Book: Unsongs: Volume I
Author: Gabriel Hart
Publisher: Close To The Bone (April 2021) – part of the ‘First Cut’ series
Hart’s introduction to ‘Unsongs Vol I’ provides all the context we need: Hart is known more as a songwriter, and this is a book of 30 poems never set to music.
Hart is a professional wordsmith – if you’re familiar with his oeuvre, particularly his reviews, essays, think pieces, you’ll know that he is a seasoned writer – and this collection, his first foray in poetry, adds another golden string to his bow.
His aptitude for song-writing is, naturally, apparent in these compositions, each poem thoughtfully constructed to deliver every word in perfect time, pace, punch, pause. I could not help but think of Bob Dylan when reading this book (which is quite the comparison to make and one that I would not draw gratuitously), my favourite example of Hart as Dylanesque being the final three stanzas of ‘Deep Root Delusion’:
“I have not one nail of guilt
For using the sides as stilts
Because I’m walking as high
As they have tried to have me hung
Now, we all must be brave
Prepare to be chastised
We will have insane visions
While we’re all skinned alive
And it’s no wonder we’re crazy
With fairness far away
The tightrope of our good sense
Is beginning to fray”
Hart is entirely in control of these unsongs; there is no naiveté in his voice, only raw truth and wisdom gained through personal experience. This collection spans a lifetime (with poems from teenage years to middle age), allowing him to explore youthful disillusionment and more mature existential angst with the confidence of a veteran raconteur. At no point during my reading did I doubt the speaker of these poems nor sense any kind of reluctance in him, the result being an utterly convincing gospel according to Gabriel Hart.
The overarching theme of unstoppable decay vs growth is compelling, the internal suffering of human beings artfully presented against a backdrop of a dying, diseased, struggling natural world. Hart is clever to provoke images of war in every sense other than its literal one. The attitude or message of these unsongs I interpreted to be “life being a constant battle that may well prove futile, but we’re sure as hell gonna fight anyway”, the result being a ballsy, determined, fearless collection of poems.
Hart has a keen eye for observation, and I particularly enjoyed how he managed to transcend features of daily life (home, property, garden, lawn, dentist) into opportunities for self-discovery and growth. I’m also somewhat obsessed with Hart’s exploration of ‘vision’, of ‘seeing’ literally and metaphorically. It’s a motif that follows the reader throughout the book and is a fascinating portrayal of revelation. The characters that we meet along the way are as charming as Hart’s command of the English language.
Unsongs Vol I is a highly accomplished book of poems. I, for one, am pleased that Hart never set these bitesized bits of brilliance to music, for indeed they deserve to be savoured word for beautiful word without the distraction of melody or drumkit. I hope that Hart writes more poetry, and look forward to Unsongs Vol II.
Poem that stayed with me, that I couldn’t stop thinking about for days:
Birth, War, And Everyday Bleeding
Other personal favourite poems:
They Call Me Candle / Patina / A Cure for Acne / Abbreviated Alibi / Nice Thing