Review by Anna Hollingsworth
Will Harris has been described as one of the most important young poets in the UK, and his debut collection more than justifies that epithet. In RENDANG, he dishes out a delicious plateful of the bizarre and the mundane where everyday occurrences alternate with dream worlds.
Quests for and questions of identity are central to the poems. Born, raised and based in London, Harris’s mother is Chinese-Indonesian and father British. He returns to the theme of an individual’s place in the world and how some find themselves suspended in the space between countries and cultures. In Mother Country, the speaker describes a bird’s eye view of Indonesia, contrasting the the “pandan-leafed interior expanding” and the “black smog of an emerging power”: “After years of her urging/ me to go, holding me back,/ I have no more excuses.” Lines of Flight offers snapshots from Diyarbakır to Mariinsky Canal. The sense of shuttling between cultures shines through clearest in the London section where the speaker thinks “of my Chinese/ forebears forced to work/ a loom” and ends in flux: “Here. No,/ there. I’ve been missing you.”
Whereas many of the poems are about searching for an identity, Harris has found his identity as a poet. He has a witty way of finding parallels between different mundane spheres of life.
In Holy Man, “everywhere was coming down with Christmas”, whole in My Name Is Dai, “[t]here are people who relieve themselves of information like a dog pissing against a streetlamp”. Harris is also a master of delivering a nearly physical reading experience with uncomfortable graphic images. Wounds are one such recurring trope: in Holy Man a colour is described through “a freshly mown lawn, a stack of banknotes, a cartoon/ frog, a row of pines, an unripe mango, a septic wound”, and in White Jumper the speaker asks, “Do some people imagine themselves/ in the same relation to their place of birth as a scab to a wound?”
There is comedy beyond the expressions, too, especially in the bizarre and sometimes dream-like — or dream — occurrences. In The White Jumper, for instance, the speaker “[d]reamt that Morrissey was performing/ and I stood behind him waving my arms in sync./ Fuck this, he said, and stormed offstage.” Pathetic Earthlings ponders the possibilities of telepathy with irresistible comic value, while in The Hanged Man the contrast between the status of Chipotle and that of ripe and ready avocados on seeded loaf is all too recognizable.
Harris delivers electric shocks to the reader by questioning the expected. In Rendang, the speaker describes a childhood habit of a circle of soft toys around their head, including “my echidna’s small beak pointed like a spear.” In SAY, eyes are not the conventional window into the mind but “[t]houghtful as/ moss or black coffee, or as the screen of a dead phone. That’s what eyes/ look like when you really look at them. Inanimate.”
RENDANG’s strengths lie with its verbal imagery rather than any big explorations of rhythm. However, there is proof that Harris can play around with rhythm, too: in Scene Change, “[a] row of Georgian/ houses slopes/ down to a meadow” with a beat resembling a town with its hills and parks, and in SAY the themes of flowing and breaking find their counterparts in how the rhythm breaks and flows. It would have been a treat to read and feel more of this.
In My Name is Dai, the drunken Dai says to his targets in a pub, “you’re writers … You should write about this.”That sums up RENDANG: Harris will pick up something ordinary, mix it with witty tropes and add a splash of bizarreness — and what an excellent aftertaste it leaves.
Anna is a bookworm, student linguist and journalist.
Will Harris, Rendang (Granta Poetry, 2020).978-1783785599, 80pp., paperback.
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