D A Prince considers how well Sheila Hillier has risen to the challenges of following up a successful first collection

 moonmilk

Hotel Moonmilk
Sheila Hillier
Eyewear Publishing
ISBN 978-1-908998-13-2
£12.99

 

Second collections bring their own challenges for a poet – and this is Hillier’s second collection. Her first (A Quechua Confession Manual, Cinnamon Press 2010) was shortlisted for the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize in a year of strong contenders. It contained poems placed in the National Poetry Competition (2006), the Mslexia competition (2006), and the winner of the Hamish Canham prize (2009). Early success like this can put pressure on the poet and any subsequent title. How does a poet move forward?

Some poets in the same position have provided the reader with more of the same: a handful of prize-winners, a string of well-regarded magazines in the acknowledgements. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with these it is to Hillier’s credit as a poet that she has avoided them, and a reassurance that she is more concerned about the direction of her poetry than about collecting a fresh round of badges. So her second collection grows out of ideas seeded in her first, that book where the new experience of putting poems together and ‘proving’ her talent might have shouldered aside some of the quieter space where ideas grow. In Hotel Moonmilk she allows herself more space to consider and reflect, to let poems engage with each other and to expand the themes that are her continued interest. The result is a thoughtful, mesmerising exploration of transitory states and impermanence, of flow and movement, balanced with the personal need to find places and states of mind that provide some lasting security.

Eight poems, titled with named hotels, are spread through the volume: they provide nothing as obtrusive as headings, or section dividers, but remind the reader of constantly shifting travel and how to make the best of brief resting places. They are not the precisely-drawn descriptions of ‘real’ hotels in the style of travel writers, more an impressionistic record of strangeness or the exotic, tactile and/or visual. This includes not only the place but the guests too – and, by implication, the poet’s presence. In ‘Hotel Dragon Park’ we read how The air is deep tropical, a wet warmth/ that enters the bones, and won’t come out.  In ‘Hotel Manatee’ we meet … big girls at the bar, redheads and blondes/ (we nurses dye our hair), these days still wear/ our aviator Ray-Bans, drink our whisky warm.  In ‘Airport Hotel – Krasnoyak’ the need to escape is palpable.

Wind is chewing the landscape, troublesome things
whirl in its wake, ice devils, snow demons,
mud goblins, flesh trolls, swaggering witches.

It’s not just the outer threat but how it corrodes the writer – stayed days too long in a standard-plus room/ with nothing good in it.  It’s the choice of ‘standard-plus’ that nails the room to its hotel-defined blandness.

The final hotel is ‘Hotel Moonmilk’ – the book’s destination, not only a place but also touched with the otherworldly mystery of death. It opens –

They have got this far; assembled in the black-tiled hall
but their heads seed-rattle with doubts.
Once they couldn’t move at all
now they stretch out transparent fingers
in a quiz before each other’s faces –

These are, to jump to the final line, the myriad of irreplaceables who’re gathered there and those whose steps are quieter than settled dust.  Nothing sinister or unsettling: the vocabulary is tender, and the syntax (‘poetry’s backbone’ as Michael Longley described it recently on Radio 3) is carefully modulated, almost stately. It underlines the sense of reaching a calm and inevitable finality.

Perhaps it was unfair to go straight to the collection’s conclusion without examining the journey the poems take, but I’d found this final poem took me back, immediately, to the opening poem to see how Hillier had mapped the route. Half-rhyme and an attention to assonance mean that individually these poems avoid showiness; collectively, they explore the places (in the widest sense of the word) where Hillier feels most secure. These are not always solid: in ‘Visit from the Sourcier’, the dowser who has brought his sticks to track water under her land, and who finds it everywhere, she ends

The thought compels me: all our foundations
lie on water, those earthy tributaries flowing out to sea
through salt caves, facing into the rising tide.

Throughout the collection she is drawn back to images of flow and movement – air, water, crowds – as though this is her natural state. In ‘Barcelona’ she notes how movement creates the syntax of the city. It underpins, too, all her poems specifically connected to geographically-real places.  Yes, there are several, but what emerges from them is the peeling back of surface to explore how the place affects those who pass through.

I want to end by returning to the theme of movement. Hillier begins ‘Mistral’ with a single statement – How lonely the wind makes you feel – but after a description of the wind’s devices, ends with more ambivalence.

Meanwhile the wind cries in your ear,
smothers you in its cold litheness,
cries as would an animal who is eating you
at the same time claiming
you should be pleased to have been chosen.

Here she combines the literal and the metaphorical, suggesting possibilities but leaving the reader’s imagination to weigh the choices. This collection is satisfying in the way it engages with the real world and its mysteries, and the levels of language needed to explore this.

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D A Prince lives in Leicestershire and London. Her full-length collection, Nearly the Happy Hour, was published by HappenStance Press in 2008, and a second collection is due later in 2014.