Stephen Payne reviews The Nature Thief by Henry Walters (The Waywiser Press, 2022)
QUEEN: To whom do you speak this?
HAMLET: Do you see nothing there?
QUEEN: No, nothing at all, yet all that is I see.
HAMLET: Nor did you nothing hear?
QUEEN: No, nothing but ourselves.
HAMLET: Why, look you there! Look how it steals away!
This dialogue from Hamlet, Act III, is an epigraph for Walters’ provocative and highly original collection. I’m charmed by the prince’s Welsh vernacular, but this can’t be why it was chosen. Perhaps Walters means to imply that the audience for poetry is ghost-like, especially when the poems are being written, but too often also in the aftermath of their publication. Surely, he means to put the reader in mind of Hamlet: to warn the reader, as it were, that some of the character’s and the play’s concerns might be shared by his poems. And indeed, the voice of the poems is questing and uncertain, concerned with the gap between reality and perception; the surface of the language, its music and play, is intrinsic to the poems’ effects.
This link to Hamlet is most obvious in the title sequence. ‘The Nature Thief’ sequence contains 15 poems, each of 20 lines arranged in two 10-line stanzas (rhymed in bespoke, erratic schemes), with titles such as ‘Hamlet Out West’, ‘Polonius’s Instructions to the Players’, ‘Wittenburg’ and ‘Ophelia, Last-period Geometry’. The first of the sequence, ‘Hamlet Out West’, finds our hero, or our author, crossing or trying to cross a river:
The limbs won’t make a leap the limbs won’t make.
Even seeing how the river strobes
flashing between the ties,
how the bluff falls away from the ribs of the trestle
To leap or not to leap. The syntax of the second sentence is typically unsimple, and I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve ever seen the verb ‘undetermine’, though its meaning seems clear enough, if one allows that it’s the limbs which are stripped of resolve.
I think it’s fair to say that, in general, the poems in The Nature Thief are, like this fragment, challenging. There is a great deal of word play and allusion, and the trickery seems central to the poems’ designs – in this respect I’m reminded a little of later Paul Muldoon. Given Walters’ penchant for syllabic forms, perhaps Marianne Moore is another touchstone (there’s a poem ‘Pangolin’, that is ‘after’ hers).
There is a great deal of word play and allusion, and the trickery seems central to the poems’ designs – in this respect I’m reminded a little of later Paul Muldoon
There’s also the lexicon. Here are some words that appear in the collection, with no more than one being chosen from any single poem: caruncle, thermosphere, historiated, escutcheon, lambsquarters, choliambs, tamarack, friable, antiphonal. This is well and good, if, like me, you enjoy looking up words (including ones you think you might know) and, certainly, a word or two per poem seems a reasonable entrance fee. Sometimes you might have to pay up to get past the title: ‘Metempsychosis’; ‘Symbolon’; ‘Viaticum’. Of course, it will depend on your background.
Consider a couple more poem-beginnings, to extend the point from lexicon to syntax. First, ‘Duet’:
If I had the third wish to spare
I’d take old Schubert down to a bar
chipped teeth crash like a brawl
no one applauds,
scales of attrition, sanded-down Braille
spelling out ashtrays & lost loves
And next, `Mirror Mirror’, which perhaps signals awareness of the issue:
O—: accented on the —, remember: I
remember you: aye: what made blood burn & breath come short
when we knew less: what ever became of that assured
dominion over, rage for, terror of, readiness
to sit, arms crossed, across the kitchen table from
Death: & to speak plain:
By no means all poem-beginnings are this difficult, though nearly all seem to me quite dense and unusual. The recompense for the work needed to enter the poems is, as mentioned above, a lively surface of verbal play, and some conceptual insights, particularly into perception and memory and self. ‘Mirror Mirror’ itself is replete with bright moments: “fireman’s pole star”; “the break-neck suck of sand down to the quick”; “the rigor of mortise work”; “to meet at the eclipse, the fusion of two wheels riding in tandem off into the sun- & moon-set”.
My favourite poems in the collection are probably the simplest, though none of them seem commonplace. If it wasn’t for its title I might read ‘Magi’ as being about parents attending to their infant child. It begins mimetically:
Hiccups in a baby
pulse the whole body
like a chickadee’s chick-
a-deeing on a high wire.
It then adds the observers (the wise men, or else the parents) to the scene, in a beautifully humane way:
Yesterday, in a ring,
three of us, once young
at once so old,
evened our breathing
to the same one centre,
in unison being
babes in the same woods
Another favourite, the first titled poem, ‘Clue’, describes how the geometry of some everyday objects, natural or artificial, is transient because of various kinds of expansion or unfolding. It jumps straight in with the thought:
A seed is lots
than it looks.
Consider the less
and finishes, a page later, with the upshot:
its inside’s out
you’ll never stuff
the stuff back in.
I suspect from its title and its placement, that Walters intends ‘Clue’ to be a kind of ars poetica. I’d say he’s true to it: I’ve come away from The Nature Thief feeling less ignorant than I used to be, also invigorated by how much learning and ingenuity can be squeezed into a short lyric poem.
Stephen Payne is Professor Emeritus at the University of Bath, where until September 2020 he taught and conducted research in Cognitive Science. He lives in Penarth in the Vale of Glamorgan. His first full-length poetry collection, Pattern Beyond Chance, was published by HappenStance Press in 2015 and shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year. His second collection, The Windmill Proof (2021), and a pamphlet The Wax Argument & Other Thought Experiments (2022) were published by the same press.