Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Review: The Illuminated Dreamer by Oz Hardwick (Oversteps Books, 2010; ISBN 978-1-906856-14-4)

Oz Hardwick's third collection of original poetry is a more extrovert work than its two predecessors. The Kind Ghosts and Carrying Fire (Bluechrome, 2004 and 2006) were books that looked back into the past, rich in imagery from folklore and medieval literature; The Illuminated Dreamer documents the poet's journeys across more familiar, or at least more easily pictured, territory. The poems in this collection are beautifully crafted and there is a sophistication to them which belies the accessibility of the subject matter.

After a slightly trance-like beginning, the opening poems of the collection are mainly an exploration of the poet's uneasy fascination with the United States of America. Halsted Street Market in particular captures the complexities and contradictions that present themselves to a visitor's eyes:

"Her clumsy ring, its stone too big, clings
to dreams of dust and slide guitars, handsome
strangers, dangerous to cross...
Beneath the counter, a loaded forty-five,
hair-triggered and warm. She smiles again..."

Many of the poems in this section of the book derive their inspiration from music and film. Bob Dylan features in a number of guises, principally as the symbol of a youth left behind and of dreams not quite fulfilled:

"So when I heard his slow train coming
I watched from the side of the track, nodded,
ordered one more cup of coffee as he passed
and once again left me behind."
(from When Dylan Found God)

There's a nostalgic colour to these pieces, but they are never self-indulgent. A wry awareness that nothing stays the same is the dominant mood. It's present in both the social commentary of Desolation Row Revisited ("now poetry's handled by offshore concerns, / its rhythms stuttered from call centres / in countries with unpronounceable names") and the romanticism of Monochrome ("for you I'll extinguish / Times Square's gaudy neon glare, / mute it to monochrome with a rising Gershwin score, / meet you in secret when the last train has left.") My favourite of this set was The Cats of Greenwich Village, who may have "put on weight since Fred Neil / crossed MacDougal" but "carry it well, proud and hip". Today they "run wholefood stores and guitar shops, / reminisce about sitting on Dylan's shoulder, / relax and let the rats run free."

There's a sense of travelogue in the rest of the collection, but the destinations are predominantly European. As with the American poems, many of these pieces portray a reality that doesn't match up to the clichés of artwork and film; the scenery "seems painted, clouds / unconvincing, grass too green" (Notre Dame de Maigrauge). In Drowning in Paris, the familiar romantic backdrop (the tower "out of focus, its searchlight beams / refracted, showing nothing") evokes a very different story:

"I bent down to look at a postcard stand
and could not surface. Your cold hand slipped
away. I float with flotsam and suicides, abandoned."

In other places, however, the ordinariness of the setting is what allows unexpected magic to happen: the creature "waiting / with flowers at the station door, remembering / all I wished to forget" in Cow Parade: Milan; the enchanted solitude of the Italian riverside "where the bright lights shine, / rain-born and flowing to a foreign sea" in Welcome Stranger; the "Orpheus of the accordion, drunk and swaying" in Orphée.

The remaining pieces are journeys in dreams, strongly reminiscent of those in Carrying Fire. In these pieces, Hardwick’s credentials as a romantic poet are unashamedly laid bare:

"And here I will talk in warm, hushed voices
with those who you have forgotten but who remember you still,
and those whose rooms you keep fresh and ready,
though they will probably never return. All these people
I will know and call my friends."
(from Sleep Now)

The hazy, filmic quality of the imagery in this collection is one of the most distinctive aspects of Oz Hardwick's voice. Reading these poems is rather like being immersed in the very finest scenes from classic European cinema. One is never quite sure where description ends and dreams begin:

"When I see white horses stamping in the car park,
a boy cradling a goldfish that fell from the sky
and wild creatures sniffing at my door, I ask,
but they say nothing, leaving me lost and wide awake."
(from City)

The sheer musicality of his words is also striking. For a predominantly free verse poet, Hardwick's gift for rhyme is first-rate; he manages to sneak rhymes unselfconsciously into pieces that still feel like free verse:

"We have all day to dance. First, feel
this chill air. A bird flutters. A cat
stalks long shadows. A wooden wheel
cracks against cobbles – a tumbrel of clowns, fat
unsmiling masks yawning..."
(from Masks)

And most importantly, he never overdoes it. The same is true of the alliterations and consonances which give many of these poems almost the feel of songs:

"Rain slicks cobbles, shining
like tongues licking lamplight. Listen –"
(from Borderland)

"The mist-kissed cobbles glisten like a tear"
(from Autumn)

"Lips lapping kisses from cloudless sky"
(from Innamorati)

It is this music which gives even the most complex poems an instant accessibility.

The few pieces in more formal metre were, in my opinion, less successful. Here, the weaknesses lay not so much in the choice of words as in an occasional stutter of rhythm or the need to resort to poetic inversion. But these are minor blemishes in an otherwise delightful collection of poetry.

The Illuminated Dreamer is a feast of lush images and intoxicating music. Hardwick's social commentary is intelligent and unforced, and the sheer richness of his language adds special languor to the dream sequences and the love poems in particular. It continues to be a crying shame that Oz Hardwick's work isn’t given the same critical acclaim that many of his less interesting contemporaries receive. That recognition is now long overdue.

For more on Oz Hardwick, visit

For more information about Oversteps Books, or to order The Illuminated Dreamer, visit

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