On 'The Built Environment' by Emily Hasler (Pavilion Press, 2018)

Review by Declan Ryan


There is something fitting about this review coming almost exactly a year after the book under discussion was published, because waiting is at the centre of Emily Hasler’s art. I don’t want to labour the point for too long, but having lived with The Built Environment in my head for 12 months, and some of the poems within it for much longer than that, it is avowedly the case that their elegance and wit, their subtle, undemonstrative clarity and generous attention expand on each revisit. I have found myself returning to it more than any other book in the last year, initially for a favourite poem or two, but eventually wolfing it down each time in toto, its careful shaping and uninsistent progressions only adding to the thrill of the parts in the whole.

‘Sub-architecture’, at once an apologia and a love song to suburban sprawl, notes that “They got you on a good day, waiting – as if that was living. But it is living”, and Hasler goes on to prove just that. These are poems about what happens when one decides to “build from nothing”, in other words to live in the world as it is, as a creature of desires and hunger, but also with a refusal to take anything for granted that hasn’t been felt, proven, with the eye and the body. ‘Sub-architecture’, with its long lines and finickity-cheerful tone - “And I’m sorry houses, what a price to pay;/to lose your character!” – is exemplary of Hasler’s shifting, her blending of registers and diction (“squamous”, “malefic”, “it’s like…we’re incompatible”) and her control of line and sentence length to change gears and clinch a mood: “I think we can do better. Well.” There is also an underlying optimism, a looking-on-the-bright side despite all evidence, which across the collection as a whole could risk being cloying, or naïve, but is never less than moving, leavening, at times heartbreaking.

‘A False Winter’, acting as something like an echo, albeit in quatrains rather than the conversational couplets of ‘Sub-architecture’, begins “We kept waiting” before using “disappointed stomachs” as shorthand for human need, whether boxset or warmth, shelter, bed. Hasler is a dab hand at the ‘We’, making it feel at once private and public, a difficult knack – the reader feels like an eavesdropper on something intimate, settled, but never distanced or piqued by being summoned in this way, the specifics serving to heighten an empathetic reading. This is chiefly to do with Hasler’s ability, throughout, to slip in quiet profundity, to create backdrops of seeming domesticity, observation – places we might easily have been, things we might, had we been more alert, more patient, more willing to wait, have noticed for ourselves and using them to lay out considered reflection, thought steeped in time. There is barely a poem here which doesn’t contain memorable lines, the sort of detachable little epigrams one might plunder from a Bishop or an O’Hara, but through some alchemical mix of her conversational tone and medium simmer they’re not foisted at us like trinkets. We have to wait for them to emerge over time. Look at this, for example, from the ending of ‘The Animal in Motion’:

                                                                                The moment
         is neither metrical nor imperial, neither ends nor begins.
         Each step’s a crime: the before and after and frontier within.
    

Hasler sees time, and movement, in this way – as per other poems here her thought is geometric, mathematical, ‘built’. In ‘Potpourri’ the narrator notes “how thrown together a day is”, and this sense of chance and happenstance but also of that “thrown” itself, its active velocity, its charged participation, are evident elsewhere, too. In ‘Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne’ there is another pause to consider time and our movement through it, this time in a thrown voice, no less convincing for it:

                                   Moments are large as villas,
        parks, mythologies, centuries of Art. Thoughts

        run through me like a fountain, water in constant
        escape – which is no escape.

If we cannot escape by always being in motion – calling us back to the grace of waiting, pausing, reflection – we’re eventually going to get caught. Another contender for the Hasler future epigram bingo, from ‘Inscription’, “Led by our finest part/it is but narrowly we escape into our futures”, the sense of being on the run, of being pursued, is deliberate and sobering, while ‘Objection!’ backs up this sense of our motion, its fleeting inescapability -

        How easy it is to convince ourselves
        that time passes and passes us

        when it’s us who pass, are passing it:
        this bit, this bit, then this.

This could lead down the road to nihilism, this sense of being trapped, or at least hunted, but the transport isn’t only to our deficit. In ‘Egyptologist’ the narrator notes that “I know the dead abandon all their wonderful things to the living”, and this idea provides some consolation, some sense of an ongoingness, amid the linearity, heightened within the same poem: “I know that though nothing is really numberless//I shall never exhaust all the riches to be found.” Hasler brings her great talent for close scrutiny, for focusing on “the great riches”, to bear and offers us a way out of fearing our pursuit towards the inevitable. The book’s longest poem, and one of its finest, ‘A Stretch of River’, smuggles in something of a working method for this:

                  I was straining
        to keep both in sight;
        the distant, seeming casual
        flight, the close and urgent
        fretting. It was a thing
        I had to try to do,
        like an exercise.
        Keep both in sight,
        preferring neither.
        Keep both in sight
        and not compare
        myself to either.
        

This sense of keeping both in sight, “preferring neither”, speaks to her approach throughout, a compendious interested eye taking on and in everything with generosity and openness. The poem’s conclusion, too, seems to join us all in an even greater communal ‘We’, a shared sense of things seen, felt and cared for across centuries which no amount of new building or existential isolation can overwhelm entirely:

        My dear, my time here
        is ending. It was silly
        to have ever written
        …but I fear
        all our moments
        are recurring in some place.
        After all, look at the signs.

    
The earlier sense of hunger can be applied to the voracity of Hasler’s curiosity, the poems here ranging from linguistic unpicking and dissection of definitions to postcard-style momentary thoughts, caught ideas stepping out in real time, brilliantly achieved in ‘Wish You Were Here’ and ‘The Valley of the Stour with Dedham in the Distance’, their punctuation excised, the whole led on by the thought’s movement, impressionistic, charming, eschewing “too grand a digression”.

What elevates The Built Environment to the constant re-reading pile, for me at least, is that as well as all these achievements, technical, syntactic, visual, Hasler manages something far rarer. She is able to capture and conduct joy, not a phoney strained-for epiphanic kind, but the daily, unexpected, unignorable sort – the pleasure of “a memory of beergardenness”, whether the summer lilt of pollen which conscripts the body into acceptance of “sticky/abundance” because “it’s a sin/not to meet the sun with the appropriate degree of enthusiasm” or the colder, northern muscle memory of winter, “It’s a sore soul that cannot lay down tools/or use the Yule to its proper end; strong drink,/food.” She has written a book of enthusiasm, insight and – perhaps above all – love; there is here an atmosphere of the often unsung marrow of life, the gaps, obsessions and interstitial contentment which makes up its savour, and which balances out and makes tolerable the headlong rush out of it: “When all our work is done, our harvests in/ - we are quite old/quite



Declan Ryan was born in County Mayo, Ireland. His work has appeared in Poetry Review, Poetry London, Poetry (US), Poetry Ireland and the New Statesman, among others. His pamphlet was published in the Faber New Poets series. His criticism can be regularly seen in the pages of The Times Literary Supplement and the Los Angeles Review of Books.