Selima Hill and ‘Fruitcake’

June 2, 2009

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.

Poetry 2008 (uncut)

November 28, 2008

Space considerations led to my article today in The Independent on the best poetry of the year being cut: five poets were omitted. So here’s the full piece:

Choosing a baker’s dozen of the year’s poetry collections begs the question ‘What were you looking for?’ Answer: poems to make me look out at the world, and think, repeatedly, ‘I’ll never see it the same way.’ Good poetry takes the familiar, makes it strange, and, doing so, makes even the mundane memorable.

For magic, read Pauline Stainer’s Crossing the Snowline (Bloodaxe, £8.95). Stainer’s language has a frozen, exacting piety; she re-invents the world as myth, even religion: ‘the river/ writing its monograph/ on mosses’, ‘a daylight moon/ suspended on gimbals.’ Her bizarre takes on nature have the quality of polished gems. Equally magical, but madcap too, is Selima Hill’s The Hat (Bloodaxe, £7.95), a sequence as dark as Bunny, and using the same, elliptical glimpses and startling analogies. The Hat captures how a woman is crushed: ‘Look at those heavy bags of hers!/ They huddle at her feet like ducks and geese/ waiting dimly for their new home.’ Hill writes with instant, mock-flippant precision. Harder, but worth the work, is Peter Bennet’s The Glass Swarm (Flambard, £7.50), a selection of peculiar parables, eccentric but demanding legends – as if assembled by an English Scheherazade. The language grabs: ‘It is too late, with sunshine in my eyes,/ to care which insect air force is commencing/ a mass-attack of lullabies.’

The best poems strike up conversations. Try Sandra Tappenden’s Speed (Salt, £12.99, hardback), whose drollery persists, testing ideas, strolling along fantastic tangents: ‘Etiquette is a load of stupid nonsense;/ anyone can move into your dreams/ without making an appointment/ or even bothering to get dressed.’ Similarly, Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s Telling a Hawk from a Handsaw (Carcanet, £9.95) looks around, half-suspiciously, funny or moody: ‘Locked in a jail of ribs, the passionate heart/ judders/ the way a cranked car used to do,/ the whole system/ suddenly coughing.’ Against these laconics, set cheeky Catherine Smith, whose Lip (Smith/Doorstop, £7.95) delights in the absurdity of love, sex, separation, and everyday erotica: ‘Send me your bed, but please, don’t change the sheets./ Pay two strong men to load it on a van,/ and drive it through the rain at one a.m./ I’ll be awake, I need to search for stains.’ Perfect put-downs; perfect pick-me-ups. The same applies to Kathryn Simmonds’ flint-hard whimsy in Sunday at the Skin Launderette (Seren, £7.99). Great images here (Jesus ‘transfigured’ as a contemporary ‘Dave’; elderly women dancing), and killer phrasing, as when trying to fix a broken TV: ‘With two hands on its shoulders/ I try rocking it to sense,/ like a priest conducting an exorcism/ gone badly wrong.’

Four gimlet-eyed, understated collections: Leontia Flynn’s Drives (Cape, £9), Allison McVety’s The Night Trotsky Came To Stay (Smith/Doorstop, £7.95), D.A. Prince’s Nearly the Happy Hour (HappenStance, £8), and Michael Laskey’s The Man Alone (Smith/Doorstop, £9.95). Flynn’s poems include recreations of the famous (Hitchcock, Fitzgerald, Bishop), tender personal elegies, and also real or imaginary journeys. Her poem ‘Airports’ nails them all: ‘Airports are their own peculiar weather./ Their lucid hallways ring like swimming pools./ … the planes, like a child’s mobile, hang at random.’ McVety manages the rare feat of trawling her family history, wittily shaping its stories, making her experiences ours: ‘On a side ward/ my father is trying his death for size./ It’s off-the-peg, but even so,/ consultants attend to the tailoring,/ consider a final tuck.’ Prince explores similar territory, but adds beautifully composed snapshots, as here, of cormorants: ‘a sandbar black with solid sound/ screaming a goal for the home team,/ the fans gone wild, winging their yah-yah-yah …’ Laskey is a meditative writer. Wry, curious, mischievous: his writing seizes on incidents and turns them quietly inside out, as at the end of ‘Lesson’, about having his wallet swiped – ‘Apparently it’s always happening/ with backpacks, but after the shock/ and the hassle, it’s the deftness/ I’m left with, how I didn’t feel a thing,/ how you need to keep practising.’ A mini-master-class in echo.

Earlier this year, I doubted any collection would match Ciaran Carson’s astonishing sequence For All We Know (Gallery Press, £10.95), in which a fugue of fourteen-line, fourteen-syllable, but six-beat sonnets conducts a mystery tour through love and political intrigue. It’s like Graham Greene crossed with a passionate Bach. But suddenly Carol Rumens’ Blind Spots (Seren, £8.99) arrives, her best work ever. Philosophical, playful, formal – umpteen forms expertly managed – free or experimental, Rumens opens with pieces inspired by Eugenio Montale, before exploring further her fusion of the personal and political. There is no word out of place – even in her delightful poem about allowing poets to wander off the subject – but my favourite is a sequence (‘Suite: Minus Ten’) about her deteriorating eyesight. ‘The smart in the eyes is grief-like;/ the urge to lie down on blank metal/ where the books that no-one borrowed/ lived their last years, and sleep,/ becomes almost uncontrollable.’ This collection will still be read decades from now: it must already be installed as a certain prize-winner.

Thirteen’s unlucky, so here’s a bonus track, as Bloodaxe editor Neil Astley would say, admitting he’s studied how music is marketed. His In Person (Bloodaxe, £12) is 2008’s must-have anthology – or rather, its two DVDs are, offering six hours with thirty poets (the anthology’s their script). From Adcock to Zepahaniah, 163 poems are filmed by Pamela Robertson-Pearce without flash, with fluffs, stumbles and noises off. Celebrating Bloodaxe’s thirtieth year, it introduces unfamiliar voices (in this country) like C.D.Wright and Naomi Shihab Nye. It makes you wonder if every collection should attach a DVD. And it captures terrific readings, most notably David Constantine’s ‘Common and Particular’, which you might reckon poem of the decade after seeing him speak it.