hearing eye, 2009 £4.00
Reviewed by Paul Lee, Rob A Mackenzie and George Simmers
Some of the most memorable poems in English are about mothers—Seamus Heaney’s, “broad-lapped, with whitened nails”, George Barker’s “Sitting as huge as Asia”—and I’d bet most are written by men. My experience and reading suggest to me that the dynamic is somewhat different between mothers and daughters (as between sons and fathers) I’m surprised there is as yet no dedicated anthology: it’s almost a separate genre within the canon—vivid poems about vivid (not necessarily likeable) women. How does Lucy Hamilton’s collection compare?
Admirably, in my view. These intelligent, elegiac and often moving sonnets focus on the last five years of Marguerite Cathala Plowright’s life, but often shift back to earlier periods. The strength and warmth of the bond between mother and daughter is apparent throughout, and poignant too: Marguerite was ‘mum’ as well as ‘mother’ to her daughter. She was French, of striking looks, loved poetry, loved to sing, was heroic in the way mothers often are, and raised six children out of a marriage that (according to certain hints) was not always easy. That makes her vivid in my book.
Small wonder we write about mothers. Small wonder fathers and husbands often pale against them.
The additional interest in this collection lay in how Lucy Hamilton would handle the sonnet form, arguably the most widely used of all the forms available to poets. Would they meet the standard definition at all, or merely be 14-line poems tagged with the title, as they often are? Well, these are the genuine article, either Italian with octet, volta, sestet and rhyme, or Shakespearean, or a variant that combines the two forms, usually an English octet and an Italian sestet. Oddly enough, I only noticed it because I was looking for something like it.
She gives herself plenty of latitude in her rhyming, sometimes just rhyming on the closing vowel, often using pararhyme, and occasionally not rhyming at all. I like rhyme myself, and am glad she chose to use it, and understand her choices. Full rhyme can be a straitjacket, and can lead your poem up the garden path. Too much can be made of full rhyme.
My one criticism is that the sonnets are sometimes prefaced by French songs, or include snatches of these as part of the poem, but without an English translation. My French was equal to it, but I wonder how many other readers would have that grasp, and how many potential readers it would deter. Small wonder that people tend to regard poetry as ‘difficult’, or as not speaking of or to them. That aside, this is a fine book, an extended, elegiac song of love to a memorable woman. Here she is, encapsulated in the final six lines of ‘Grapes’”
Large and heavy, vessel of six offspring,
each night her undressed body amazes me.
Scarred with the history a long life brings,
she’s small and simple, soft and ordinary;
but in thinking, feeling, acting and believing,
is always complex and extraordinary.
Rob A Mackenzie:
The cover is a 1937 photograph of the poet’s mother and the pamphlet consists of thirty sonnets based on the final years of her life from 2003-2007 when she lived in a ‘home’ near her daughter during a time of bad health. They record events during that time, also moments from Lucy Hamilton’s childhood and from her mother’s past. The poems are direct and clearly stem from a deep relationship.
Sometimes Hamilton succeeded in getting my attention. The first poem, ‘Shipwreck’, has the mother feeling she’s been washed up on an unknown desert island and the daughter feels “awe/ of her deep need.” The closing lines are:
. . .the stone that hurt
and hardened me was to see that in the storm
it was her priest who brought her back to shore.
That’s painfully honest and affecting—the loving relative feels helpless and the ‘professional’ appears to have more success.
A similar sense of frustration appears later in ‘Out of Sorts’. The mother says she’d like to spend more time in her daughter’s family home. The daughter reminds her that she comes to the home every week for dinner:
Now she’s self-deprecating with remorse.
She sits beside me, large, warm, expansive,
with all her thoughts and feelings in reverse.
Again, Hamilton articulates a complex emotional state. The guilt and helplessness of both mother and daughter are captured in a few lines.
However, the very plainness of the diction, the directness of the narrative, the way everything is up front, is also the source of this pamphlet’s problems. Even in ‘Out of Sorts’, Hamilton needs to add a final tercet to make a sonnet, and the summation is too directive:
I grapple with the key and stall the engine,
appalled at her predicament. I grieve
for her and feel her misery as mine.
That might have been better left to resonate in the reader’s mind as an implication.
The poems were convincing on the closeness of the mother/daughter relationship but, for me, there was something missing from many of them—an element of surprise perhaps, or that charge when the emotion of the writer really connects with the reader through a brilliant line or phrase. However, ‘Being in her Presence’ tells of the daughter’s fascination with her dying mother’s tongue—that’s something I didn’t see coming. She watches the tongue with rapt, almost religious attention:
I longed to touch her tongue. It seemed to be
the key to understanding the interplay
of vivid life and dark eternity.
Now, there’s a poem I immediately wanted to read again.
Now mum, who always did love poetry
Will never have a chance to hear these sonnets.
Lucy Hamilton’s mother died in 2007, and these thirty sonnets are at the same time a conversation with her mother, and a way of dealing with her memory. Their half-rhymes skilfully suggest her complicated feelings about the mother whose undressed body is “scarred with history a long life brings”, and about the difficulty of giving her up to “paid-up care that’s given by proxy”.
The mother was French, and the poet works as a teacher, helping foreign students who “arrive each term/ each with her mother’s aura lingering by”. The difficulties and pleasures of communication across cultural divides become a metaphor for communication between generations. These poems convey the richness of cultural experience that is lost when an old person dies; the mother returns to French rhymes and songs from her childhood, even when she forgets that she goes to visit her daughter’s home every week.
The poem I like best is ‘Darling’, in which the mother, near death and unable to keep down food, is compared with a bird that the poet and her mother had tried but failed to nurture many years before
But even now I can’t suppress a smile.
Once, when asked if she would like dessert
She said ‘Yes please,’ and paused, this gastrophile,
To learn what the delicious treat would be.
On hearing tapioca, ‘No thanks,’ she asserted,
‘We’ll leave that to the penitentiary.’
When you have read these poems you will agree that Lucy Hamilton’s mother has, like the winter vines that “reach out like old arthritic hands palm upward”, an “inner grace”. These are poems that combine understated verbal skill and the exploration of rich, though sometimes painful, experience. Highly recommended.