Caught by the River

The Glass Aisle

John Andrews | 28th February 2018

John Andrews reviews Paul Henry’s new poetry collection The Glass Aisle,  published today by Seren Books.

How do you survive the thumb-splitting cold days of your winter? For those who fear they won’t make it to its end, Paul Henry’s latest volume of poetry The Glass Aisle is an essential companion. Here is a poet who sees the life beyond the last river; translator, interpreter, a miner in caverns of ghosts. His words, sparse and exacting, are there for the inevitable dawn when loss has done away with your soul, shredded both mind and senses and has come for your flesh and your bones. This is the book they will put into your ‘Wicker Gondola’ when it makes its last journey down to the sea. Within its pages the pain described so vividly by the author will be a salve to the reader, for here is a rich and comforting voice next to you in the dark. Twenty eight poems so beguiling you know not whether they depict ancient folklore or an everyday occurrence in the next but one village as in ‘The Father in the Well’:

Can you hear him, boys?
Who put him in? 
There are mice and bats
inside the wall’s ring.

Some nights he cannot bear 
to hear your laughter spill 
from the moonlit porthole 
into his tower in the ground. 

He covers his furry ears
and pretends he did not fall.

The Glass Aisle demands to be read in detail, every word, every space to be picked over forensically with care. But equally so raw are some of its poems that on occasion they beg only to be read once. This is a strong tonic; this is a bath of salt tears. This is the key to the music room that the author’s father ‘locked away’ in the ‘The Hesitant Song’, this is the tender glance of ‘The Last of the Sixties Mothers’,

She calls out our names 
in case we are still there 

our satchel bells in the wind,
our buckled sandal-chimes 

rising up the pavement
on the afternoon tide. 

Hold fast, for the bath is not filled with your tears alone, you will be in the company of John Moonlight, angler, night-line setter, you will be in the company of the former workhouse inmates, ‘Abraham Bishop, Pauper, Gloucester Charlot Phillips, Wife, Carmarthen Easau Daly, Tailor, Ireland…’ their epitaphs all around you,

a story from a prayer, 
an owl from a name on the wind.

Ultimately, your guide will be the angel lineman of Brigend County, a confidante of the forgotten,

his red beard longer, 
his eyes on fire,
his skull a full cemetery-

Increasingly the pages read as if they are of an ancient illuminated manuscript of chronicles rather than a modern day volume of poetry. Time spent with Henry doesn’t pass as much as slip. Here is a hell mural of a country’s population sent to the workhouse, here is the seamstress whose fingers bleed, here is the miner whose lamp has gone out, here is the pauper whose hand is bone, here you will walk through a valley of servants who dare not speak of their past, there you will pass a village of idiots, along a road of vagrancy,

the water came up to his heart…
The cold. He cradled his head…
The star still burned in his pipe…

There is fleeting escape, in the son who left and brought back hope, the hawker who fled over the sea, a door opened in love in London’s ‘Grove Park’, and ultimately there is beauty like the first bolt of spring sun splitting the sky. Hold on to that beauty for this is a work that will get you through your winter. Do as Henry tells ‘Brown Helen’ in ‘The Fireplace’,

I’ll draw these flames to heel
Your chair is too far away.

The bay is rising now.
Warm your hands on its light.

Tell me you can feel 
all our summers in this grate.


Paul Henry reads poems from The Glass Aisle, accompanied by music from Stornoway’s Brian Briggs, at our April Social Club. More details here.

Buy a copy of Paul’s collection here.