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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