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Fire Songs review – David Harsent’s apocalyptic collection

A feverish collection of ecstatic visions, biblical symbols and everywhere a lick of flame

“Dreamwork delivers jump-cuts”, David Harsent writes towards the end of Fire Songs, and it’s a phrase that could be taken as a statement of his poetic modus operandi through much of his 11th collection. It delivers a stream of feverish, oneiric visions, of apocalypse brought about through war or environmental catastrophe or the boundless human capacity for self‑deception and bedevilment; and everywhere there’s the lick of flame – “it will be fire” is a recurring line.

The collection makes rich use of symbol, especially biblical symbol, and reads somewhat like a modern-day Book of Revelation – there’s definitely something of the entranced, ecstatic visionary in some of the bravura pieces here. And it resounds with judgment, both historical and yet to come. Thematically, it’s organised around four “Fire” pieces, kicking off with the burning, in 1546, of Anne Askew, the Protestant martyr and poet whose chief offence against the church was her effrontery, first, in reading the Bible in English and, second, in seeking divorce from a man her father had decided she would marry in place of her elder sister who had died – in which, of course, she was following the lead of her king, who she appears to have thought would support her case.

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