Lifesaving Poems: Mark Halliday’s ‘The Missing Poem’


A very special thing happened this week: a large delivery of poetry pamphlets fromHappenstance Press arrived. It included the wonderful No Panic Here by US poet Mark Halliday, which you can buy from the press for the ridiculous price of £4.00 (£3.50 if you take out a subscription). If you have not read his work before I seriously suggest you start now, and here. You might also like to check out his other books Tasker StreetSelfwolfJab and Keep This Forever, all easily avilable on Amazon. Of these Jab is my favourite, though this probably has more to do with the fact it was the first of his books that I read. For recommending his work to me I remain in the debt of Naomi Jaffa.

The blurb on the back of No Panic Here says this: ‘Halliday isn’t easy to categorize. Though described by poet David Graham as one of the “ablest practitioners” of the “ultra-talk poem” (a term coined by Halliday himself), ultra-talk is only one of the things he does. Intensely conscious of the presumption of the poet, he wriggles under his own critical microscope, wryly examining our 21st century poetic stance. He is witty, wayward, sardonic and serious.’

This is a great summary of what Halliday is up to (and if you want to find out about the concept of the ‘ultra-talk’ poem you can find David Graham’s article on it here).

The poem below comes in the final section of Jab, which contains just two poems, this one, the collection’s closing poem, and ‘Why Must We Write?’ In a collection which is jammed to the gills with tour de force poems and tragicomic setpieces these two poems seem to drop down to an even deeper level of seriousness and plaintive enquiry. It was a close-run thing which one I would choose for myLifesaving Poems, and even now I find it hard to choose between them.

For one thing I love the amazing phrase-making that is on display here. Billy Collins has a line somewhere about good reading making him want to stand up and applaud from the bleachers -this is what Halliday does for me. I savour lines like ‘their cleats caked’, ‘the field’s far end’, ‘a sense of beauty apparently very possible’ and ‘listening to the silence between them’; I take them into my day and look for how they might become more real in my world; I weigh them; I hold them up to the light. I do not find them wanting.

On another level I do think that Halliday’s point, in common with all good artists, can never be said too often: look at, love and ‘cherish life; the world will not do it for us.’ For me the turn in this poem occurs at the lines:

Remember when you got the news of the accident-
or the illness- in the life of someone
more laced into your life than you might have thought;
the cool flash of what serious is.

I remember reading that just after receiving the news of exactly that -a heart attack in the life of a friend of a friend, as you do. ‘The cool flash of what serious is’ is another great phrase which is equal to the suffering of the world and yet outstrips it at the same time. What Halliday does in this poem, it seems to me, is create an alternative universe in the shape of a mythical ‘missing poem’. In reality, what is missing is not the poem, nor the world it portrays, but concentrated quality of attention to what stays right under our noses, day after day.


The Missing Poem


It would have been dark but not lugubrious. It would have been
fairly short but not slight. It would have contained a child
saying something inadvertently funny that was not said by my daughter,
something strangely like what your daughter or sister said once
if you could remember. The child’s voice flies across
a small parking lot where, in one of the cars,
a man and a woman sit listening to the silence between them.
The child’s voice probably hurts them momentarily
with a sense of beauty apparently very possible
yet somehow out of reach. In the missing poem this is
implied, conveyed, transmitted without being flatly said.
And it does a dissolve into the look of a soccer field
after a game -the last three or four players walk
slowly away, their shin-guards muddy, their cleats caked,
one player dragging a net bag full of soccer balls-
the players seem to have known what it was all for
yet now they look somehow depleted and aimless there
at the field’s far end; and a block away on a wood-grainy porch
the eyes of a thin woman sixty-three years old search the shadows
in each passing car, as the poem recalls what she wants to recall.
Hours later the field is dark

and the hills are dark and later even Firehouse Pizza has closed.
In the missing poem all this pools into a sense of how much
we must cherish life; the world will not do it for us.
This idea, though, in the missing poem is not smarmy.
Remember when you got the news of the accident-
or the illness- in the life of someone
more laced into your life than you might have thought;
the cool flash of what serious is. Well,
the missing poem brings that. Meanwhile not seeming like
an imitation of Mark Strand or Mark Doty or Mark Jarman!
Yet not like just another Halliday thing either.
Instead it would feel like a new dimension of the world,
the real world we imagine. With lightness!
With weight and lightness and, on the hypothetical radio,
that certain song you almost forgot to love.


From Jab, University of Chicago Press (2002)

Lifesaving Poems

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