Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

Smiths Knoll, 2009  £4.00

Philip Hancock has a very consistent and distinctive voice.  Proper names are everywhere—Hancock will never say carpet when he could say Axminster. The settings have a downbeat realism (although sometimes admitting consolation)—childhood memories about letting goals in, having toys thrown out; adult experiences as an apprentice, cleaning and fetching. Syntax is clipped, direct—no word wasted.

Here’s how ‘Girder Bashers’, the last poem in the pamphlet and one of my favourites, begins:

Cutthroat targets, but top bonus
plus overtime. Stanway’s arm first up,
JT, Salty, two others, twelve’s the gang.

So lively and immediate. And yet, for all that I admire its naturalness and energy, I’m not sure the voice isn’t a little too uniform. The proper nouns, for example.  Yes—they are fresh and particular. But sometimes perhaps they work to exclude the reader or to provide more information than I care about.

Or maybe it’s just that every device can be over-used, until one can’t help perceive it as mannered, even in such a short collection. I feel the same about the syntax and form—the model of everyday speech always working to compress, to drive the verbs from the sentences. Despite the maintenance of pace, the undeniable skill and verve, I find that I enjoy the poems more if I read them one at a time.

But if the main requirement of such vernacular writing is to make sure the baby of poetry isn’t thrown out with the bathwater of poeticism, then certainly my overall judgment is that Hancock succeeds. He has a way of finding an emotional kick in a dowdy context, giving tired phrases a fresh lick of paint.

Here’s how ‘Girder Bashers’ finishes:

miles to go. And so have we: another coat
before rush hour. Sweating in boiler-suits
we crouch and stretch, over-reach,
bang it on, can’t hear ourselves think.

The last line provides the collection with a smart title. This is the third in the Smiths Knoll pamphlet series. Like the others, it is elegantly produced: heavy cream card, black endpapers. A pleasing, unpretentious emphasis on quality that matches the contents.

Stephen Payne