After the Dancing Dogs

Boulevard Theatre

After the dancing dogs
‘après les chiens qui dansent’
and the topiary of poodles

After the feral tiger feats
and the lion sans unicorn
‘playing the harp’ with his paws

After the Kama Sutra of highwires
Heath Robinsons with a rainbow
and the stale of Spanish Horses

After the night sweats of ammonia
the ripples of pectorals
and eyes glazed and glurrid

After the sawdust rubbed in the nostrils
after the perspiration of canvas
and usherettes with trays of confetti…

Boulevards are leafless and bare
last year’s leaf worn to a hairnet
and nobody’s shadow comes bold.

Michael Henry’s fourth collection with Enitharmon Press is a far-reaching and sharp study of physical and emotional landscapes. These intriguing poems charm, challenge and locate us with their exploration of the mannerisms and language of travel and of place. Henry maps the inhabitants – the people, the flora and fauna – while he takes us on journeys from his own boyhood holidays to more recent ones spent with his wife and family; from emigration (in the 1970s to Canada) to repatriation; from vicarious journeys to local walks.

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‘First among the rewards of these well-travelled and time-travelling poems is the observant eye, the gift for the felicitous description, “last year’s leaf worn to a hairnet.” But gradually one becomes aware that this is a meditative eye, an elegist’s gift, and that there is a redeeming quality to his dry wit, a determination to set such trouvailles as his grandson asking “Is that snowball warming?” alongside “The Jurassic philosophers” where “What matters is passed on in stone.” Most effective of all is the artful courage with which he admits to his own humanity, to moments such as his white-out “In the War Museum” when “He presses I am nothing and is re-united with his wife”.Roger Garfitt

‘Some of the most memorable pieces in After the Dancing Dogs are those written about Michael Henry’s experience of being a grandfather – “In my convalescence / I call them my doctors: / eighteen months, three / and nearly … they run circuits … like a crash team in ER” – and the idea of family is central to the book. Henry’s poems are quiet, fragile, written off the cuff, sustained by fragments of lived experience. Many of the pieces here are memories of travel (Canada, Italy, Germany, France), but what links them is a desire to capture and recreate brief instances (“that precious moment / when you come in bearing autumn on a tray”). The writing is quizzical, self-conscious (“Whatever we say, when written down, will be false”); and at times the poems can be hit and miss, circling rather than evoking their material, feeling a little mannered – “the mattress’s memory prints off / warm calderas of where our bodies sleeping lay”. But when he gets it right the effect is exhilaratingly direct – “when the watch on your wrist, / if you listen to it, instead of ticking / goes bliss, bliss, bliss”.Charles Bainbridge, The Guardian