Halliday’s sixth collection of poetry dazzles with verbal precocity.
It probably goes without saying that the view of the “average man” is that poetry is kind of effete, that it’s written by neurotics, lily-livered introverts and teenagers in their bedrooms, that poetry is dead and irrelevant to the hussle of modern life, elitist, with a small and shrinking audience, self-regarding and obscure. Most publishers won’t touch it, no sir-ee.
These misconceptions are not helped by the amount of people pushing out poetry on the internet and calling themselves poets. The hard-line truth however is that you shouldn’t really call yourself a poet (or a writer) unless you actually receive some financial reward for it. Writing in your spare time is a leisure pursuit not a career; don’t claim to be a surfer when you actually work the 9 to 5 in an office. Your aqua proclivity is a hobby, dude, that’s all.
The few poets I know tend to be actually really tough people, and probably have to be, to keep on keeping on writing poetry in a world that’s generally hostile to it. I don’t know how tough Mark Halliday is, but Thresherphobe itself is tough, concise, not full of blather. Halliday’s poetry has been classed “ultra-talk”, but this underrates its lean sophistication.
Thresherphobe is also thrillingly provocative. Halliday is professor of English at Ohio University, so you could almost expect him to be writing conservatively, but his poetry takes risks. His knack is to write about things probably everyone notices, but no one necessarily says out-loud. Halliday may be in a world of academics – which is from time to time reflected here (he, or someone else, disappoints a great mentor in “Before Dawn”), but his poetry is universal enough to be of interest to everyone. Halliday finds poetry everywhere – there’s lots of looking out at the world, and at each other. He describes human encounters, or almost-encounters, wonderfully:
you sort of half step toward me but then a faltering prevails
due to tiny transparent bats that bounce off our cheekbones:
these are the conversations that probably won’t happen.”
The obvious originality here is to introduce an unexpected image (the bats) into an everyday situation, and whilst there’s a mass of literary theory about the male and female gaze that Halliday is more than likely to be aware of, he ploughs through all of this effortlessly using direct language, managing to encapsulate the complexity of the feeling and thought patterns of the intensity of escaped moments. The poem becomes a form of voyeurism and transfer – we both watch it unfold and see into the poet’s head from outside ourselves:
“Her smile said this
but I did not smile back because –
because guys don’t do that – because
we are strong and separate and firm and without softness!
So then the next moment had come and we had walked apart
in our two differently inflected kinds of routine loneliness.”
(“Pathos of the Momentary Smile”).
Halliday is fearless in a post-feminist, politically correct world. To be male and honest about what might be running through your head is quite a difficult thing these days, and his poetry is as a result all the more startling (we are nothing but self-deluded creatures). Gina, Jennifer and Michelle fail to show up at a certain Brazilian beach resort in “Ducks Not in Row” and “girls – young women” are the subject of a self-conscious reverie in “Sorority Softball” (“Let no critic be paid for explaining that my focus/ on the twenty-eight glistening calves is dehumanizing!”).
Yes, it’s easy for any male over and beyond middle age to be cast as a dirty old man, to feel overlooked and defeated. “Spunktilio Awaits The Biographer” entertainingly recounts how the poet has been awaiting his biographer since turning sixty-three. Without humour this poem would be a perilous proposition, but he manages to balance the selfish with the selfless, so ultimately his poetic voice is sympathetic. Just as the thought of death can make us think of ourselves, it can also prompt us to consider what we may be leaving others. In “Reader Depressed” he fears leaving his son or daughter with the perfectly phrased “depresso-heavy chaos / of nearly three thousand books”.
Throughout the collection, the individual seems threatened by materialism and the never-ending new, “the high-tech nano corridors of new thinking”. Halliday’s voice is light and frothy in sharp contrast to the unnecessary stuff humans are seen to collect. A number of the poems (including “Threshed Out” and “New New Poetics”) make the reader consider what use books – poetry – culture really is; are we just adding more waste to the dirt and chaff that we already have and don’t need? Perhaps for poetry to survive, to be relevant, more poets need to ask questions like this.
Thankfully there’s no suggestion Halliday is going to disappear quietly, despite his statement in “Talented Youth” that “my role pretty much should be to stand aside”. But Halliday can more than keep pace with what’s going down. If poetry is an old dog, Thresherphobe suggests the pooch has a few more years left in it yet. Woof-woof, baby, woof-woof.