REVIEW by C M Buckland

NWR Issue r29

The Glass Aisle

by Paul Henry

In this semi-surreal journey through the present and past, Henry’s narrator walks us through the seasons and along a section of canal in Powys, shedding a momentary light on some former inhabitants of an old workhouse.

The poem opens in the modern day with an engineer working up a telegraph pole, fixing a line that runs across the canal to the workhouse. As he toils, the engineer hears the faint sound of voices: ‘Abraham Bishop, Pauper, Gloucester / Charlot [sic] Phillips, Wife, Camarthen.’ This crackling transmission of the names, occupations and abodes of the inmates is a motif that runs through the piece, acting as a kind of sombre background static.

As the poem progresses, we encounter other workhouse labourers such as Mary Thomas, abused by a member of staff as a punishment for her child having cried in chapel. There is also John Moonlight, an angler from Crickhowell, who we feel is more poacher than legitimate fisher, ‘Children camp in the field / where you hid your night lines.’ When the canal freezes over in winter, it becomes the glass aisle of the poem’s title. John Moonlight walks along it, eventually falling through the ice into the freezing water below.

For me, the power of this poem is in what is not said. From their apparitions and utterances, we get a sense of the traces that these souls have left behind, with the physical and emotional strains of their lives being inferred rather than made explicit.

A government document dated 1852 held at the British Library lists the kinds of hard labour the workhouse poor had to undertake. Amongst these were ‘breaking stones’ and ‘picking oakum’; the latter involved unravelling rope that had been treated with tar (often used in shipbuilding). Henry references these two tasks in his poem. The workhouse really was the last resort for many who, through illness, disability, unemployment or homelessness, could no longer support themselves. This poem makes us consider these people, who in sheer desperation referred themselves to such institutions and, in so doing, surrendered much of their self-worth and dignity.

The poem closes with the narrator standing on the canal towpath, contemplating the whole bandwidth of other worldly communications he has encountered, ‘I cannot tell an owl from a name on the wind, / the voices in the wire / from the voices in the leaves.’

This is a memorable work which, for me at least, has something of the darker moments of Dylan Thomas’ ‘Under Milkwood’ about it. In the spaces between the poem’s ghostly broadcasts, I think Paul Henry succeeds in confronting us with the grim reality that faced the Victorian destitute and gives these inmates the chance to breathe again.

But whilst the title poem is the centrepiece of this collection, it is flanked by a number of other interesting poems:

‘Craiglais’ asks whether a tunnel connecting two coves might just be a wormhole bringing two separate worlds together; one at low tide, the other at high tide. I like the sense of space-time evoked in this poem, that this bridge between two dimensions could well disappear in an instant, leaving a traveller stranded on one side or the other.

In ‘The Seamstress’, the narrator’s wife is trying to hold back autumn by fixing the leaves back onto the trees. It is as though the oak and the aspen do not understand the force of their actions. Here thorns are pins, leaves are fabric, and the endeavour, an echo of the garments the seamstress used to fashion. ‘And for every hour returned / another falls to the ground, / to the colours of heartbreak, / of the clothes she used to make.’

I was transported back, in ‘Shelves’, to Henry’s previous collection, Boy Running (Seren, 2015). The sentiments of this poem feel deeply personal; as though they are a real, lived experience. It speaks about packing up old books – from either side of the fireplace – into plastic bags. ‘Bookmarks: letters, photographs / of the boys… slip free / like split playing cards, like knives.’ The more I re-read ‘Shelves’, the more I felt this piece belonged to the opening poems of Boy Running: with ‘Usk’ and ‘Moving In’ and ‘Studio Flat’ and ‘Ring' – incredibly raw works that speak of marital breakdown. But it was, nevertheless, good to revisit these emotions in this poem and in this collection.

The Glass Aisle is a body of work that walks us through different ages and locations, as well as through lives lived and lost. The title poem is a poignant reflection on the past and the severe hand dealt to those deemed least in society. ‘The Glass Aisle’ has that potential to endure.

CM Buckland is a writer and reviewer.

‘The Glass Aisle’, featuring songs co-written by Paul Henry with Brian Briggs, will be performed at festivals during 2019. A CD of the collection is also available. @ theglassaisle

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previous review: In Her Shambles
next review: Fade to Grey


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