‘The Distribution of Voice’ by Martin Harrison. Reviewed in SCARP 23, 1993

The Distribution of Voice, Martin Harrison, UQP 1993. Reviewed by Mark Roberts. This review first appeared as part of a composite review of 4 titles in SCARP 23, 1993. (http://printedshadows.wordpress.com/2011/11/22/poetry-review-scarp-23-october-1993-craig-powell-gary-catalano-jill-jones-and-martin-harrison/) .

Martin Harrison. Photograph by  Juno Gemes
Martin Harrison. Photograph by Juno Gemes

Martin Harrison’s poetry can appear difficult to come to terms with on a first reading. It is a dense poetry with rich images overlapping and merging, driven by an often sensuous use of language which at times seems almost ready to rebel being restricted to the page. Indeed, to appreciate Harrison’s work, the reader must realise that often the sound of the language is as important as the meaning of the word.

As well as being a poet, Harrison has a background in sound/text performance and is a teacher of sound composition. While his poetry may not be performance pieces in the way Amanda Stewart’s work is, the influence of sound and film in his work is obvious. At times, for example, Harrison’s descriptions are so intense they are almost filmic:

You want it all to come back –
April’s sharper lights,
Light-grids, networks, windows off
……….A shady green

– ‘Beauty Line’

But it is a film with a distinctive sound track. The best poems in this book seem to invoke an image which is aural as well as visual. In ‘Meeting’, a poem within the long sequence of poems called ‘Films’, Harrison captures the sound of the wind rustling through the grass:

Wind jiggles the shell-grass
Making itself visible
Like someone brushing a mobile

– 4. Meeting (from Films)

In another poem, ‘Marriage and Soundscape’, Harrison takes great care in describing a sound:

Then a shag took off from these waters,
making an interval, a year,
My wife has just seen it – calling it ‘hair on a
lens’ and ‘shadow noise’.
(There is green, there is a clapping-Sound, there is wind.)

– Marriage and Soundscape

Harrison’s imagery often flows together in the same way that a sound can gradually be transformed into a completely different sound without a casual listener being aware of the change. In ‘Then and Now’, for example, a description of the wind blowing leaves in a tree becomes, within the space of four lines, a lion and the entire poem moves off in a completely different direction:

Late wind arrives, shakes the leaves
in a porridge of shimmers, like a mane-
A lion gets up, walks about
Caged. foetid, in a fitful mind

– 7. Then and Now (from Films)


– Mark Roberts 1993

The Distribution of Voice was my first real introduction to the work of Martin Harrison and I am thankful to Ron Pretty for sending me the book to review and for publishing my first impression of Martin’s work.


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