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Badlands, Hugo WilliamsThe jacket is filled with a photograph of a stair well, looking up through the handrail and bars, seeing a pattern of light and shadows. No people. It's a colour picture without much colour in it, mostly browns and greys. The titles is in fairly large white sansserif caps about a third of the way down. It doesn't stand out very clearly. Below this the title of the author in lower case is much smaller and left justified.

Mariscat Press, 2021   £7.50

It’s all in the title

In the title poem ‘Badlands’ two things are happening: a man is sitting on a train reading a book, Rendez-vous in El Paso, A Tale of the Old West. Meanwhile, that same man is also imagining the woman he’s going to meet as if she were a character in the story:

For a second I glimpse her animal self
rounding up wild horses
[…]
I’m hot on her trail,
[…]
refusing to look up from my book
till I enter the Badlands myself.

The poems in the first part are full of such references, conjuring up the wild sexual exploits of a man in the ‘badlands’ of a city. ‘Bite-marks’ begins:

Are women naked, do you think,
or is it impossible to say
[…]
Looking doesn’t help.
Looks leave only bite-marks
down the backs of knees

Is this ‘the male gaze’ galloping unrestricted to some sort of violent conclusion at a rendezvous — his own equivalent of El Paso in the book title?

No. It didn’t take long for me to realise that these are fantasies which somehow never quite materialise — not even in the mind of their protagonist. In ‘Sunset Hour’ a ‘carousel of hallucinations’ has been ‘left on by accident’:         

                                      and her,
perched on a late bar stool,
her hips and hair and shoulder blades
dawdling for a moment
[…]
till the projector jams
and the apparition goes up in smoke,
a silent burn-hole blossoming
where her mouth used to be.

We move through that ‘silent burn-hole’ into the poems on the other side. ‘Badlands’ in Wikipedia is said to be ‘a type of dry terrain where softer sedimentary rocks and clay-rich soils have been extensively eroded’. The later poems take on a more intimate and gently poignant tone: they’re dealing with a man’s struggle to come to terms with aging.

In ‘Night Starvation’ the ‘I’ makes a cup of Horlicks which remains as a dry powder floating on the surface. And the poem ‘Peace and Love’ ends with a night time prayer:

keep me busy counting chimney pots
while I seek an end to love.

Anne Bailey