Lifting The Floorboards: The House Of Ghosts And Mirrors - Oz Hardwick
Steve Whitaker, Literary Correspondent
Many poets can lay claim to thematic and stylistic diversity, but often their range of interests is circumscribed by the reader-emollient of a single consuming dynamic, such as a defining mood or tone.
Oz Hardwick, by contrast, is a shape-shifter, confounding expectation at every turn, leaving little to inference, and more to conjecture. And the range of poems in the Plymouth-born poet's latest venture, The House of Ghosts and Mirrors, is an eclectic triumph, successfully encompassing the supernatural, the elegiac, isolation, and the fallibility of memory.
Wearing erudition lightly, breathing the mystical into the everyday like the paintings of Stanley Spencer, Hardwick is neither derivative nor deferential: resemblances are suggestive tonal shadows.
The poems are deft finger touches; they wear the evanescent lyricism of a butterfly in wuthering flight, and sometimes they yield the appearance of rhythm in a delicate architecture of sound. Which is to say that the rhythm is borne naturally out of an intuitive feel for the sound of language.
Here is an invisible hand; as invisible as the sense of a narrator in some of the poems. The House of Ghosts and Mirrors is driven by sometimes real, sometimes supernatural observation, where evidence of an observer is concealed, if not uncertain. He or she may be a wraith, combing theme and landscape with eyes, but without identity.
Hardwick's choice of title is apposite and persuasive: ghosts and mirrors are non-entities and reflections, intangibles.
In 'Doppler' the fleeting nature of 'night and snow', and all of time's imponderables, are weighed in the sublime delicacy of a caught moment - a snowflake on a tongue - rendering the observer subsumed, as time and distance ebb and flow like wave frequencies.
We hear echoes of Rilke in Hardwick's rendering of a universe in a moment and the finding of the sublime in a detail.
The same effect is achieved in a cool, and acute, gaze at a painting. The inertia of an Edward Hopper diner ('Automat') is given masterful humanity in the animation of a young girl in the picture with motive and a life independent, smiling conspiratorially and 'waiting for the darkness to take shape', being, in fact, a mirror to the imagination.
Women, and often strange, forgotten figures are amongst this poet's muses. In 'Ophelia in Leeds 6', vivid suggestions of Pre-Raphaelite eccentricity - a Miss Havisham haunting the 'arcades' for market junk and inhabiting a world of imaginary lovers and 'a castle in her head' - are shattered at point of condescension with an intimation of the supernatural, when 'on a night like any other,/ her Gothic fancy takes her wrist / and draws her through the speckled mirror.'
The liminal space between death and life, which the Leeds Ophelia inhabits, is reinforced in 'Status Update' where the narrator is followed online by the cyber resonance of a now dead girl, and in 'Figure in the Landscape', that figure is again out of reach, a shadow statue who may exist but only in the narrator's memory.
'Not So Sweet' describes a vampiric Baby Jane Hudson figure adorned with claws and veils, living in a detritic nightmare of a house, playing music to herself, whilst, and, in an unexpected pay-off, suddenly remembering the 'starving DJ chained in the cellar'.
There is anxiety in many of Hardwick's poems, often conceived in barbed metaphors which draw on an added suggestion of violence as a corollary to fear.
'Tied' depicts a figure bound by a scarf in a forgotten house of knives, screaming birds and barbed-wire patterns in the sand, lost to the world and its visual agony. And here, Sylvia Plath's proclivity for self-laceration infects Hardwick's sensibility.
Elsewhere, an interplay of memory and sincere admiration congeal into cosmic aspiration in an unexpectedly anchored series of 'war' poems. Hardwick's great uncle, a second world war pilot, is caught on 'ground curiously neutral' in the poem 'The Miracle of Flight', though here the space is Icarian, between the burning cockpit and the Belgian soil which rises to meet him.
For once, the poet's striving for a memory he cannot truly share, beyond second or third-hand anecdote, almost draws a breathing figure to life by an act of will, as though extruding three dimensions from the air.
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'Then I imagine you here, sitting beside me.
You tell how it felt to challenge the sky; the noise,
the adrenaline and cold air stealing
your breath, the grin
of knowing yourself alive.'
And something like a declaration of love for the remembered father in 'Not that Sort of Hero', a poem about quiet duty, dignity and barely discussed war experience which haunts the son/narrator in the imagined horror of the Arctic convoys.
The invisible threat of submarine torpedoes is as palpable as the bomb lurking beneath the floorboards in 'Lacuna'.
Or the father himself in the ineffably strange 'Archaeology', appearing as if in a dream, again beneath floorboards, bearing remembered historical tokens: the No.6 cigarettes, the brass lighter, the cracked, dirty fingernails, and the genial recumbence of a Christ of the Brylcreem and betting shop, stretched out on a makeshift crucifix.
If the mysticism of many of Hardwick's poems is informed by an inherent uncertainty about the landscape he inhabits, then that uncertainty is occasionally punctuated by forays into the realm of the experiential, the painfully remembered, and sometimes the exotically comic.
This last is served wonderfully in 'The Early Train', which takes a gallop through a dream of Victoriana, invoking visions of early railways and the clattering optimism of burgeoning industry and empire, overseen by -
' stick-thin gentlemen
with frost-fringed whiskers and waistcoats
neatly braided with sugar and steel
crook their fingers, tap the glass
of golden fobs on golden chains
that bound the globe.'
Hardwick's metrical flow in the poem gives a tangential rendering of Tennyson's 'ringing grooves of change' in tempo and anticipation. The unfolding of a grand caricature of the nineteenth century releases the era's energy and fastidious economy in well-chosen metaphors:
'A million hands
haul hard, take the strain,
and the clockwork city rises, shines
like golden owls staring down empires.'
But a caricature only. The rest, for Hardwick is insubstantial, uncertain, tentative. Like the ever-moving floor at Blackpool's sardonically-named 'Fun House' which casts the anticipant into the unknown, shadows succeed laughter, and precede fear.
'And in the Ghost House all that remains
loses its shape, dust sheets flutter, and candles
snuff out in a breath, like a birthday cake.'
The House of Ghosts and Mirrors is published by Valley Press
Lifting The Floorboards: The House Of Ghosts And Mirrors - Oz Hardwick, 9th February 2018, 9:52 AM