Book review: The gods amongst us

Selima Hill, I May Be Stupid But I’m Not That Stupid, Bloodaxe, £12, ISBN 9781780371917
Mona Arshi, Dear Big Gods, Liverpool University Press, £9.99, ISBN 9781786942159
Richard Osmond, Rock, Paper, Scissors, Picador, £10.99, ISBN 9781509894581
Martina Evans considers some searching sequences

. . .

Six poem sequences, each voice telling a different yet interlocking story, form the body of Selima Hill’s I May be Stupid But I’m Not That Stupid. The title is a typically disarming use of litotes because Hill’s narrators are always far from stupid. When she is at her most whimsical and throwaway, she nails a universal feeling with arresting force:

Being me is fun. To other people
the me that I parade around in front of them

tossing my big head like a caber
that wants to be a wedding cake, is not.
    (‘The Wedding Cake’)

Hill’s narrators may have difficulty connecting in the world but on the page they connect like lightning. The majority of the poems are in couplets, usually in pairs which adds to their crystalline surefootedness. Blakean, they act like subversive bible verses while the long lists of titles, ‘My Mother’s Ankle’, ‘My Mother’s Sponge’, ‘My Mother’s Purse’ form litanies. God might be mentioned on the first page yet his many incarnations as dubious doctors, controlling brothers or the “creepy old man” from ‘Lamb Chop’ never trump the force of the mother’s visceral reality:

My mother’s giant salmon-pink underwear
is pressed against the bars of my cot
exuding, in the light of passing cars,
my mother’s sickly smell of warm rubber.
    (‘My Mother’s Underwear’)

Cows – denigrated symbols of motherhood – are the most endearing of Hill’s signature animals. Refigured and transfigured throughout her collections – here they are made of roses or rubies – they never become tired perhaps because the urgency never goes away: we need to really see them in the same way as we need to see her oddball narrators who are so clear-sighted even if they might toss a “big head like a caber” or “swing the sweetcorn by its hair”. The short poems stand alone like proverbs but collectively form a witty continuous dream, a world to get lost in. The virgin, the fallible mother, the female body objectified may be dark subjects, but typically the final sequence where each body part speaks for itself is called ‘Helpless with Laughter’ – another litany, a wild rosary mocking the Christian fear of the flesh which continues to inform our secular world. The collection began in darkness with the burnt child “lying in my bed in my bandages”, a recurring image from Hill’s oeuvre, yet despite terrifying perceptions, Hill’s rebellious wit always wins, ending in light, however rueful:

They may well be convenient for slashing
but wrists are here to keep your bracelets warm

and stop your hands from falling off and anyway
slashing them doesn’t even work.
    (‘Wrists’)

There is more than one god in Mona Arshi’s second collection, multiple intriguing voices in fact, reminiscent of Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris. ‘Little Prayer’ opens the book speaking with a tiny precise voice:

It’s me
      again.
This time I’m a wren.

Last time I
      was the first
white sap.

The voices are ambiguous, creating a tension between the speaker and the poet so we are not always sure who is speaking. As ‘Everywhere’ opens, it could be the flowers that say, “Mostly we are waiting for the rain.” Yet it is the poet who doesn’t need to “look in the black / sunflower seeds we take out for / the finches”. And he who is “everywhere” is not God, although he could be:

Yesterday, I saw his eyes
       in the eyes of a young man next
to the water-fountain.
                  We tell the children, we should not
                         look for him. He is everywhere.

“He” is the poet’s brother, the principle subject here. This is a book of descent reflected in the many indented lines which work like steps as Arshi takes us down into an earth filled with the roots of flowers and plants: “The lilies were sick. / I was new and wifely, / a first tiny garden and / my favourite flower right / by the back door” (‘The Lilies’). Juxtaposing lilies, normally associated with death, with the “new and wifely” summons the horrific as they are effectively anthropomorphised, “In the dark with the kitchen lit / they must have peered in, / their occultish hurting faces / pressed against the glass. / They were hard to love back, / these flowers.” Later Arshi’s flowers speak too, their fractured disturbing voices heard in ‘Let the Parts of the Flower Speak’:

sepal

My little bastard verses
tiny polyglot faces
how light you are
how virtually weightless.

This is a fine ars poetica: it is when Arshi is at her most delicate, serving her lightest touch that the poems go deepest. Arshi’s first collection, Small Hands, displayed an array of formal experimentation and she continues to mine that field with prose poems, a cleave poem, a sestina and a tanka along with poetic responses to Lorca, The Odyssey and The Mahabharata. ‘Five Year Update’ features very long lines running lengthways along the page, reminiscent of rain or tears, an overflowing of grief barely contained. Yet near the end, it is a much shorter poem with a very long title, ‘When Your Brother Steps into your Piccadilly, West Bound Rail Carriage’ that leaps off the page, expressing all that complexity so simply, instantaneously

You could give up your seat, lean forward to touch the hem of
his denim shirt, pull gently on his head-phone wires, say
I am sorry, I’m so sorry.

When the “Almighty” appears on the first page of Richard Osmond’s collaged response to the 2017 London Bridge terrorist attacks, I’m tempted to believe that God really is everywhere. Direct poems on Osmond’s experience of the attacks are plaited with his original translations from The Qur’an and Beowulf’s attack on the beer hall. Beowulf sits neatly here reminding us of its own tripartite elements where the three agons of the hero’s life are interwoven with three different race’s histories in order to examine their destiny. And fate and chance are, of course, central to Osmond’s strong title poem:

Eight hours into Rob’s Stag, which had
started strong with a pub crawl up
the Bermondsey beer mile
and was now beginning to sag

[…]

1. We could go to Katzenjammers
authentic German bierkeller
under London Bridge, where we would
listen to an oompah band, eat sauerkraut
drink litre steins of Paulaner Dunkel
and be held in the basement
by police for our own protection
as terrorists attacked the doors outside
    (‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’)

The flat understatement of Osmond’s perspective is pitted effectively against the rich cinematics of Beowulf:

under cover of fog
carrying the full weight of the wrath of God
on his shoulders. Grendel:

a reaper with a mind to grab a handful
of mankind.
Through mist,
he saw the beer hall lit in bright gold
    (‘Grendel came creeping out,’)

While the magpie element of this collage reflects Osmond’s foraging day job, his knowledge of the countryside has a deeper beneficiary effect as he brings in some lovely working words like “macerated” or “holloway”, a word for the “ancient English roads […] worn into the earth by thousands of years of traffic” and linked to “desire paths in human spaces”. Osmond’s flair with Beowulf made me reach for my own copy again, but The Qu’ran sits more uneasily despite or maybe because of a very long note justifying the use of its “heat and controversy”. It’s a shame that Osmond and his publishers felt the need to contrast a “stereotype of The Qu’ran as a monolithic prescriptive text” against the true nature of its real and riddling beauty. Surely this is not a new discovery? The anxiety is, of course, understandable. Placing The Qu’ran in such a context is a risk. Perhaps the work would have benefited from more time to mulch down, allowing Osmond the confidence to let it stand on its own. It is when he lets go and moves out of the reader’s light that his words hit home hardest:

Only one app loads and works;
it sends me a notification:

At sixteen weeks your baby is now
the size of an avocado.
    (‘There’s still no signal –’)

Martina Evans’ latest collection Now We Can Talk Openly About Men is published by Carcanet. This review was first published in The Poetry Review, 109:4, Winter 2019. © The Poetry Review and the author.