Review of The Great Unlearning in Various Artists, March 2010
by Tom Phillips
“Adam Horovitz’s poem The Great Unlearning is a high-concept work. Time doesn’t so much run backwards in it as recede. The poem reads like words reappearing in the sand as the tide goes out, a retreat into innocence, shadowed by the terrible Yeatsian knowledge that ‘The ceremony of innocence is drowned’. Horovitz, in fact, begins with an almost Yeatsian gesture himself – ‘This age and sourness bewilders’ – before setting a reversing course back through time: ‘The younger I become, the less sure I am’. In short, this is poetry as tour de force, an agglomeration of well-turned lines that range from the reversal of proverbs – ‘the storms before the calm’ – to acute simile – ‘but still hurt leers/inside me like a gargoyle’ or ‘the smell of sweat and sorrow/rises like a molehill in the master bedroom’. A funeral becomes the occasion when ‘all the people we have ever known/refill the ducts in their eyes and sigh’, while ‘Over four years/my mother falls slowly out of love’.
“At times, perhaps, this can seem to be little more than witty reversalism, a ‘what if?’ hypothesis followed to some kind of (il)logical conclusion, as when, for example, Horovitz watches his father ‘un-wrinkling’ and unshaving by ‘wiping on a beard with a drying razor’ (a Martin Amis novel, a Harold Pinter play and an episode of ‘Red Dwarf’ have ‘done’ the time reversal thing to varying effect already, after all).
“But that’s to ignore the reversal of emotional logic that’s also going on here and the opening up of a fresh perspective on those potentially crippling Freudian family relationships in lines like ‘It gets easier as I become less self-reliant,/more naive, start shedding friends’. Such family relationships become more complicated later and it’s in this second section that Horovitz really reaches the nub of it: experience might well run ‘forwards’, but the emotions those experiences leave behind run ‘backwards’ and that’s what traps us: ‘Although,’ he writes, ‘it is all too strange for words/it does not feel wrong.’ The feeling of loss turns out to be much the same in either direction, unbound to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and Horovitz is soon in a place ‘where poems are unsaid, harps packed away/and the bright, hard light/of tearing down appearances/hardens into tears/as we leave for a churchyard.’ Somewhat later (or earlier), he writes of a time in Sunderland ‘where I unlearn the hard ways of the city,/shrug off the coalface, the politics of hardship/and become innocent/But still there is pain.’ Pain, it seems, remains, whatever the bullying direction of time’s arrow.
“There are, at least, small mercies – ‘The stream sings/of the sea it is leaving/as we play in it’ – and while the final, adolescent question – ‘How will you bear it/when, all too soon, I am gone?’ – seems out of kilter with the much less petulant tone of the rest, this is undoubtedly a properly engaging, depth-opening piece of work – and one which benefits from having appeared in a pamphlet of its own.”
Thanks to Tony Lewis-Jones and Tom Phillips for the permission to reprint this…
Reviews by me:
Daniel Sluman’s Absence has a weight of its own (Nine Arches, 2012)