The House of Ghosts and Mirrors: Oz Hardwick, Valley Press
This collection is haunted by 50 years of the poet’s psychic and physical life. It starts at the end of life, and finishes with his birth, when he screamed “a slapped baby scream / that clawed my throat – then hunkered between / stiff sheets and eiderdowns.’ (‘The Ghost House’)
In the first poem, we’re asked: “Is it really so bad to begin with an ending… / the long forgetting that hangs / in the air, its cold breath / dampening your sleepless face.” (‘The Pros and Cons of Immortality’)
The poems take us in and out of fantasy, always keeping a core of autobiographical narrative that saves them from any glib label. There’s humour, brooding philosophy and rich language that keeps taking us aback with surprise and pleasure. The imagery is sensual and often visual. Where it’s fanciful it rings true because it’s derived from glimpses of half-forgotten places, people, events and dreams, fragmentary but fully imagined, with one foot always in physical memory.
The subject of family is introduced early on, in ‘Archaeology’, a sonnet-length poem in which the narrator’s father is discovered under the floorboards, smoking his pipe and smiling, “Don’t let me catch you down here.” The last line, “but we both knew I had no choice” is the more chilling for the detailed, matter-of-fact description of the father. Family history and significant souvenirs, as well as the persona of his father, are packed into six taut lines, among them “he dusted himself down/with a souvenir brush brought from Toronto” and “He lay,/oil under his cracked nails, ten no. 6/and a brass lighter packed into his shirt pocket …”
Taken alongside the dead girlfriend lying in the shadows, this is truly the stuff of dream-memory.
Later, we meet Dad, who was ‘Not that Sort of Hero’, in a tribute to his war service and modesty. In another poem, ‘Lacuna’, an unexploded bomb that the child remembers knowing about lies in the basement, “beneath the thin skin of floorboards, dozing,/fat as a whale, its pinprick eyes slightly open.”
Lyrical poems are scattered throughout the collection. ‘Life Cycle’ explores life led at a cellular level, in scintillating musical language and images: it begins, “We swim in silver, bloom in winter light, / shedding shells, green and gold,” and an echo of this image returns like a refrain at the end of the poem.
In ‘Stars like Sentinels’ a moon over mountains inspires images far from any cliché: "The moon is heavy tonight, / plump and livid …" and "It eyes nothing. / Broken-toothed hills snap at its arc." Family haunts this poem, too: “The last bite of the moon disappears,/leaving me with paper saints,/eagles, lions and lambs: guardians/you set to watch my solitary transit.”
There are childhood memories, of fever-dreams (‘Baba Yaga’), of streets and neighbours made strange by the lens of childhood (‘Street of Small Windows’), and remembered pleasures. In ‘Leaves’ we experience the child’s joy in colour and touch:
And I slept deep in leaves, nested
like a mouse, bird, snake,
the phoenix rising from burning leaves,
fire blazing behind summer eyes.
There are adolescent incidents, and poems that recall adolescence by riffing off music by Bowie, and the loneliness in Edward Hopper’s painting Automat. And there are people met and lost. ‘Ophelia in Leeds 6’ is a portrait of a girl who “wanted to be Ophelia”. In the simple telling of her story and the attic room where she “makes up / her face, her past, and countless futures”, lies the narrator’s moving empathy. In ‘Exchange’ an adolescent kiss haunts the narrator’s “awkward mouth” when 40 years later, in quite a different context, it’s “remembering her foreign tongue".
And there are frankly surreal images inspired by fragments of memory. ‘The Apotheosis of Ceyx’ translates a memory of a beach outing into a surreal scene whose imagery is worthy of Stanley Spencer. A scene of rows of old women stolidly knitting on the sands suddenly becomes a replay of a myth about the gods’ revenge on a loving married couple who blasphemously claimed their marriage was on a par with Zeus’s to Hera. Ceyx, the fisherman husband in the myth, becomes in the poem a boy on a bike who cycles into the sea; the knitters absurdly transmute into seagulls and flap away to find him, like the wife of Ceyx in the myth. The poem rattles along at a fine pace, in a musical, jolly rhythm like a seaside postcard. A more sinister image of ‘Knitting’ appears in an eponymous poem later: this grey woman “knits fast, but the scarf grows faster” and it engulfs the narrator.
Towards the end of the book the narrative turns darker and even more surreal. In ‘The Gift’ there is a mysterious demonic Italian with a garden in a suitcase, in a flooded city. We travel to ‘The Ruins at Night’ where “Dogs drink from mercury pools / forget their masters, lick the bones/ of refugees and lovers …” ‘Vague’ is a film noir sequence in Paris, where “eyes, black/with secrets, suck light from morning/cafés’. Hallowe’en brings a ‘Séance’ and “something takes shape in the candlelit air”. In ‘Wishbones’, “the tooth fairy, / black-mouthed at the window. sucks dreams.”
And there are sad realities: ‘Mother’ is a small, totally heartfelt poem in which at last, “Ashes to ashes: she stepped outside.” ‘Ice’ is a walk in familiar territory on a cold winter night 40 years on from “a drunken New Year’s kiss/that never ended, and remains, still,/the most honest thing you ever did.” These last poems are the richest and strangest of all. The narrator has grown up and come home – come full circle – by the last page.
Oz Hardwick is a York-based writer, photographer, musician, and music journalist, and professor of English and programme leader for creative writing at Leeds Trinity University. He is the author of six collections of poetry. This is his latest, published last year, and is a substantial and most honest work: emotion and memory distilled into words by a poet whose mastery of the craft seems wholly instinctive and intuitive. I have read it twice and will read it again, with huge pleasure.