On Lee Harwood

August Kleinzahler

  • The Orchid Boat by Lee Harwood
    Enitharmon, 48 pp, £8.99, July 2014, ISBN 978 1 907587 53 5

In The Orchid Boat, the most recent of his more than 25 collections, Lee Harwood lights out from his seaside eyrie in Hove to many places, real, dreamed of or imagined: New Zealand, north-east India (‘where the Khasi people still sing some/hymns in Welsh’), fourth-century Alexandria, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, 15th-century Constantinople, Bologna in 1992, Amiens during the First World War, the T’ien-t’ai Mountains in China, the Rhinog mountains in Snowdonia, the beach at Harlech. The 16 poems in the book cover as much subject matter as territory: the murder of the mathematician Hypatia (‘Bishop Cyril, may you be tormented for ever’); Harwood’s father as a young officer in 1940, ‘having to shoot one of his own men,/his stomach ripped open beyond saving,/begging to be put out of his agony’; a Polish table set for guests with ‘fresh baked makaroniki’; Harwood’s great-great-aunt Leah Lee, who wound up marrying Jules Laforgue; the poet imagining himself as an ‘old frog’ surfacing from a pond’s muddy bottom, his ‘orange eyes bright with expectation’; a serpentine and oblique meditation on war and the children of war conducted while listening to a recording of the Greek bouzouki player Vassilis Tsitsanis singing ‘Cloudy Sunday’, written in Athens during the Second World War; and yet another in a series of remembrances for the poet Paul Evans, who died in an accident while climbing with Harwood many years ago, in which Harwood places a stone in on a summit cairn ‘as ravens glide by, two buzzards circle,/and a flock of goats clatters across the scree below.’

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