Let’s start with what goes through my mind every time I pick up poetry, shall we? Because I think it might be similar to what goes through a lot of people’s minds when they attempt to assail the great edifice of poetry. With the exception of maybe Brautigan, Bukowski and Carver, I struggle with poetry. That isn’t to say I dislike poetry. At university, I enjoyed doing battle with the likes of Donne, Marvell, Manley Hopkins, Keats, and a good half dozen others – but as far as modern poetry is concerned, I am (with the exception of knowing who the last two Poet Laureates were and the furore over that position at Oxford that rumbled in and out of the news last year and again recently) largely in the dark as to who is doing good stuff and who is not. My problems with poetry tend to focus on abstraction. If I read a poem, there is a voice in my hand repeating, like a child, over and over again: ‘yes, but what is it about? what is it about?’ What’s more, if the sense of a poem is relatively lucid, that voice does not relent. Instead, it changes its tack: ‘Yes, but are you getting it? Are getting it all? What allusions are you missing?’ If I was reading a novel (unless it was utterly incomprehensible), I’d rarely ask myself if I was getting it. Similarly, if I was listening to a song, I wouldn’t worry myself hoarse thinking, ‘Yes, I’m enjoying it, but am I getting it?’ There is (always, whenever I read poetry) a sense, at the back of my mind, of a poem as a sepia toned photograph – whosoever ‘reads’ it will get something, but will that something be enough to have an authoritative opinion or will a reading merely reveal the paucity of engagement? Maybe (generally speaking) this to-and-fro, back-and-forth is what reading poetry is all about and maybe just maybe poetry fans are the closest thing to close readers we still have left. But I digress.
Sarah Hymas’ Host is a game of two disproportionate halves, in a sense. The first half (which takes up approximately three quarters of the book) is a sort of cycle, subtitled ‘Bedrock’ involving four generations of life in a Yorkshire family, starting out (after an anonymous preamble of sorts in 2008, with ‘a dying wife’ who is ‘not a ruin yet’) in 1898, with ‘Klondike’ a poem voiced by the thirty year old Harold (we learn his age thanks to an ‘abridged’ family tree that precedes the poetry, a family tree this nimble-fingered reviewer repeatedly flicked back to throughout reading) who ‘saw the fortune in Yorkshire grit’ and appears to be trying to make amends for ‘the disappearance of my mother’, and the ‘gunpowder in my father’s mouth’, his own success recompense for the perceived failure of his parents as he ‘cleave[s] blocks for lintels and doorsteps’. Barely a year later, he meets Hannah, who says, ‘What I love about you / I have yet to quarry’, a romance between them embarking on ‘the promise of mica / and buttoned sandstone’. Soon there is a son (Harold wishes him ‘true greatness’ before adding ‘Make haste, / my boy; grow tall, strong and good’), and the concommitant disappointments that come with maintaining equable relationships between work and home (‘Suffrage, 1910’ seems to concern Hannah having to let her son John down gently when his father goes on a job without him), before complicating the issue with religion (it seems Harold’s building work brings him into dispute with a ‘grimacing minister’ having converted a church into a cinema), the war (bookended by the first appearance from John in ‘August 1914’ and Harold in ‘An Undertaking, 1918’ where he tells us ‘Our trucks won us no medals / for hauling coal during the war’) and, of course, the societal rebuilding that ensued (see ‘The Boss’s Son, 1919’). It is the marriage of John to Esther (a lovely poem called ‘Postmarked Today, 1927’ swoops and dives like a spring-heeled swallow about the ‘dark ward of a hospital’, introducing their fledgling love), however, that truly grips the reader, John’s father’s world changing in a way that pre-empts the way the world will change again with his own children (and change again and change again, subsequent to that). From ‘The Business Enters Its Second Generation, 1951’ through to ‘The Apprentice Wife, 1964’ (in which we sense the first stirrings of unease between Esther and her son Matthew’s wife Doreen), ‘Bedrock’ comes to read like a lightly elliptical novel, as forthcoming with its clarity as its beauty, easy to understand and yet ripe with depth and subtly inviting repeated readings. Each poem accumulates fond (and not so fond) detail and each death when it comes is as powerful and affecting as could be conjured from the pages of a great novel (which is high praise, believe me).
As a person who doesn’t normally read poetry, I found the slim second half of the book (23 poems over 20 or so pages collectively called ‘Landfall’) to be a little more difficult (and part of me wished that ‘Bedrock’ had in fact been the book as it was easier for me to digest and understand) – the loss of the singular relation of one poem to another slightly disorientating. Some, such as ‘Wonder Child’ (which runs in its entirety:
‘My friend’s Aunty Margaret
knew a little boy who
was that curious
he could spend
all day long
in a bucket’
) read like Brautigan, and have you pausing to stare off, imagining. Others (‘Your Ears Send Me Delirious’, say, or ‘A Thin Slice’) read like love poems, of sorts. ‘Nude’, a poem inspired by a painting by Dominique Renson snagged me and my nagging mind (‘do I need to see the painting to ‘understand’ he poem or is this a poem about the dialogue that exists between a person and a painting?’) – and the snags and the nagging get between me and the words. The relation of the poet to art seems to continue in ‘Tourniquet’ with its ‘Oil. Blood. Chalk. Oil. Blood. Chalk’ repetition (but again that ‘seems to’ annoys me, threatens me, makes me feel like I’m on sandy ground). And so through ‘Last Night’, ‘Host’ and ‘Permaculture’, poems I struggle to translate. I want poems to be either stories, that I can understand, or songs, wherein I can give themselves up to their melifluousness – the strange fact of their existence unseats me and has me scratching at my head. I think this isn’t the correct reaction to poetry and so I retreat to repeated readings of ‘Bedrock’, which I like and understand (more) – and it occurs to me that this is the way to read poetry, not like prose (forgive my terrible ignorance) but actually like songs repeated over and over, each reading showing something else and something else and something else. Then, when I returned to ‘Landfall’, I started to overcome a lot of my hang-ups, picking out in the likes of ‘Night Storm’ (‘a gold cloudburst over the valley. / Then, nothing’) and ‘Elterwater’ (‘in a loom of liquid light’), postcard snapshots of frozen beauty. Poetry, I seem to need to learn afresh over time, cannot be hurried, has to be taken at its own speed, which is not as rule, my speed. I read Host four times through and, by the last reading, it felt like a pair of hands about my face shushing my over-caffeinated brain.
Any Cop?: An absolute must for poetry fans but a definite ‘worth a look-see’ for those of you not given to routinely dabbling with poetry…