Saturday, 13 February 2010

Poetry: Review - 'Fruitcake', 'Bunny' and 'Violet' by Selima Hill

On reading 'Fruitcake', the latest collection - or compendium of collections - by Selima Hill, I decided that she doesn't approach poetry like other poets approach poetry, she approaches the production of poems like artists approach the production of paintings. That is the only way in which I can come to terms with her escalating prolificity at a point in her career when most of her fellows rest on their laurels, find themselves an academic sinecure, write travel articles or sketches of their memoirs for Sunday supplements - do all the things that writers who can no longer be bothered much with writing do.

In 2008, Selima published 'Gloria', a 336 page selected poems more substantial than most collected volumes. Simultaneously, she unveiled 'The Hat', an unusually slim collection concerning female identity I've not even caught up with yet. Last year, she won the Flarestack Poetry Pamphlet Competition with 'Advice on Wearing Animal Prints' which was published as a result. Far be it for me to question the integrity of the judges - I've not even read the thing, so am open to accusations of talking out of my leopard skin pillbox hat - but if this Selima Hill is anything like any other Selima Hill I've read, I'd know I was reading Selima Hill within the lines of the first poem. All poetry competition judges being as paranoid as I am, I'd then begin to suspect that I was reading the work of an accomplished Selima Hill imitator, adopting her voice and her themes but to lesser effect than the Lilith of Lyme. I'd then lure the administrator of the contest into my dilemma - if this is the real deal, Selima testing her mojo is still working by entering anonymously, she wins first prize; if someone taking on her tropes in the manner of a skilled forger of Picasso or Dali, I'd win the booby prize - and make the award conditionally.

Fortunately, unlike me, all poetry judges and publishers have integrity, so you shouldn't read into my stewing on this any of the ingredients of truth. But what is more remarkable is that again last year - the year after she published both 'Gloria' and 'Hat', the year in which she published 'Advice on Wearing Animal Prints' - Selima also baked 'Fruitcake', four sequences of 'poems about motherhood' (in the same sense that 'MacBeth' and 'Alice in Wonderland' are about motherhood) each of which could be a collection in its own right - another 238 pages of Hillage.

Back to my thoughts on Selima as painter (Tracey Emin, to be precise, of whom I'm a genuine admirer; her memoir 'Strangeland' I unreservedly recommend) the poems in 'Fruitcake' (and she must've written at least one a day) take on each image and explore it over the length of several pieces. This may not be such a daft theory - Selima was born to a couple of Hampstead artists and while I don't know their work or method, she'd have grown up among visual artists and learnt how to be an artist from them. I rather admire this approach, but sometimes you feel like you're leafing through an exceptionally gifted artist's sketchbook looking for the major work, or an idea that might become it. And you begin to focus more on method than content, when content is king in my pre-modernist mind.

For all that, it is great fun, and if you are a fan - as you surely are, even if you don't know it yet - then you'll have fun with this book, even if you end up wondering if she isn't publishing too much (not writing too much, you can never write too much). And if you're lazy like me and want a one poem primer so you can pretend you've read the book I suggest 'Icy Metal' on p.157 which leads me to believe that Selima might have been watching 'Ice Road Truckers' while licking at her ice cream.

I realise that was a long way round not reviewing a book so in compensation I'm republishing my previous reviews of two of Selima's books originally published in Poetry Quarterly Review...

Selima Hill BUNNY BLOODAXE BOOKS / 2001 / 80pp / £7.95 / ISBN 1 85224 507 7 PORTRAIT OF MY LOVER AS A HORSE BLOODAXE BOOKS / 2002 / 80pp / £7.95 / ISBN 1 85224 600 6

Selima Hill has crashed recent poetry shebangs like a bag lady at the ball, carting trolley loads of awards back to Dorset where, I imagine, she feeds her menagerie of cats and ducks pilfered caviar from engraved silver salvers whilst dancing in the laundry in evening dress, wringing her fingers through the poetry mangle.

BUNNY’s eroticism is its danger; the lodger at its heart lets his desire do the stalking. The need for love and acceptance is baited then beaten into a realm of the unsaid where metaphor defines the boundaries that have been violated. Meanwhile, suburban aunts are distracted by their little dogs and home is a place in some far away mind.

Selima is a mistress of the image and finds a killer to love in every poem. Where others would make a meal of each memory, she prefers to slither the fat away to create little carpaccios, potent with the heat of unforgetting, as in SHEETS:

The sheets and towels of rented rooms

a million ways
of failing to say home.

The forward propulsion of this ark of a book is a series of little earthquakes, each containing the possibility of a tsunami somewhere across the ocean of time. It is a talent to re-inhabit the past rather than merely project the present onto its backdrop. What is achieved is more than just recounting experience; it is reliving it in the language of revelation that defines adolescence, as in SKY:

For sky that slips between her thighs like oysters,
for sheets like seas,
for laps like seals,
thank You.
Thank You for inventing space, O Lord.

Selima deploys this device of a master of the inner world to address throughout her more recent volume where he takes the form of the sacred in each lover and child and gives the pieces a particular intimacy, often challenged by the wonderfully eccentric yet sometimes strangely impersonal imagery, making him ‘…a sort of resident flower arrangement.’

Next to BUNNY, …HORSE sometimes reads like the result of a workshop exercise attended by a bedlam of doppelgangers. The hundred portraits of her lover are arranged alphabetically to defy any linear thread. As with BUNNY, images repeat themselves and verbal riffs recur, but without the narrative thrust they do not reveal themselves differently according to their context. The cumulative impression is more mosaic then conclusion. Plotted as a graph, we sense the fall from grace, a dip into darkness that encourages the discovery of the next source of light.

The covers of both books betray their common character; the rabbit or horse of the titles stare out with one eye reflecting the spotlight while the other is absent, gazing distractedly into inner space, tracing words in the stars. Selima Hill is of this world and another, and that is what makes a poet.

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