Review by Leo Cookman
PJ Harvey & Seamus Murphy, The Hollow of the Hand, (Bloomsbury Circus, 2015), pp. 232.
After Harvey’s critical acclaim for her innovative album ‘Let England Shake’, with it’s lyrics encompassing England’s chequered past, and present, stretching right back from 1066 via the Civil War to today, the singer songwriter has turned her hand to poetry in a more contemporary vein and setting her sights abroad. Her poetry is combined with the images of Photographic Journalist Seamus Murphy, who also made 12 short films for Harvey’s ‘Let England Shake’, as they travelled from Afghanistan and Kosovo to Washington DC.
Both the verse and the photography are somewhat cold, seemingly assessing more than engaging. This works in the photography, the black and white images of rolling flames, dead horses and sweeping landscapes stop you in your casual turn of the pages, but less so in the poetry. Harvey’s verse is simple, plain and direct which is welcome but generally lacks a pulse or any of the usual conflict born out of poetry’s need for compression, despite occasionally using a traditional form or rhyme scheme. She does capture some fascinating moments however and it could be described as a type of Journalistic Poetry but I was ultimately left feeling unmoved by the text but shocked and touched by the images. It seems the purpose of the book was to offer an unbiased depiction of the three places and let the reader create their own connections but the very existence of the book says a great deal about the intentions of the authors and the publisher.
The pairing is a success in that the ‘sound’ of the images and text are shared and they go well together but I felt Harvey’s relative lack of experience as a poet did come out, the verse sometimes straying into what felt like song lyrics presented as poetry which I feel rarely engages. Interestingly, the text is edited by multi-Forward and TS Eliot prize winner Don Paterson and published by Bloomsbury so it comes with an illustrious pedigree and the printing of the photography and design all shout quality but I was hoping for more bite and fresh imagery from the poetry which was, sadly, not present. 3 out of 5
Leo Cookman is a writer living in Brighton. His poetry has been published in Penguin’s Poetry of Sex, The Best of Manchester Poets, Black Sheep Journal, LadybeardMagazine and BlankPages Magazine, among others.