The Chauffeur, Selima Hill

Fair Acre Press, 2022      £7.50

Magic-lantern show

The first poem of Selima Hill’s pamphlet ‘The Chauffeur’ is called ‘Tiny Girls Singing Hymns’:

why does no one dare to acknowledge
that it is fear that forces us to sing?

This sets the mood and there follows a series of short poems that tell the story of a family, the relationship between two sisters and something of what happened to them. There’s a wedding and two deaths.

I was reminded of a magic-lantern show: the way a vivid image is depicted for a short time and quickly replaced by another. These poems make a series of strong impressions which ‘burnt’ into my mind. By the end I was left with the feeling that something terrible had happened — but exactly what is not certain. The genius of Selima Hill takes us along a series of grand leaps of imagination. I found it impossible to put the book down.  

The poem ‘The Draughtsman’ is only four lines long, with very sinister undertones:

He draws her and he draws her and he draws her
                          Until it is too late.
I refuse. He won’t betray me!

It’s followed by another four-line poem called ‘Fish’. One sister, in search of protection, finds a lover whose arms will ‘chill her body like the arms of fish’. Our picture show continues via sea shells, a Rottweiler, a donkey, the wedding dress, a hippo. These are bizarre images — there’s one poem about bad teeth which ends up musing how you can’t mould teeth like you can a hedge (into the shape of a duck).

I would choose the poem ‘In the Hotel Bedroom Something Soft’ as the best example of the sudden and profound way the poems come alive on the page. This one’s set after the wedding:

                                        something soft
glides towards her from the dead bouquets,
it rambles through her hair and round her ears

I think ‘The Chauffeur’ is the narrator, the sister who apparently survives. She’s the hind legs of a donkey in one of the poems, but who knows? These poems are open for interpretation — yours or mine.

Anne Bailey