Selima Hill and ‘Fruitcake’

Almost incredibly, since it is only a year since her last sequence of poems, Selima Hill has come up this week with not one new sequence, but four, which are gathered together in Fruitcake (Bloodaxe, £.9.95). Effectively, there are over 250 poems in the books, if one counts all the sections of the third sequence. This is her sixth collection of the decade, not including her major retrospective, Gloria. And even if some of the poems are short, disturbed couplets – she deals in short poems, as a rule – the sheer torrent of the output is almost bewildering. What is more remarkable is that – uniquely, not least because Hill is very much a one-off – you can read the four sequences independently, or as part of one large exploration of motherhood.

Selima Hill's new collection

Selima Hill's new collection

Hill is essentially a beady-eyed surrealist, who can snaffle a moment, however painful, and the moments are often painful, and turn it into something weird, unforgettable. You never know what controlling simile will turn up next. The first sequence Bouganvillea (perhaps the richest of the four) is seen from a female baby’s eye for much of its course, and depicts the baby as under atack from flies, while a helpless and almost traumatised mother sits at a distance, unable to cope with motherhood in any way, shape or form. This is the relentless theme of the collection – an absolute denial that motherhood is necessarily instinctive, linked to a profound and scathing dismissal of any male stereotype that motherhood is ‘women’s work’. Of course, Hill is never as direct as this. It isn’t how she works. She is a constructor of paths through the sub-conscious, and she leaves huge spaces between each step, so that the reader has to fill in the gaps. Her poems become polemics, become stories, or can be read in horrifying and magical isolation.

You read Hill for her images, I think. Try this, about the mother:

‘Her lonely days and nights/ pass like ponies// eating flowers/ by the railway’ – these two couplets suggest a kind of acceptably romantic kind of separation from the world, but they are exploded by what follows: ‘…railway// where trains go hurtling by/ and hit the ponies//but no one cares/ because they’re not their ponies!’ In Bouganvillea, mother and child are abandoned, and the mother is abandoned even by herself. At one point, a short poem about a pool interrupts the proceedings:
‘The gloomy ponds/ where fish as big as lorries// ply slowly up and down/ ask no questions.’

Poems like this have a kind of suicidal tone. Their strangeness comes from the shock of the distance the simile has travelled. A fish is like a lorry. The change of scale is quick and unfussy. In the secvond sequence, Nylon, about a girl handed over to two aunts (the sense of story is very strong in Hill’s narratives, which is what makes them so unusual), we find this about a kitchen:

‘Everything is blue/ like fitted water// but stretchy – as if seen/ from a trapeze …’
Later in Nylon, the child is left with her aunt’s poodles who ‘come upstairs// and nibble me/ like blunt-ended scissors’. These strange, oddball turns of image are wonderfully unusual. You can trust Hill to frighten your imagination about every other poem, to yoke together different impossibilities so that they make a new whole. I love her work, and it seems to me that this is her best, better surely even than Bunny, her most well-known sequence. The third sequence here, Bunker Sacks, is the most explicit about the real lack of understanding that men have of what it is like to be a mother: ‘The women, I am sorry to say,/ crawl around feeling sick, and gasping,/ as if the air was gas. they gasp and croak. / No wonder these brave men are setting off/ to find a place where air is air for once, / men who have no faults, dynamic men,/ men who are so tall they can’t quite hear,/ far below them, shaky voices calling.’ The last sequence adds the perspective of an Asperger’s child, and, I am tempted to say, a real one, not a Mark Haddon comedy autistic.
Hill has consistently now written about pain and magic and melancholy in the most exquisite and bizarre sequences, for a decade or more. This new collection is a riot of ideas, tales, spells, wonders. It is like a gentle bomb being chucked into any place where British poetry suspects itself of being exciting.
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