Saturday, 19 March 2011

Guest Review: Westcott on Hymas

Sarah Westcott reviews
by Sarah Hymas

Host, the first collection by British poet Sarah Hymas, is a book of two distinct parts. The first section, Bedrock, is an epic sequence of 57 poems, a bravura sweep from the late Victorian era to the present day, detailing the lives of four generations of a mining family.

Taking on the disparate voices of one family is an ambitious task for a writer with the risk that assuming multiple dramatic personae may weaken or dilute the single perspective. However, Hymas successfully inhabits the varied minds of paterfamilias Harold through to his disaffected granddaughter Hannah, a child of the sixties.

Bedrock is also an exploration of personal and social heritage - as Hymas quarries the deep strata of family folklore to create an extended narrative sequence that sometimes reads like a play.  Her motif of geology is interesting and unusual as each character probes their rootedness with the Yorkshire landscape, the ‘local diamond’ of limestone.

Over the course of Bedrock, Hymas focuses on seven members of the Kibby family in a series of dramatic vignettes mainly written in the first person. The poems are often insightful, and sometimes funny, snapshots of a character’s inner life which chart the turbulent process of loving over a lifetime. Thus, we have Hannah, the Kibby matriarch, addressing Harold:

What I love about you
I have yet to quarry.

Your worn granite face
holds the promise of mica

and buttoned sandstone,
a cladding for our home.

(Harrogate Bedrock, 1899.)

Some 35 years later, Harold’s expression of love for his grandson possesses Heaney-esque tones of digging and captures an authenticity and doggedness of character:

What can be dug, can be built upon.

Accepting dirt as nourishment,
I seed one tattie for a dozen nuggets

of gospel white. A quiet servant.
I dig for my grandson.

(Witness the Potato, 1934.)

As the sequence progresses into the 1960s, Hymas continues to align fresh generations with notions of home - her characters are literally contained within their walls - and their place in history.  And so we hear the voice of Matthew, the grown-up grandson of long dead Harold and Hannah making explicit an almost oppressive sense of belonging to the land, and family: 

I am braced, like the house, between streets
paved by my grandfather
and their semis sold off by my father.

I cannot leave now I’ve returned.
A locked block in the parquet floors.

(Farndale, 1967.)

Hymas’ earthiness of language roots Matthew into the walls of the family home, writing him into the rock and stone of his forbears.

She is also excellent at capturing social and religious codes of behaviour, with the acuity of Austen or Alice Munro. The poems are adorned with doilies and net curtains, sculleries and jam roly-polys, pork paste sandwiches - and all the peculiarly English class connotations they carry. The gradual dissipation of the founding Methodist values of the family is also compelling and subtly written.

One of the most striking aspects of Bedrock, though, is its historical sweep and Hymas gives her readers generous traction of period detail and the peculiarities of time and place. She moves from the Klondike gold rush through both world wars, Green Shield Stamps and the eighties property boom, all the while producing some sparkily memorable and apposite imagery - a house is “brass banded” with daffodils each March, while Harold’s face is “inscrutable as mashed potato” and a windbreak is “pegged like a pie crust”.

In Armoury, 1984, I enjoyed a sensory description of a man running his hands through boxes of keys, Gollum-like:

...I fetch down the old banner box,
push my hand into cold grime of oil on steel.
Keys. Hundreds of them.

They nibble my skin like a reassuring dog,
cool me in a shower of chain mail. I scoop
handful after handful, let them chink through my fingers.

The poems that work less well are those where the voice of the character has a tinge of inauthenticity - either the voice of the poet is coming through - or the character speaks in a slightly inappropriate register. For example, ‘Venn Diagrams, 1972’, written in the voice of a five-year-old is strangely mature: ‘Lorries reverse and turn in the yard next door/20 tonners looping tracks in the cinder grit.’

The second half of Host, titled Landfall, is more free-wheeling and playful and expands into wider landscapes of forests, moors and mountains.

Landfall retains Hymas’ characteristic robustness of language. But she becomes more conceptual and abstract, questioning the power of language itself and the absurdity of metaphor when faced the the sheer physicality of the natural world:

To call them mountains is to clamp
woodchip to magnolia,
chocolate bars to the Milky Way.

(‘From Pelling’)

I find her work best when she moves away from heavy metaphors and extended conceits and becomes lighter and more exploratory, in the manner of a mind trying to understand the world.

Particular favourites were ‘Your Ears Send Me Delirious’, one of the strangest and sweetest expressions of love I have read, and ‘Wonder Child’, which brings to mind the quirky brevity of Lorraine Mariner - and is short enough to be enjoyed in full:

My friend’s Aunty Margaret
knew a little boy who
was that curious
he could spend
all day long
in a bucket.

Host is a tactile and muscular collection, rooted in the complexities and textures of the physical world. Hymas has created fresh and exuberant work that, at its best, captures the awe of being alive.

Sarah Westcott is a poet and journalist living in London.
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