Gratton Street Irregulars, 2010  £3.00

Reviewed by Jon Stone, Peter Rawlings and Rob A Mackenzie

Jon Stone:
The first handful of poems in Ralph Hawkins' latest pamphlet alternate lines and spaces, giving an impression of a poem only half-seen, its whitenesses holding the key to some elusive narrative logic:

     He took no note

     The hospital doors swinging shut

     “I asked my mother what will I be”

     The emergency exit

     The stars looked down

          (‘He Took No Note’)

The rest of the collection shifts towards more conventional structures, but still occasionally employs the same device, as if to emphasise how easy it is to remove what we find comfortable and comforting in poetry. Where Hawkins' work avoids fading into a self-conscious haze, however, is in the huge array of subjects it touches on and draws together. The poems themselves—not just the poet—feel broadened by travel and learning and while, certainly, some of this is name-dropping or passing reference, there are both sustained examinations (of the siren myth, staring in 'Sirens' and continuing into 'The Wrong Side of the Ocean', for example) and deft segues from geography to philosophy ('We stop on the incline') or from art to military history ('Saturn Devouring His Son').

As with much of Hawkins' oeuvre, these poems tend to resist making much literal sense, jumping around and making odd little jokes and puns, testing out pronouncement, aphorism and verbal equation as if rooting through a toybox. The poet is at his best where his erudition is coupled to a heady joyfulness, as in 'Petrarch 158':

     O holy-moly
     making me talk big beneath starry seas
     making me walk the plank of internal time consciousness
     my teeth and hair well-brushed

It's in creating this sense of a delirious adventure that the collection really finds its feet, although it leaves the fringes looking somewhat fusty.

The production needs work. There's no blurb or author information to put the writing in any context. Layout is nothing more than serviceable. Worst of all, its cover is nearly identical to Nathan Thompson's The Haunting from, presumably, the same press. I say 'presumably' because despite the same production values, one is attributed to Skald Publications, the other to Gratton Street Irregulars. Scouting about online, it looks like there may have been a name change. To emphasise my protestation at this level of care, I have copy and pasted this paragraph from the review of the other book with a couple of minor alterations.

Peter Rawlings:
The simple clean lines of this pamphlet make it pleasant to handle but its simplicity omits a contents page, page numbers and acknowledgements. Even a sentence on the author would have been enough to warm it up.

If the format is too severe, the poems aren’t. Skittish, whimsical clowning is their manner:

     the goat is speaking to the dog in the local Go-at
          (‘Landscape with Calm’)

The title poem, ‘The Sighs of our Human Dawn’, begins:

     the size of a human dawn
     is much like an ant in Africa (Polyrhachis militaris)
     in treefall gap or sunrise
     hot and white and shiny
     a golden pubescence on the gaster

The OED has yet to list ‘gaster’ [n.]. This sounds like British dottiness dreaming of being John Berryman. Although entire poems do work on the mind more strongly than these fragments, Hawkins’ states of mind are bound by the playful and inconsequential. This means there is no compulsive centre to the poems; they operate only from a cognitive verbal source, shifting and interesting though that might be.

When Hawkins strikes a different sensuous note the whole page tilts favourably:

     the madonnas of Naples are all sea-queens
     whose sequined crowns shimmer Stella di Mare
     with sea-perfumed lustre
          (‘The Wrong Side of the Ocean’)

Here he is dreaming of Wallace Stevens but he soon wakes up. He is more comfortable with the sudden plunge into bathos:

     This is the mood of melancholy
     Where’s that blonde assistant I call Angel.
     You want only joy in all this gloom and
     Home grown vegetables
     Two pounds of tripe.
          (‘Try to Think of Africa’)

Perhaps this is a form of light verse. It is, I think, clever, but cleverness is seldom sufficient for poems. Hawkins has a distinctive voice; it is lively with a capacity for resonant phrases and rhythmically adept—its movement from stanza to stanza and its changes of pace are often striking.

Here is an imagination lapsing into facetious images when it should be bracing itself with ideas made solid.

Rob A Mackenzie:
Unexpected juxtaposition, quasi-surreal description, disruptive syntax, sudden switches of tone and register, a tendency to divert any concerted drive towards conventional sense: this is the typical landscape of ‘innovative’ or ‘experimental’ poetry. Can Ralph Hawkins forge an unfamiliar path through it?

The first five poems have formal similarity—nine single-lined stanzas without enjambment. The opening poem, ‘The Barter System Doesn’t Work’ begins with images of breakdown: the limitations of desire, the nights lit-up like the days, a human being as lonely ruin. Here’s how it finishes:

     I’m annoyed with optimism

     time is not a fire curtain

     it’s an assembly, a rushed gathering

     I’ll never get to know the real thing

     I give you these pork pies*

     *no artificial additives or colourings

You could read this as a fruitless search for authenticity and hope, in which the best he can come up with is the deflationary ‘pork pies’, ironically couched in the language of formal presentation. The reassurances over artificiality are sarcastic; what could be more unnatural than a pork pie? On the other hand, you might conclude this poem is total nonsense.

I’ve read the pamphlet several times and I don’t think it or the other poems are nonsense. In fact, I enjoyed Hawkins’s leaps of sense and logic and his sense of humour. For example, in ‘Landscape with Calm’, a dreamy pastoral scene is all but dissolved by, “the goat is speaking to the dog in the local Go-at.” There are also fine lyrical moments. The description in ‘Australian Landscape’ is curious—”They know that their magic helps people./ The animal being a mountain has hooves/ They do not know if they injure people/ The animal being a burrow has claws” —mild surrealism, perhaps. The poem finishes with:

     Here is a dug-out. It will turtle you across the river
     The ibulungu tree may be on the other side of the river
     But the distance between two lovers has its own ibulungu tree

The poem resists paraphrase and, instead, resonates with a mysterious, shrouded quality, much like the landscape it describes.

Groups of poems share similar words and images. The final five also have a uniform, melancholy tone, peppered with black humour. In ‘Try to think of Africa’, Noah has his “metaphysic guide book” to keep him on track, but the narrator feels lost. The final lines show how Hawkins uses absurd combinations to reveal inner fragmentation:

Where’s that blonde assistant I call Angel.
You want only joy in all this gloom and
Home grown vegetables
Two pounds of tripe.

Action movies, abstraction, recipes and shopping lists. Despite the poem’s sad mood, it makes me laugh. Most of the poems are clever, rather than emotionally affecting, but there’s an unfortunate tendency among many critics to undervalue intelligence, wit and invention—all of which Ralph Hawkins possesses in abundance.