My Mother with a Beetle in her Hair, Selima Hill
Shoestring Press, 2020 — £6.00
Comedy and compassion told through swimming
Selima Hill has produced an astonishing body of work, and this pamphlet slots into that bigger context. She often writes short, fragmentary pieces that hang together in a loose, extended sequence. This particular pamphlet follows a girl and her love for swimming. ‘My Mother’s Daughter’ tells us:
Because I was a difficult child,
violent, morose and inconsolable
endurance swimming suited me perfectly.
Swimming is the narrator’s means for coping, and various poems hint at the sorts of things she might be coping with — not least a difficult relationship with her mother who ‘towelled [her] roughly dry’ (‘My Mother’s Hands’).
‘Her One Desire’ illustrates the contrasts and discord between mother and daughter. The poem begins, ‘As I fought my way through the duckweed’ and concludes:
my mother would be waving from the bank,
her one desire
to see me wrapped up warmly.
From other poems, we can infer that this desire to warm her daughter doesn’t stem from motherly warmth. The mother is invariably sitting on the side, always feeling cold, layered under rugs and coats, or wearing ‘various annoying-looking hats’ (‘My Mother’s Daughter’).
There’s a surreal, sometimes absurdist, feel to Hill’s writing, and yet (as Fiona Sampson once highlighted in an article about Hill’s work for the Guardian) each image holds together with emotional coherence. A sense of understanding, of filling in the gaps, grows over time as each poem is set in place and the big picture becomes clearer, even if never whole.
Also there’s plenty of space for Hill to show the child narrator observing other swimmers. These are ingenious sketches of strangers, hinting at the complex interiority of every individual. Each character is portrayed with both wit and compassion.
I was left, above all, with that sense I have after reading a news article about a child who’s fallen through the gaps of social services: helpless and deeply moved. These poems suggest a solitary, unusual girl who positively crackles with isolation and vulnerability. A child who is surviving quietly, and for whom swimming is a lifeline.