The Cull, new and resurrected poems by Harry Owen
I received The Cull, a book of new and previously published poems, from Harry Owen some time ago and have put off reading it because work had taken my mind in other demanding, non-literary directions. In my experience, Harry’s poetry – and let’s dispense with artificial formality straight away by acknowledging that Harry is a friend – deserves the reader’s full attention.
The simplicity of the language is deceptive. The verse stretches beyond the observed and mundane particulars of moments in time, often domestic moments, to try to capture some much larger universal meaning, tantalizing, almost out of reach and in the grand scheme of things for us, evanescent. As the concluding two stanzas of the poem Tending sum up:
… Or snores that broach sleep, dream, shared breath
Of dog and man. Alive. All so present,
So rich. And when it fades at last, so ended.
The gentle shared movements of our living,
Constrained, ferocious, here. Everything
So long continuing, and yet, quite soon, gone.
If there is an elegiac tone it is because the poet, like other poets before him, is keenly aware of mortality against the backdrop of the earth that rolls on without us, and the need to acknowledge that reality to live fully. Death is part of life, but this fact not an easy thing to bear. In the poem Life is a cannibal, Harry writes:
Life is a cannibal: it must eat itself
Harry can be described as a nature poet. He edited the international anthology of eco-poetry For Rhino in a Shrinking World and many of the poems have as their subject matter the natural, non-human world and humanity’s troubled relationship with it. The observation in the verse is detailed and precise, and where Shakespeare saw “a special providence in the fall of a sparrow” Harry sees meaning in the death of a gecko.
Must things ever matter? Do they count?
You’re gone now; the ants have carried you off.
The sea keeps rolling in, its breakers
Crooning as they always have. I’m here
And straining for your snatches of song,
So yes, we matter, ever and never again.
Living fully in the world and part of the world is surely an underlying theme of Harry’s poetry, and this encompasses acknowledging the many shapes of injustice, including the political. One of the moving poems in this collection is based on a temporary memorial at Rhodes University listing the names and ages of the children killed by Israeli bombing of Gaza.
Most interesting for me, because of my detestation of officialese and how it cuts us off from lived experience, is the title poem, The Cull, in essence a found poem, based on euphemisms for organized, systematic slaughter. The word “Cull” in the title of the collection also refers to republishing or “resurrecting” Harry’s older verse that has already seen the light of day, but its main meaning is found in the title poem:
The commercial quota is just under
Four million, a pity because
The sheer terror of the slaughter
Can causeinfants to vomit their mother’s
Milk in fear. Regrettable of course. Sad
For those of nervous disposition.
But it’s a long way from here, isn’t it.
Harry writes in the Introduction, “The English language lends itself superbly to euphemisms – the hiding of unpleasant or unwelcome truths behind gentle words. While this can be useful in softening the impact of what might otherwise be insufferably painful to the listener, it can also be a thoroughly dishonest trick, a deception.
“I contend that the word ‘cull’ is often precisely that: a deception to hide from ourselves the dreadfulness of our deliberate, cold-blooded slaughter of animals, both wild and domesticated, that have done no wrong.”
If there is a message in the poetry, other than that we should behave less like barbarous idiots towards our environment, it is, ‘pay attention,’ the title of one of the poems:
To yourself: body, breath, blood : and listen :
Vibrations in air, flesh, in bone : permit
Slow atoms to rebound, sound yourself …
I met Harry in Grahamstown, at the wonderfully engaging monthly Reddits open-floor poetry reading he has run for more than 10 years now. He hails from Liverpool, and arrived in Grahamstown in 2008. Generous of spirit, with a quick wit and gentle sense of humour, Harry is incredibly knowledgeable about poetry, knowledge which he displays when he writes, for the local Grahamstown newspaper Grocott’s Mail, a column on poetry that should be read nationally. This is his seventh collection of poems.