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Friday, 23 April 2010

Featured Poet: Sheila Hillier

Eyewear is very glad to welcome Sheila Hillier to its storied pages this post-ash Friday. Hillier trained at the London School of Economics and The London Hospital Medical College, where she gained a Ph.D in 1986. She was appointed Professor of Medical Sociology in 1992, the first sociologist to be appointed to a Chair in a UK Medical School. She has undertaken research in the UK, Trinidad and the People's Republic of China, where she has been involved for over thirty years.

Her research interests include health care organisation and the role of Traditional Chinese Medicine in China and beyond. She has also undertaken research on the health of ethnic minority groups in the UK. She was Visiting Professor at Shanghai No 2 Medical College and is currently Visiting Professor at the Chinese University Hong Kong and Professor Emeritus at Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry.

As a poet, Hillier has studied with the late Julia Casterton, and at The Poetry School, and is now completing an MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University. She was awarded the prestigious Hamish Canham Prize by the Poetry Society in 2009, and was commended in the National Poetry Competition in 2006. Her poems have appeared widely in UK Journals. Her debut collection, A Quechua Confession Manual, (now available for pre-order) from dynamic and respected Cinammon Press, will be launched in June at the Barbican; those wishing to attend should contact the press online to rsvp.

I have had the pleasure of being one of the poets who has worked with Hillier over the last few years, and I believe this collection is one of the debuts of this decade, in Britain. Below is the title poem from the collection, which I hope will showcase what are some of Hillier's impressive talents: wit, erudition, an interest in other times and places, and a genuine strangeness of imagination. Reading Hillier is a corrective in so many ways - gone is confession, banal anecdote, and the trivial - replaced by the unusual, the exotic, the unexpected - she writes poems with some of the panache of FT Prince, with the added precision of a scientific eye. She seems to me to be one of the true originals of the moment.

A Quechua Confession Manual (1584)


Remember, in this hemisphere the stars
are different. Look up and see the Pleiades.
My brother, understand, the sins are different too,
that’s why you’ll need this book.
These people have no knowledge of concupiscence,
their only prohibitions are of rank
yet in their ignorance, immortal souls
are heading for Hell. It’s not true by the way
that they have said they do not wish for heaven
if the Spanish are there.

This volume in their language will embrace
all possible offences of the flesh.
Learn it and rehearse your questioning
before you hold Confession.
Establish frequency, clarify with whom he sinned,
inquire if she’s a virgin or the wife
of some cacique. For female penitents,
ask if they seduced a priest, or climbed
on top of a man, made love-philtres,
allowed unnatural practices.
Do not omit the question about llamas.

They should respect us more, but fifty years ago
even their slaves were dressed in gold
and thought they were the Children of the Sun.
Brother Felipe likes to tell the novices
of when he gave the Sacrament in Cuzco
the Inca prince and all his sons wore silver suits
and emeralds in bunches, big as the grapes
below Valladolid. Sometimes I think
they understand ecstasy—that day their bone flutes
played homage to the spilling of Christ’s blood.

A quarter of a century has passed since
I’ve been home. I won’t be going back
unless as Incas say, the sun should change.
Here’s some advice for your first tour of duty:
before going out on pastoral visits
across these mountains and the highest snows
select the plumpest brother here as your companion.
He will sustain you with his dreams of food,
amuse you with a stock of impure stories. When
the puma that’s been stalking you for days
leaps out in ambush you’ll be sure that he
won’t emulate your turn of speed.

poem by Sheila Hillier; from her debut collection of the same title.
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