HappenStance Press, 2012 £4.00
Reviewed by Noel Williams, Stephen Payne and Trevor McCandless
These are poems of quirky interest, sometimes even slightly disturbing, like the dark childhood fantasy of ‘Clocks’. Here the light goes out and the furniture springs to monstrous life in a rhythm “meticulously/ off the beat”:
Table, chair, each polished piece
inched up to knock
Much of Dunhill’s delightful oddness comes through musical language, a musicality often reminiscent of playground or nursery. ‘Lost’ pushes phonic play to extremes, yet not mechanically so:
Perhaps they lost a coat, a cap,
a mobile phone, a map. Perhaps
Occasionally, though, a poem is so peculiar that it’s a little beyond my understanding, even as I get the pleasure of it. One such is ‘Coming round a corner into Baring Street’, quite a simple poem in some ways, and again somewhat childlike in rhythms: “ And skip, and skip, and and skip, and”. I think it describes the sudden view beyond a corner where buildings have been demolished (“snagged into a sky/ that dropped”) and aims to convey that surprise in the rhythm and imagery. Yet, despite its detailed elaboration I’m still puzzled by the idea.
On the other hand, oddness of imagery, slightly compressed language and skipping rhythms can create weirdness that’s surprisingly apt. ‘Meeting’ for example, compares the idea of meeting the poet’s mother to the “twenty-four hot gullets, livid pink and ululating” of the nursery rhyme’s four and twenty blackbirds. This image of joyous meeting seems somehow extraordinarily appropriate for such a reunion, because of the exuberant way the poem presents it:
Oh, the resurrection!
Hola! Lu lu, la la, lu lu. Hallo!
Blackbirds feature again in the collection in the title poem which ends the volume with a suitably quirky thought, again conveyed through a dancing rhythm mimicking the birds:
hopping backwards back again
and bobbing out
like thoughts we had and then thought better of
and then thought better of the thinking better of.
How wonderful is this, not merely for the perfection of its imagery, nor its wit, but also for being ideal last words in a poetry book of puzzle and delight?
Whether it’s a compliment or not, the first thing to strike me about these poems was how well-written they are. There’s an unfailing sense of discipline, careful control of texture and register. I’m frequently struck by just how apposite and elegant is a phrase or word-choice. Nothing stuffy, though, for all the control. There’s humour, and a kind of cerebral sexiness too.
Several of the poems look back at childhood or adolescence, reporting movingly on specific scenarios, or using specific objects to retrieve emotional significance. The first poem ‘Clocks’ is of his kind, beginning “I had been put to bed too soon/ I had a book/ but otherwise I was alone.” Look at how concisely we are given character as well as situation.
If one is allowed to assume autobiography, the same character is expanded in the moving ‘Heart’, which begins “I was a girl who knew the thrill of duty” and explores a young girl’s religiously focussed self-discipline: “could mumble prayers so hard they pulled the Lord’s/ ear to her”.
'Darts' is a short poem that describes a particular set of darts to evoke a sensual memory, and perhaps, beyond it, a memory of a father. This poem was one of Carol Rumens’ poems of the week on the Guardian blog, and provoked much interesting discussion, as well as praise. One issue was how many readings such a short poem would allow. I’m perhaps reading a father into ‘Darts’ because of the facing poem, about a father’s Greek cigarettes, which in turn links to a poem in the voice of a cigarette (two poems about cigarettes in a pamphlet by Dunhill!). There are certainly strong ties between individual poems that work to enrich each.
Some poems explore myth and magic. As a Cardiff City fan, I may find it harder than most readers to enjoy a poem about, er, sheep shagging—a disturbing ‘Fairytale Extract’ with the epigraph “Well, my grandmother told me in them auld days, a sheep could be your mother.” (I’m not sure what to make of that “Well” —is the epigraph an apology?)
Later we have ‘Meeting’, a lovely short poem about a (human) mother, which I quote in full by way of advertisement for the pamphlet’s qualities:
When I meet my mother again
it will be like taking the lid of the pie
with four and twenty blackbirds singing
and I’ll be peering over the edge of the table
into twenty-four hot gullets, livid pink
and ululating.Oh, the resurrection!
Hola! Lu lu, la, la, la. Hallo.
Sometimes it’s all too easy to get lost in the music of poetry, particularly in cases like this where the poet makes language sing off the page. Dunhill is even able to do this while self-consciously drawing our attention to her virtuosity. When she says, “How beautifully it exercises the mouth” in one of her two poems on cigarettes, I found I had been thinking exactly that about them—how right they feel on my lips: not unlike a cigarette once might have done, or as someone’s breath has, or perhaps as a kiss does in anticipation. All themes more or less stolen directly from Dunhill’s poems.
But after noticing the musicality, the next thing was the fairy tales. Now, some of these are literally that—poems that reference myths directly. But others are more obscure, they have more of a fairy tale logic about them. You know, that feeling where the world is both dangerous and topsy-turvy. Where someone who ought to be accommodating suddenly leaves you sprawled on the floor begging pointlessly to them for their help—help unlikely to be given. Or, in a relook at the Narcissus myth, someone who should be strong and in the first blush of youth, is in fact pining away a little surprised at the ardour of their own homosexual desires. Here daughters become the mothers of their own mothers, and fathers are distanced by omniscient narration, and thus also distanced uncomfortably in the affection of their daughters. Here’s that nightmarish feeling that comes when we’re given strong and prophetic narration about things we’d prefer to remain uncertain about:
He let you put them up.
You’ll remember this because he’s fading.
My favourite poem is ‘After they took the sky away’. But my reason for this preference is sideways from the page. There’s a Maori creation myth of Rangi and Papa, where Mother Earth and Father Sky loved each other so intensely that they locked themselves in an eternal embrace until their children, trapped between them in pitch darkness, finally forced them apart. The two parents are always shown as if the viewer has stumbled upon them in flagrante delicto, but they remain unconcerned, if apparently annoyed by the intrusion. They never look directly at each other:
Suddenly we loomed so tall, we found
we couldn't look each other in the eye.
In some ways I’m the wrong person to ask about these poems. I’ve always loved powerfully retold fairy tales. Particularly ones that challenge how gender and class are lived:
It is bitter and narrowing.
Only those born to it can address its stringencies.