The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village under the Sea by Mark Haddon

01/10/05, The Times

Who would have thought that the stupendously original and imaginative achievement that was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time would return to haunt its creator, Mark Haddon? It was inevitable that his next work was going to be measured against that extraordinary book so the sidestepping involved in writing a slim volume of verse with another long streamer of a title doesn’t afford as much insulation as one could have hoped for. The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village under the Sea, like most volumes of poetry, is an uneven production: there are lyrics; sonnets; lullabies; reworkings of seven of Horace’s odes from the first book; even a poetic précis of a John Buchan novel in thirteen ‘chapters’, a prologue and an envoi.

Haddon certainly takes this new direction in his published career seriously. Poetry, he seems to be telling us, is his new vocation. The send-off that opens the book, deliberately echoing Chaucer, is both a programmatic statement of intent and purpose and a general figuring of the world of poetry and its makers. Haddon is quite taken with these occasionally metapoetical exercises: Horace’s sixth ode (‘Average Fool’); a pre-emptive, irritating piece of self-congratulatory clever-clever piece of prose called ‘This Poem is Certificate 18’; a special pleading, ‘Poets’, arguing for the privileged, precious apartness of poets, all stand evidence to a self-conscious, reflexive meditation on not just poetry but also on what constitutes a poet. It is a shame then that the first poem, ‘Go, Litel Bok’, should contain the first sounding of a staccato rhythmical clunkiness that is going to mar so many of the subsequent poems: ‘The fire I have felt beneath your shirts. These cloisters./Red mullet with honey. This surprisingly large/slab of Perspex. Your hands are on me. But this man/is another man.’ Such short phrases and sentences, ending with a full-stop, spread like an infection through the volume – ‘That sleepless night./This sleepless night.’‘I walked. You walked./ …This steak is very good. Sit down.’ ‘Now everything is real. This bungalow. The early train.’ ‘Your bravery. …/By sea. On horseback.’ This. Calamitous. Line-mongering. This mangling. Of end-stopped lines. Is not poetry.

My other big reservation is the arch air of knowingness that hangs over the book. The allusiveness remains undigested, as a forum for showing off, never an organic, assimilated thought process driving the motor of poetry. In the transcreation of Horace’s odes, the suave irony of the Augustan master has been flattened out, the pleats of sly, slippery wit shaken out and hung out on a pedestrian clothesline, the fugitive and constantly shifting distances between voice and persona commuted to a foreclosed exercise. Various poets stalk Haddon’s poems – Paterson, Doty, Kleinzahler, Farley, to name a few – but instead of singing in the unmistakably characteristic voices that they do, Haddon seems to be feeling his way still towards a tonal stability that he can make all his own. 

But there is much to celebrate, too. There are lyrics such as ‘Trees’, ‘New Year’s Day’, ‘Midas’, where mood, tone, diction all fuse into an extraordinary bud of meaning, tight with precision and thought, waiting to unfurl into whatever shape your mind will choose to give it at any time. ‘Great White’ and ‘The River-Car’ manage the impossibly difficult feat of making their radiant simplicity articulate both an immediate reality and a more amorphous and indeterminate beyond or beneath. If only his muse didn’t fall into the jerky stop-start motion of a nightmarish traffic jam on the M23, and he loosened his lines to let them breathe more.