Just Help Yourself, Philip Hancock
Smiths Knoll, 2016 £5.00
A genius for detail
Philip Hancock seems to have a genius for choosing details. Remember The Fast Show joke—its immortalising of the image ‘jumpers for goalposts’? This is what these poems remind me of. Or maybe even Mike Leigh’s film Life is Sweet. Above all descriptive, the scenes and characters this pamphlet evokes are brilliantly and succinctly captured—pinned—by Hancock’s adroit selection of just the right details.
Take ‘Hall’—which may be my favourite poem. This is a poem about the hall—anyone’s hall, really. It has an exquisite universality. The hall, ‘Feeder of the main rooms, / it misses little.’
If the kitchen’s the heart
of the home,
the hall’s its ears.
What a lovely image. Even better follows. The last two verses especially, for me, epitomise what’s special about all of this pamphlet: the precision in its observation of human behaviour.
Excitement at a delivery,
a pause for dark shapes in the glass,
now the bell insists no one’s in.
It waits on the green telephone,
a bicycle leaning on the radiator,
talk of adding a storm porch.
How perfectly observed is that? (And also—as for much of this work, so telling of an era.) I love the way Hancock introduces the glass front door—ribbed glass, as I picture it, hence the ‘dark shapes’ rather than clear view. The ‘green telephone’ is also vivid: I see it, perhaps on a small table, in the days when each home had just one phone, a hub for the whole family. The bicycle takes its inevitable yet strangely unpredictable place—and then, in the poem’s final stroke of brilliance, that conversation that actually does take place in the hall: the one about whether or not to add ‘a storm porch’.
These poems are above all human. And I think they capture what that means in their tireless and devoted attention to detail.