Guest Review: Pugh On Hillier

Sheenagh Pugh reviews
A Quechua Confession Manual
by Sheila Hillier

A first collection by an older writer is always interesting, not least because writers with more life experience often have more to write about. Hillier is a medical sociologist who has lived and worked in many countries. She has also clearly read a lot, but I'm not sure she needs to credit the books that have helped inspire various poems as she does at the start; it's a generous impulse but can give the process an unwanted whiff of midnight oil.

Be the poet whatever age, most first collections are uneven. Hillier's observation is sometimes very sharp and startling, as in "Jealousy", where she pinpoints beautifully the sensation of being in love and vulnerable:

Someone who's cut the letter Y in me
from belly to neck is opening up the flaps to take a look

It would be odd if she were always that effective, and of course she isn't. There are a few poems that seem merely anecdotal, notably "Emperor of the Kitchen Garden", in which a man grows veg. And in "A Sleeping Spell" (which I wish were not the book's last poem, since for my money it's a long way the weakest) the observation seems vapid, in a 70s-hippyish sort of way, and the language curiously awkward and approximate. "From the green forest breathe in deep" is an odd instruction; how can one breathe "from" anything, and "green" is a bit redundant; had the forest been any less expected colour, it might have been worth mentioning. And in "Three beeswax candles' yellow light/Honey the air", shouldn't the verb be "honeys", singular, since it relates to the light rather than the candles?

But her observation and execution are usually much better, and the poems I liked best are those that draw on her wide reading, travel and general life experience, plus the verbal skill that allows her to craft them into something memorable. "Fisherman", "Village Fugitive", "Institute of Nuclear Medicine" and "Pollux and Castor, elephants" are all successes in this line, but my favourite is "Scanno Abruzzo 1953", a sort of non-love story, or a love story that might have been, set in what sounds like a small Italian village and involving two ageing people:

He's walked up,
dusty from the dry red fields.
He looks at her neat boots,
the beading on her widow's hat,
hears her stiff dress rustle in the wind
and catches the glow of a pearl rosary
against her velvet collar.

He should have married her
when Alessandro fell off that roof.

At this point, and when "she leans towards him, whispering", I was worried that soppiness and happy endings might be about to ensue, but not a bit of it. As she bends his ear about her children in Rome, he reflects

He thinks that she's become a bore,
praising the city she's seen only once,
the children that have left and won't come back.
He doesn't nod agreement

This rings completely true, yet so does the buried eroticism of the opening lines, and of the ending, with the same eroticism frustrated and dissipated:

A sharp wind nags his skin;
he feels there's thunder somewhere North,
rain without purpose in the city, squalls
exploding on pavements, spattering the cars,
to disappear in drains, a waste, a waste of water.

This is a powerful and moving poem (and, to my mind, a much more natural competition-winner than some in here that were placed in competitions, which just shows what a lottery they are).

I was less keen on some of those poems that seem determined to be "strange".  There was a fashion, which I think might be drawing to a close, for taking a subject or viewpoint not so much original as downright eccentric – I recall, some years ago, Jo Shapcott doing a competition adjudication (Exeter, I think) in which she said she'd seen so many poems with relentlessly quirky subjects or viewpoints that they were becoming tiresome, and in fact one of the things I like about older poets is that they don't often feel that need Lewis Carroll identified, for poets to look at all things with a sort of mental squint. Quirkiness can have its place – the subject matter of "Castor and Pollux, elephants" is unusual in the extreme but it works because what the poem is about, fundamentally, is love and priorities. The title poem is another such, taking an unusual but successful way into writing about culture clash and belief.  But in others like "Envoy" and "Thermidor", the extended metaphors, for me, start eating their own tails and getting so damn clever you can't see past them to whatever the poem was meant to be about.  Imagery works best when it isn't a firework display in its own right but a lamp illuminating something else – like the sketch in "Dreaming of the Dead" where the departed, unwilling to leave, inhabit our dreams like Hitchcock,

bobbing into frame
as plumbers, flower-sellers, "man-in-lift",
small parts


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