Michael Harlow. Cassandra’s Daughter. ISBN 1-86940-332-0. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2005. RRP $21.99.
The things that are good here are the things that are always good in Michael Harlow’s poetry: the intricately hypnotic diction, the elegant evasions of what anyone else would think to say about some particular theme or character. The title-poem seems particularly strong in this respect. Who else would have thought to make Cassandra’s daughter, (“Cassy for short”): “in love with how / one word wants another / with astonishing ease” (p.2). The rest of us, I fear, would have concentrated (like W. B. Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan”) on “how last night / in her dreamtime a wooden horse / appeared.”
Perhaps that’s what the book as a whole is about, also. At first sight it seems more of an instalment and less a finished thing than, say, Giotto’s Elephant (1991), his previous collection – despite having had (presumably) such a long gestation. Even the blurb seems to convey this uncertainty. “A series of lyric poems and prose-poems in which the ‘persistent imaginal’ goes in search of a language to articulate something of the curious and surreal strangeness of the everyday,” is hardly the most specific of formulae.
“A sudden blow: the great wings beating still / Above the staggering girl …” I wouldn’t trade that Yeats poem for anything. “A shudder in the loins engenders there / The broken wall, the burning roof and tower / And Agamemnon dead.” And yet, and yet, Harlow’s Cassy actually sounds like a small girl chatting to an elderly stranger: “Would you like to / hear me sing? I can almost dance, / too.” Yeats’s heroine, by contrast, seems a mere foil, a mask he uses to interrogate his own fantasies of power and sexual fulfilment.
It’s nice to have both, I guess. Perhaps the most encouraging thing about the lack of a clearly-focussed theme in Cassandra’s Daughter is that it implies that the persistent imaginal in still in quest of that elusive language of expression, which might lead us to hope for another instalment in the very near future. In the meantime, a lot of the poems here will shortly be as dog-eared as their counterparts in my battered old copy of Yeats’s Collected Poems.
- Jack Ross, brief 32 (2005): 105.