Harpoon is Michael Cavendish’s first poetry chapbook. A lawyer by profession, he has led a rather interesting life: Besides stalking and killing a wild boar, harvesting jellyfish, and studying at a Vienna garret, he was raised by opera singers, spent nine consecutive years at university, and learned French and German at the family table. Not exactly the fantasy life for most of us, but it’s no average existence either.
Harpoon, on the other hand, is another matter. I won’t say it is bad, but it isn’t knock-you-off-your-feet literature either. If Harpoon has any redeeming value as a chapbook, it is the fact that the best poems of the seven within its pages are to be found on both ends. Placement of one’s assets can go a long way to success. Just ask any CPA.
Cavendish probably starts Harpoon with the best possible poem, “Poppies.” First performed as an oral storytelling, it is appropriate to begin the chapbook because it shows Cavendish at his near best. His word play is enough to pique your interest, even if it seems a bit smarmy at times. Some lines are overwritten, but his inventive, creative use of language is pleasant at first taste and only grows bitter when he dips into the mundane.
From worm’d rooty tilldirt
Spilled with bloodcurdle
On greenlegs and razorfish’d leaves
You can’t argue that it isn’t original. No one else I know writes like that.
While maintaining his playfulness, Cavendish is able to move from voice to voice with ease and entertains more than he enlightens. Depending on your stance, that’s either a virtue or a vice. I’m somewhere in the middle. While the second poem in the chapbook, “Soar Upward, Starlings,” approaches the inspiration and lyrical beauty of Rudyard Kipling, the poem could use a little bit of tightening here and there. The three poems that follow, however, could have been omitted altogether at no great loss.
While Harpoon sags in the middle – and it is a deep sag – Cavendish does manage to save his reputation in the final two poems of the chapbook. The trivial, silly, and self-conscious ladies auxiliary greetings behind him, he takes on weightier subjects with “At The Bay Of Horses” and the title piece, “Harpoon.”
Michael Cavendish shows his potential when he plays with the elements of language through alliteration, rhyme and near rhyme, and unexpected compound nouns. It would be an overstatement, however, to say he is brilliant, but he does approach it and what holds him back is that nagging lack of attention to detail that punches every novice in the gut. He needs to hone his lines.
Cavendish oscillates between the high end of good and the middle ground of mediocre. The only thing that will save him and sharpen his harpoon for future chapbook and poetic credits is to spend more time revising and killing his pets. When he’s good, he’s above average, but when he’s bad, he’s ostentatiously trite.