robert Duncan. A master of collage and an inspired improvizer, he has worked the patterning of strictly visual matter back into the verbal medium. A helpful term offered by Yann Lovelock is 'post-concrete': this would apply to the arrangement of 'Eleatic Electric', which went through numerous typings and re-spacings, and to the organization of 'The Text of Shelley's Death'. A key-word for late-twentieth-century English poetry may be 'Halsey', which is a version of 'HAY-els (other/arm measure)'. This signifies the practice of outlaw-archery on the border.
REFERENCES not credited in the text or Checklist:
Lizard Abstract. (1994.) Short Run 1995.
The Text of Shelley's Death. (1994-5.) Five Seasons 1995.
The Art of Memory in Hay-on-Wye (1995.) 1995, for private circulation only; supplied on request.
A Skeleton Key to DEATH'S JEST-BOOK. (1995.) The Thomas Lovell Beddoes Society 1995.
Alan Halsey, 'J.H. Prynne's Poems', PN Review 31: vol 9, no. 5 (1983).
Unattributed comments by Alan Halsey are taken from a letter to Gavin Selerie (Dec. 1995).
Roland Barthes, S/Z (London 1975).
Kelvin Corcoran, 'What's on the menu at the AUTO DADA CAFE' (c. 1988; scheduled for inclusion in an issue of Kite which has yet to appear).
Rosemary Freeman, English Emblem Books (London 1948).
Paul Green, 'Alan Halsey: Perspectives on the Reach', Reality Studios vol 3, nos 3/4 (1981).
Desmond King-Hele, Shelley: His Thought and Work (London 1971).
Lawrence Zillman ed., Shelley's 'Prometheus Unbound': The Text and the Drafts (New Haven 1968).
Copyright © Gavin Selerie, 2005