HappenStance 2010, £4.00

Reviewed by Matt Merritt, James Roderick Burns and Sue Butler

Matt Merritt:
It's pretty rare, I think, to see Japanese forms used well in English language
poetry, with the original form, more often than not, being oversimplified. Too
frequently, the result is something that feels like notes for a poem, rather than
the real deal.

In Alan Hill's case, though, he seems to have settled on tanka as his preferred
mode of writing as much as anything because, highly concentrated yet self-
contained as they are when done well, they're the ideal vehicle for a time-starved
poet to convey vivid, and often intensely personal, glimpses of a life. He even
sets out his method for the reader:

     Short of mental breath,
     I sing no swelling themes, but
     write my five-line stints
     like chipped-off flakes of paint that
     disclose the dry grain beneath.

Now gentle self-deprecation is very much part of the charm of much of Hill's
poetry, but he's overdoing it slightly here, because as the book goes on you
realise that, while each piece stands perfectly well alone, there's a subtle piling up
of both effect and theme too. Ageing, and more particularly the way our
viewpoints change as we get older, are a major concern.

And those changes aren't necessarily what you'd expect. While the passage of
time does bring the inevitable brushes with mortality and what Hill memorably
calls "the adjudicating knife", it also leads to an ever-increasing awareness, and
embracing of, the world in all its plurality:

     At seventy-five
     I'm more aware, more alive
     to change in the air,
     on the ground, and in the way
     the light grows stronger every day.

If I have a criticism, I suppose it might be that some of the slighter pieces pale a
little in comparison with the best, at least when taken in isolation. Most play a
part in building a wider story of self-discovery, though, unfussily and quietly, but
always with great skill and precision, all leading to the same point:

     We must all follow
     the inescapable path
     of the labyrinth,
     into its empty centre 
     where nothing is but oneself.

The end result's a hugely enjoyable collection of great character, which uses its
chosen form unobtrusively to reveal its considerable depths.

James Roderick Burns:
This calm, exciting collection feels like a life distilled: moments of childhood, adult locations and dislocations, love and loss, all underpinned by a remarkable evenness of tone and knack for the singular detail that sells each five-line moment:

     Waiting for the voice
     that will tell me what to say.
     But only silence,
     like an empty street at night,
     with footsteps walking away.

Hill's tanka are for the most part in the traditional syllabic camp (an initial three-line unit, patterned on the haiku 5-7-5 count, followed by two more expansive seven-syllable lines) but he is not afraid to vary this discipline for the right effect, working occasionally with stripped-down syllable counts in the bleaker poems, or expanding lines to capture necessary feeling. Though its subtitle is 'Part of a Life', No Biography feels full and rich, a remarkable achievement in the compact venue of the pamphlet at roughly half the length of a collection. We ride childhood buses; relax with long-gone cats, reflecting on the passage of time; move into new countries and middle age, then towards 'the only end of age':

     We must all follow
     the inescapable path
     of the labyrinth,
     into its empty centre
     where nothing is but oneself.

Hill also manages small experiments in sound, rhyme and western poetic effect which in other hands might jar, but here add to the sense of a life lived fully, and thoughtfully.  One meta-poem clusters harsh consonants at the ends of its middle three lines, their spikiness reminiscent of unrelenting mental effort, then brackets them with the same letters transformed by vowels into tokens of ease. It is a sound performance perfectly in tandem with the meaning of the words:

     Short of mental breath,
     I sing no swelling themes, but
     write my five-line stints
     like chipped-off flakes of paint that
     disclose the dry grain beneath.

The poet falters occasionally in an otherwise charming meditation on Scotland, there is on two occasions no good reason to break lines at "praise the/ gods of mist and peat/ I discovered whisky, and/" but over these 56 poems there is great consistency, of both quality and mood, and the surest touch:

     A blackbird woke me,
     singing before this March dawn,
     ringing his alarm,
     warning all of us that it's
     spring, and the garden is his.

 Sue Butler:

I need to declare right from the start that this isn't a carefully considered, carefully crafted, unbiased review. Dear reader, this is a fan letter to Alan Hill. I should also declare IÕve never met Mr Hill and, to my shame, hadnÕt read his poetry until now. So here goes . . .

Dear Mr Hill,
After reading No Biography, Parts of a Life in Tanka I felt two things.

1. Exactly like I did when, aged eighteen, I first went to the Lake District. It was spring, the sun shone and I spent the first week of my two-week holiday angry beyond angry that I hadn't visited sooner. I wasted precious days mourning those wasted years.

2. The way I did the first time I read Les Murray. I wanted to stop people in the street and say, Excuse me, you don't know me but please, just spare a few minutes so I can read you this . . .

I've no idea if you've adhered strictly to the tanka form because I was too entranced by what you were saying in each five-line stanza. I'm an unashamed fan of opera, where range is everything, and I sat in my living room cheering Bravo, Bravo at the way you moved effortlessly from:

     Do not go gentle,
     he said, into that good night . . .
     too young to know the
     weariness of survival
     long after losing the fight.


     Farting poems, my
     flatulent muse produces
     airy nothings that
     give me a sweet relief but,
     alas, embarrass my friends.

Being a keen gardener I savoured the white butterflies that have flown all the way from your childhood. Also the bees, the thrush singing after heavy rain and the winter call of starling that remind you of "home,/ and the apple trees that I/  haven't seen for forty years." And then there are the irises, which you could be describing growing in my garden:

     Irises flutter,
     seem almost to blink against
     the wind and the sun;
     so elaborately shaped
     and so delicately strong.

And being a keen walker who never seems to have quite enough money to cover my monthly bills, you could have been talking about me when you say:

     Sunday. My birthday.
     Forty-four. Nothing special.
     Went walking alone.
     Noted the sunshine, but thought
     a good deal about money.

And while I think it's traditional to end such letters with a request for a signed photograph, please forgive my cheek when I mention

     That quiet cloister,
     the grey lake lapping the shore,
     those wild flowers,
     the story I did not write
     that summer in Vadstena.

and ask that, if you ever do write that story, please be kind enough to let me read it. I think it would be amazing.

Love, Sue Butler

You say, "Short of mental breath/ I sing no swelling themes . . ." If I might make so bold, that is lies and damned lies. You have mental breath to be envied and you sing of life. You sing to us all.

Are you married?