erbacce-press, 2013 £5.00
Reviewed by Hayley Buckland, Charlotte Gann and Helena Nelson
A Limited Season, from Andy Hickmott, is full of anecdotes and snapshots of life and death in equal measure. It has several poems that cover the emotional ground of seeing friends or relatives manage terminal illness. They are well-handled and succeed in avoiding sentimentality and cliché. The poem I found the most engaging was ‘Legal Lows’. It performs a whistle-stop tour from boyhood to an adult male standing at the bedside of his dying mother. The last stanza perfectly captures a poignant moment between them:
She speaks with egg-white eyes
and impermanent marks on a dry-wipe slate.
I’m frightened, she scratches out;
I know, I tell her, I know.
Her passing is unexceptional, though,
no need for public enquiry.
Despite death being a dominant theme, and the cover depicting a slightly forlorn image of a torn-off fly post, the pamphlet avoids being too gloomy. There is a sense of fun with the language such as, “it’s what sticks to your fingers / after the taxman has taken his lick / of your lolly” (in ‘Clearing’). Several of the titles incorporate an obvious pun which could have a marmite effect on the reader. As well as ‘Legal Lows’, for example, there’s ‘Owed to a discarded urn’ and ‘Rosy with cider’.
This last poem intrigued me. I couldn’t decide whether I liked it or not. The word “declamations” slightly jarred the rhyme scheme, and I think the poem would have been better without the medically heavy “soothing the histamine rage”. I found myself thinking, ‘get thee some Piriton’. I’m not sure whether it reminded me of Keats or Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. Either way, the jauntiness was enjoyable.
I feel the poems are at their strongest where they are shorter and have an energy that carries the reader through to the end. ‘Declaration of War’ is a great example of this. Some could do with tightening up. There is an inconsistent lack of punctuation in parts, such as clauses not being closed. This often affects meaning and the consequent query from the reader can detract from a piece that’s otherwise good. Apart from the picture on the back cover, there was no author information. I like to know a little about the poet.
Andy Hickmott’s poems seem raw, painful, angry. For me the strongest are perhaps the quietest: ‘After disconnection’, for instance, which describes a house after its inhabitant’s death, and ‘Lying in’, which describes two neighbouring houses the mirror reflection of each other – and yet, not.
While the lives these poems chronicle are pretty unremittingly hard, bleak and lonely, the work does encompass odd quirks of humour. I like the blackbird’s nest made from urban debris (condoms, syringes) which then twists into the surreal when Hickmott equips it with a telly:
Adapting to the spectrum shift
my eyes are drawn to a gap in the leaves
through which can be glimpsed now and again
a flickering tableau like a TV screen.
The blackbird’s home epitomises many:
How otherworldly from here it seems
with its halogen lights and candle flames
casting shadows on the lonely walls
and forming stars in the amber bottles
collecting on the windowsill.
There’s lots of booze, and even more death, lurking between these pages. And often the poems disturb – but sometimes it can feel they do so gratuitously, overflowing without being, somehow, processed.
‘Inconstancy in a stolen smile’ describes the surgical removal of a wife’s lips “while she slavered lies / through a hydroxyl haze”. The joking punchline doesn’t do much to alleviate the journey we have to take to reach it.
Others are diluted, for this reader, by a diminishing too-pat finish. So, for instance, the closing poem, ‘Drift’, movingly describes a passerby and “a body lying / on Waterloo Bridge”. For me, this poem would have pierced cleaner closing on the wonderful line “I would [. . . ] / touch his cheek if it weren’t so cold”, and losing its final stanza.
That said, there’s little doubt authentic feeling runs through A Limited Season. I’ll close with an image which strikes me as characteristic of the whole group – here, from ‘Still life’:
The old dear sat on the edge of her stripped
cot-bed, naked as the ripped and stained
mattress, gangly pins threaded with veins,
puckered draw-strung mams, wicker-work
hands resting in her tangled lap, an unwitting
actress, unmindful of the boy staring back.
This is a first collection and it has mixed success. Its twenty-nine pages squeeze in as many as thirty-eight poems, and this results in a slightly choc-a-block feeling. The work, too, is uneven: some of the imagery is overwrought, several poems seem to me to have unfulfilled promise. The final poem, for example, would be a winner if the final stanza were dropped.
I didn’t enjoy a recurring sense of nastiness – that is to say, detail of language or imagery designed to appal. Such a technique easily becomes the only aspect you remember. Here is a description of the speaker’s mother, for example, in ‘Legal lows’:
Here, now a respirator breathes
through the dog end
of my still smouldering mother.
That’s pretty grim, however you look at it. In the very next poem, ‘Inconstancy in a stolen smile’, things get worse (the narrator is not talking about his mother but his wife):
While she slept I basted her
open lips with agave tequila, slipped
cotton swabs imbued with gin
neatly between her lips and gums
and when I judged her fully numb
performed a facial labiotomy.
This is black comedy, I think, but I found it gruesome, so much so that a sense of the seaminess of life gripped me. When I reached ‘Knowing I’m on the street’, where (apparently) someone (could be a lovelorn teenager) stands outside a girl’s house, seeing her image through the blind as she prepares for the day, her trip on the bus into town, I felt the watcher must be sinister. The last lines therefore struck me, rightly or wrongly, as horrible: “hoping today will be the day / something special happens in your life”.
There were poems I liked here, and some writing I thought was good. I suspect this is a poet publishing before he has a body of work consistently strong. Only six of the poems seem to have been previously published in magazines (interestingly not the six I thought best).
In ‘Declaration of War’ the poet carries a single sentence lyric through six couplets completely successfully. Good poem.
‘Maiden flight’ may be about suicidal feelings (I’m not sure) but the imagery is uplifting, metaphorically and literally, and I liked ‘Lying in’, which I thought clever and satisfying, even after several readings. It’s short, so I’ll end by quoting it in full:
The house next door to ours,
where the old man often turned
his telly up so loud my dad
would holler at my mum until
she banged the walls or started
shouting too or began to cry, was
exactly the same as ours except
laid out entirely backwards – in the hall
where the staircase should have been
was instead the half-shut door
to an anti-living room where
the curtains were tightly drawn
and the telly wasn’t even on, all
quiet for the old man lying down.