All This Is Implied, Will Harris
HappenStance Press, 2017 £5.00
Will Harris’s pamphlet opens with a brilliantly apposite quote from EM Forster which speaks of ‘opposite currents in his blood’, and how ‘then they blended, and he belonged to no one but himself’. This refers overtly to his own mixed heritage — half Chinese Indonesian half English — and his ‘journey’ in reconciling these. This is his material — and important work.
At the same time, we all have disparate ‘parts’. In some ways, Will Harris’s study seems to me about coping with being a person, at all — any person. He explores the ways others have treated him, the ways he’s seen himself. What I’m struck by, as much as his raw material, is his open and attentive approach.
Among other things, Will Harris studies him. He does this humbly, honestly and with care. He does it through the building of good poetry. And not only in ‘Self-Portrait in Front of a Small Mirror’ — where he, quite literally, sketches himself. As he says in the wonderful maybe-love poem, ‘From the Other Side of Shooter’s Hill’, ‘I reject the possibility of narrating any life other than my own / and need a voice capacious enough to be both me and not-me, / while always clearly being me. Fine, you said...’
All This Is Implied is a gripping study. I love its honesty. Sincerity. The times it takes off and sweeps across pages. Throughout, the poetry is well-crafted. The writer works, like the father, here, in ‘Bee Glue’:
My dad would work among the blue and white
pieces of a Ming vase — his job to get it
passable. He’d gather every part and after days
assembling, filling in (putty, spit, glue),
draw forth — not sweetness — something new.
I can feel those ‘days / assembling’. He shares ideas — ‘even nakedness, / is made by placement’, say (‘From ‘The Ark’: I) — as well as bringing his own ‘nakedness’ into the work. It’s a rare combination — that quality of thought, willing openness, and craft. To my mind, a great example of how to be a writer. And a person.
Heritage as Placement
‘When I open my mouth in shops, though my voice shrinks into a weird RP, I will accept the illusion of the colonial elite, other in blood and colour but English in taste.’
[from ‘Self-Portrait in Front of a Small Mirror’]
We all have to deal with our ancestry, but some of us can put it off. I don’t look Jewish, so I thought I would never have to write about being a Jew. (I was wrong). Also: I grew up in a long-ago time when people pretended assimilation was possible. The young poet Will Harris, a born-and-bred Londoner of Anglo-Indonesian descent, knows better. His heritage is visible, so despite his literary bona fides and Received Pronunciation, he is presumed to be foreign. And that is his poetic turf — which he explores with erudition, wit, and just the right amount of anger.
In the British Museum, two black ‘figures’
(they don’t say slaves) beat olives from a tree;
a ‘naked youth’ stoops to gather the fallen
fruit. The freeborn men are elsewhere, safe
behind their porticos, arguing the world’s
The thought train of this poem, ‘Bee Glue’, takes a far-ranging journey: from a Derek Walcott quote about the love required to reassemble something broken; to that vase in the British Museum; to the propolis used by bees to seal their hive (‘crucial for the building of a state’); to Harris’s Chinese-Indonesian grandma (‘I want a love that’s unassimilated, sharp / as broken pots’); and finally to his English father patching together a Ming vase and ‘draw[ing] forth — not sweetness — something new.’ The thought train is the poet: what he reads, what he observes, what he seeks, and how all these pieces fit together. Repeated readings of this poem reveal its complexity; its elegance is apparent right off the bat.
Harris’s biracial heritage is not the subject of this pamphlet, but it’s the context — even for the poems that don’t touch on race. It’s the poet’s vehicle for placing himself in the world. And as he writes in ‘The Ark’ —
Placement is all. The world revealed
by words/things, even nakedness,
is made by placement.
I’ve reviewed Will Harris’s All this is implied elsewhere, but I didn’t discuss the poem I’d enjoyed the most, ‘Halo 2’. I was playing it safe. I didn’t know if anyone wanted to read about video games. But poetry has to talk to technology: to, about, with, through…
The first half of the two-stanza poem describes a series of paintings of the Crucifixion. Harris coolly explains that the artist’s ‘fine excess’ was a means by which to advertise his own suffering. The second (quoted below) relates an experience many people will recognise from playing games, or from digital life in general — a combination of detachment, compulsion and self-disgust:
Late one night,
playing Halo 2, I saw myself in what
I saw on screen and, from Beaver Creek
to Uplift, shot anything that moved:
the birds singing in the artificial trees;
the true self nothing more than the self as seen.
I never owned the console required for Halo 2, but I played it, and games like it, at friend’s houses. So I know ‘Beaver Creek’ and ‘Uplift’ are maps. In first-person shooters like Halo, Maps are self-enclosed worlds which players move around, usually with a distinct geographical identity — ‘island’, ‘jungle’, ‘city’, ‘mountain’ etc.
Like real places, maps are fun to explore. There’s the same excitement you get with somewhere new and exotic, redoubled by the detail of the rendering (the ‘fine excess’), and the fact you move through them so easily. You lose yourself, and this is part of the attraction. It’s not that bad a way to spend time. A lot of technology is like this.
For me, there’s a double edge to that second and final stanza: the knowing glamour of ‘from Beaver Creek to Uplift’, or birds in ‘artificial trees’. Artificial birds in artificial trees — that’s poetry, right? It’s the golden bird in the final verse of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, or Andrew Marvell’s soul in ‘The Garden’, sitting in the boughs. Meanwhile, the final line is so brilliantly balanced that it seems to float off into the air, taking all the negative emotions with it.
There’s a nice ambiguity in the relation between the description of painting in the first verse, and the no-traditional (Halo 2) subject matter of the second…
But it’s the second stanza that really makes the poem. There’s something new going on there.