Learning to Read #21
This might be an odd way to start a poetry review, but I’m going to make reference to the Street Fighter console game and Shakespeare here. In Henry V you have the big battle speech. It’s a classic – once more unto the breach and all that. It rouses and inspires and it does a job. In contrast, the game simply shouts “Fight” in your face and you are straight in. Would you want to sit through Branagh and a page of Shakespeare before that epic boss battle? No. Sometimes you want to invest the time into multi level epics like Hannah Sullivan’s 3 Poems for example, and sometimes you want something direct and honest and almost brutally sharp. And with this collection, you are definitely getting the latter.
I saw Hannah at the Kendal Poetry Festival in 2017, so I knew a little about her. I knew that she was part of the young poets movement that is being cultivated in south Cumbria, and I followed her on Twitter so I knew about some of the serious health issues that she lives with. It was pretty cool to then hear that she had put this collection out. And it was also pretty cool for the collection to give me a number of sharp kicks up the bum.
First up – I read and listened to a lot of Button poetry last year, and I read and listened to a lot of poetry that was quite inward looking. This is me, these are my problems, I’m writing almost as therapy. Which is fine, in one way or another many writers write to ease some demon that’s churning inside of them. But I’ve become a bit insulated to this. The kick of empathy that I usually get from those moments of insight into a writers life was a bit jaded to be honest. So I needed a line like “My mind is a princess / locked in the tower / of my skeleton.” as the first kick up the bum that woke me up again. It reminded me to care again. And that’s there on the first page. Bosh. “Men, drunk on Friday night freedom, shouted / ‘You’d be hot if you lost the chair’ –” That’s from Hidden Illness. That’s just honesty; no decoration or sleight of hand, it’s just honest. “You’d be hot” – wow, thanks you’ve reduced me to a three letter word. “If you lost the chair” – and now you’ve taken even that away from me. A sharp dart, right on target. As you might guess from the title, the collection is largely about illness, but it tackles the related issues in a way that is clearly genuine and sometimes painfully sincere.
Second up – her poems drew me in. I could relate to them, not directly but indirectly as a third party. I can explain that a little better with an illustration. Parents is a poem about parents in hospital “Outside A&E this dad circles, / stuck on a roundabout / in shock.” I’ve not been to A&E as a patient for a long time. I’ve not been to A&E as a parent. But I’ve been to A&E as a husband, and as a friend, and I’ve been to Surgical Assessment and I’ve had to walk out from these situations back into my life, leaving someone behind. I’ve held someone’s hand, and that gentle pressure has felt like a vice on my heart, and this poem brings all of that back. It’s a kick that surprised me and made me open my eyes. The poem is the view from the bed or the trolley, and my view is different, but the words gave me an opportunity to reflect on my own experience, and that is surely one of the most powerful things that poetry can do for you.
Thirdly, very simply, this collection gave me another kick and said “stop binge watching box sets and get writing”. Sheesh, I’ve come to love writing over the last couple of years but just recently it’s been a slog. I do “initial enthusiasm” very well. I do “stumble into something that I’m good at” pretty well too. But I find it hard with “you need to work at this and it’s going to take ages to start getting anywhere”. There’s always iPad stuff to do, or ironing or dad taxi stuff, and it’s all a series of massive distractions. So when I Would Give Anything for a Dirty Fry Up tells me that “I wish I could borrow your stomach / write an IOU / and pin it to your abdomen” then it’s a big reminder that if I think I have something to say, and if I think I can find new ways of saying it, then I need to get off my backside and keep working at it. “I have to blow on the embers of my energy / attempt to raise my blood pressure.” The thing that is stopping me from writing is my own inertia. “Maybe piercings are okay / but a stoma is too far” Another sharp dart. “I use words like monkey bars / grasp them let go grasp them let go” I’ve no excuses left. Things need to be said; I have to at least try and help say them.
OK, this is a short collection, and maybe if you were a proper well educated poetry critic then you might say that there is the odd bit that is slightly rough around the edges. But I’d say pfff to all that; I like it. These poems gave me a big old Street Fighter slap and I think that’s a good thing 🙂 so I’d totally recommend it.