This Phantom Breath: Henry Normal, Flapjack

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The cover of Henry Normal’s collection The Department of Lost Wishes features a youthful poet in a garish jacket and a huge badge that asks “Are we having fun yet?”. The answer from me is a resounding “Yes” although many of the poems - especially the later ones – have a wistful and sometimes sad quality.

When reading books for review I mark poems of special interest with Post-it notes  - these three books used up a whole pad of sticky slips, that’s how good they are.

Apparently Normal retired in 2016 – you wouldn’t know it from the amount of new radio material he has produced since then, plus these three poetry collections. The Department of Lost Wishes, published in 2018, contains more than 100 poems selected from his early work. I thought I knew his work pretty well having followed him over his long career so I was pleasantly surprised to find in these three books very many pieces that were new to me.

‘My Son the Poet’ is lovely, a comment on where the desire to write poetry comes from: “Christopher Marlowe wrote for a living / but before his name was made / what did his family make of it all / cobblers being their trade?”

Henry Normal’s observational poems are always a delight and he has justifiably been called “the Alan Bennett of poetry”. For example:


     The English don’t die they just become discreet

     You never see a hearse clamped on Harley Street

     or parked at a picnic site

     near Lovers’ Leap


     You never see a hearse at a wedding

     or on adverts for banks

     or a row of hearses at a military parade

     behind a squadron of tanks


                                  (‘You never see a bright yellow hearse’)


Or how about this for short, sweet and witty?


     Her pen she laid next to mine

     round at my pad

     then she ran out this morning

     without a line

     as indeed her pen had  

                             ('A sort of modern Cinderella’)


Or ‘Ode to the Trevi Fountain surrounded by scaffold’: “Love sick I may be / vino makes me maudlin / but even I couldn’t write a song called / ‘3 coins on tarpaulin.’’ And one of Normal’s showstopper short poems:


     As a tribute to Dylan Thomas

     I got pissed at the Chelsea Hotel

     and though the food was delicious

     as a tribute to Sid Vicious

     I threw up over the doorman as well

                                          (‘Chelsea Hotel’)


‘Undressing for sex when you feel you’re getting fat’, ‘The black hole that was Phillip Mitchell’ and ‘The department of lost wishes’ are gorgeous pieces that make you smile and take a deep, thoughtful breath simultaneously. And my favourite of this volume? “I have a dream / of a world without armies / A world of peace / Where everyone wears cardies” (‘Cardigans to the Middle East’).


The reissued Staring Directly at the Eclipse includes some of Normal’s longer pieces which read more like tiny short stories.  I’ll mention ‘The house is not the same since you left’ , ‘The frame of the Mona Lisa Dreams’,  ‘The questions they don’t ask on the census’, ‘The dream ticket’,  ‘Sand between the toes’ , ‘A kind of loving’, and the best of all ‘ A message to my species’:


     I will not live on

     my son will be the last of me

     my evolutionary line is going out in a blaze of indifference


     The rest of the universe will just have to get on

     without me and my family

     and our genetic material


     Thank you life

     thank you universe

     we’ll have the best time we can


     Then you are on your own

     Try not to fuck it up



The collection This Phantom Breath, of new poems which were written between 2016-17, is the best of these three books by a country mile, illustrated with paintings by Normal’s autistic son Johnny, who has inspired many of the poems. The poet says they are poems “concerned with love, death, truth and other inconvenient distractions”.


     Rottingdean is a less enticing name

     than this esplanade deserves


     even on this dank afternoon

     only two shopping days ‘til Christmas


     so as a family we’ve decided

     to hide on the open beach


     Today it’s only cold enough for a hat

     or hot chocolate – not both


     My son avoids the dog shit

     And the dogs themselves with equal caution


     Walking on the sea wall

     is all the entertainment we need’

                                 ‘A ‘99’ in the fog’


And there’s one poem called ‘Distance’ which is guaranteed to bring you to tears. Or try this one,

‘Something wicked this way comes’:


     It’s hard waiting for sustenance

     distraction by jigsaw

     is a useful ploy


     Laying the table

     never quite takes long enough

     These are small dramas


     My son wears his new T-shirt

     from Stratford

     looking like a comment

     on his mum’s cooking


     And I wonder if Shakespeare

     would have foregone fame

     if his eleven-year-old son

     could have been saved


And the finest of this bunch is undeniably ‘A letter to the last child on Earth’:


     It’s not your fault

     Let’s get that out of the way

     from the start


     We are all responsible

     good or bad

     we knew it would come to this


     You can never let us down

      you are human

      the best and the worst


     Live in the present

      enjoy your mortality

      You are blessed


This is a fine collection, and a wonderful tribute to Henry Normal, his wife Angela Pell, and Johnny.



Henry Normal, The Department of Lost Wishes, Flapjack, £10

Henry Normal, Staring Directly At The Eclipse, Flapjack, £9

Henry Normal, This Phantom Breath, Flapjack, £10




◄ The Write Out Loud Poem of the Week is ‘Win Sum’ by Steven Arthur

The Weather in Normal: Carrie Etter, Seren ►


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