Susan, Selima Hill
Fair Acre Press, 2022 £7. 50
I found the cumulative impact of these poems intensely moving. They are such tiny creations, some only four lines long, but they carry huge emotional weight. The sequence focusses on a friendship between ‘Susan’ and the poet/narrator which starts in school and somehow survives into adulthood. It is a friendship that is, at heart, unfathomable, least of all by the protagonists. I found it fascinating to see how Selima Hill uses startlingly bizarre, almost comic, images to shed light on this strange relationship.
What sort of friendship is it? In ‘Without Sin’ we learn that it’s:
the friendship of a sack for a sack
where no one knows or cares what they contain.
Is it love? In ‘The Love of One Potato for Another’, Hill explains:
Our love was like the love of two potatoes,
by which I mean it wasn’t love.
Together the two girls are ill-adapted to their world. They are:
like heavy barges peeling in the heat,
all we ever did was exhaust ourselves.
Their differences are emphasised. In ‘A Man with a Palm’, Susan is described as ‘so tall / she wasn’t like a person any more.’ She ‘let herself be bullied and enslaved’, while the poet is ‘taken up / with ‘concentrating on my disobedience.’
Most people can remember the strange compulsions of school friendships. It takes someone with the art of Selima Hill to capture its features in such an oblique yet honest way. We see the difficulties of their relationship but also something necessary — even nourishing — in its strange rituals:
with drawings of our ponies, of our underwear
of those we took delight in being mean about
[The Blood Stained Mower]
There is delight as well as humour and sadness here. When it becomes clear that Susan’s mental health deteriorated in adulthood, one wants desperately for the friendship to provide some answer. But, of course, life isn’t that simple. After the outlandish images of potatoes, sacks and barges, the stark honesty of ‘Curd’ is almost shocking:
I lose my nerve
and walk away in tears, having witnessed
something I am not prepared to bear.