Archive for April, 2008

fifteen: Tobias Hill, Midnight in the City of Clocks

Another brief, shame-faced Tuesday-lunchtime report (though now I have the poem typed up it’s Wednesday) of last week’s reading, Tobias Hill‘s Midnight in the City of Clocks. (As a brief aside, wow, what an enviable career; poet-in-residence at the London Zoo sounds particularly brilliant.) I first came across Tobias Hill through reading his novel Underground, a thriller set mainly in the London Underground.

Like Underground, Midnight in the City of Clocks has a real sense of place; not just of London and Japan, but also of some kind of quintessential city, the platonic ideal of a city: a sort of grimy, dreamlike mass of detail and movement. Parts of it reminded me of T.S. Eliot’s Preludes. The poems have a peculiar energy, packed with often unusual images and an incredible amount of detail. There’s a real aural quality to many of them too:

We are returning to the city
where every room has an echo,
each echo, pitch. Whistle right,
and walls thrum like wineglass,
crack. This is where I was born.
I pack a budget travel-guide,
keys and coins, plastic money. (‘The City of Clocks’)

Hill seems fond of the word ‘wince’; there’s lots of wincing throughout. I was particularly fond of ‘Mice wince between the tracks’ in ‘Meat’.

Favourites were ‘The City of Clocks’, ‘May’, ‘August’ and ‘October’ from A Year in Japan, ‘Jael’, ‘London Pastoral’ and ‘The Beekeepers’:

Mr Salter walks across the garden like an astronaut;
washing-up gloves, white net suit.
Something has got inside the gloves.
He puts the slats of honey down, peels
pink rubber to the sting, the bee
looking for weaknesses.
He kills it when it gets upset.

The kitchen floor linoleum
is varnished with old wax. Our shoes
click like fingers. Mrs Salter
closes doors and net curtains.
Insects tumble at the windows,
bees the colour of honey,
wood the colour of honey
the air set yellow with the smell of it.

Outside, the helicopters drone
over London. Mr Salter
peels wax from the comb
neat as appleskin. The slough
dropped away to show the bright
shine of something stolen, something

sweet and implicit with gain.
Mrs Salter makes tea,
butters cake, licks her thumb
clean of bittersweetness. Calm
holds us in its amber deadweight.
Mrs Salter pours for us;
she’s mother here. My stomach growls. On her lap,
honey drips into the jar,
collecting dark. Transparency,
translucent now. Opaque.

There’s a very interesting interview with Tobias Hill talking about his 2006 collection, Nocturne in Chrome and Sunset Yellow, here.

Midnight in the City of Clocks, Tobias Hill (Salt Publishing, 2007; my edition Carcanet, 2004)

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fourteen: Ian Duhig, The Lammas Hireling

Last week (apologies for another late post), another collection that I didn’t really ‘get’; this time, because it was so densely allusive I didn’t have a clue as to what was going on half the time. I hate writing that; I feel like a fractious child demanding that everything make sense to me. But it’s hard to engage with work you simply don’t understand, and if, as this review of The Lammas Hireling suggests, Ian Duhig has shed ‘the arcane references of his earlier work’, then I really don’t think I’ll be looking out that earlier work.

Perhaps Duhig’s impenetrability would be solved by research, wider reading and a better understanding of Irish poetry; perhaps the point is that it’s poet’s poetry, difficult, riddling, allusive. I did like its earthy, everyday nature, giving voice to disparate characters, telling their stories, despite its clever-cleverness. But none of it moved me much. Favourites were ‘Blood’, ‘Died for Love’ and ‘The Lammas Hireling’, which had me spellbound though I’m sure I don’t understand it, and which won the 2000 National Poetry Competition:

After the fair, I’d still a light heart
And a heavy purse, he struck so cheap.
And cattle doted on him: in his time
Mine only dropped heifers, fat as cream.
Yields doubled. I grew fond of company
That knew when to shut up. Then one night,

Disturbed from dreams of my dear late wife,
I hunted down her torn voice to his pale form.
Stock-still in the light from the dark lantern,
Stark naked but for the fox-trap biting his ankle,
I knew him a warlock, a cow with leather horns.
To go into the hare gets you muckle sorrow,

The wisdom runs, muckle care. I levelled
And blew the small hour through his heart.
The moon came out. By its yellow witness
I saw him fur over like a stone mossing.
His lovely head thinned. His top lip gathered.
His eyes rose like bread. I carried him

In a sack that grew lighter at every step
And dropped him from a bridge. There was no
Splash. Now my herd’s elf-shot. I don’t dream
But spend my nights casting ball from half-crowns
And my days here. Bless me, Father, I have sinned.
It has been an hour since my last confession.

You can hear the poet reading it here.

The Lammas Hireling, Ian Duhig (Picador, 2003)

thirteen: Jean Sprackland, Tilt

The remaining lot of books in my as yet unread poetry pile are all authored by men, so I decided that I should break my own rule (no buying new poetry until all the stuff on my shelves is read) in order to even it up a bit; not positive discrimination as much as wanting to try to keep my reading from getting too narrow. That said it’d be interesting to have a think about maleness and femaleness in contemporary (and other) poetry…

I have to confess I hadn’t heard of Jean Sprackland until I came across Tilt in the Covent Garden branch of Waterstones, with no other agenda than I wanted something by someone female, and I bought it mostly for its beautiful title (helped along by the fact that it was winner of the Costa Poetry Award last year). It’s her third collection and she’s highly rated by the Poetry Book Society, so I should probably have come across her before.

Although I admired how technically accomplished the collection was, not a lot of it really stopped me in my tracks or resonated with me hugely. I think I still find free verse quite hard to get along with; I almost need some structure, no matter how light or how far it’s been pushed, or else a real rhythm to follow. Without it I’m left a little cold I think, and this is where my poetry primers should probably come in… or perhaps just more, and wider, reading. Or maybe it’s just taste? I can’t expect to like everything I read; it’s just that I worry when I feel I don’t ‘get’ it – especially when it’s won (big) prizes.

That said I found much of the writing compelling, and was struck by ‘Birthday Poem’, ‘Barn Owl’, ‘Alarm’, ‘Dried Fish’, ‘The Stopped Train’, ‘Bracken’, ‘You’ and ‘The Engine’.

The two that really knocked me over, though, were ‘Spilt’ – utterly heart-wrenching – and ‘The Way Down’, which felt so of the moment in my life right now that it felt like a letter written to me:

Forget the path.
Hack through gorse and blackthorn
and walk into the stream.

The thing about a stream is
it knows where it’s going, has a gift
for finding the shortest route.

A path can lose its nerve,
peter out into bog or bracken, divide
inscrutably in two. I’ve stood at that place

and weighed the choices, weighed
and checked again, while mist crawls
over the mountain like sleep.

When the stream divides
both streamlets are equally sure.
Each plays its own game – the slick of moss,

the sudden race over a sill of rock –
and each, if you let it,
will carry you down.

Tilt, Jean Sprackland (Jonathan Cape, 2007, winner of the 2007 Costa Poetry Award)