Poetry Review – Blue Wallpaper: John Forth is impressed by the autobiographical element in Robert Hamberger’s new collection
You can be lulled here through Hamberger’s first 25 pages (21 poems, many of them sonnets) before pausing for breath at ‘Rimbaud Variations’ and then realise that you’ve been reading an autobiography with a difference – beginning with memories of the poet’s mother and her last days – and ending with a dreamlike otherworldly ‘Coming Home’ that is no homecoming. Nor is it straightaway obvious as you move into the second half of the book that the autobiographical sequence is still happening. A glance at the poet’s three earlier collections, which contain many personal and autobiograpical poems, reveals that he’s never tried the uninterrupted ‘life study’. Saving it until his fourth book is maybe the secret of its success, its strangeness and its self-assurance. The first poem, ‘My Mother as Ingrid Bergman’ presents early photos in a cunning precursor to her later drift into dementia:
It's her dazzle I love in photos: my black-and-white mother before I was born, with her sisters, her husband. The woman she was, happy and glamorous, years of her life ahead. When Ingrid faces the camera for Here's looking at you kid she might stay safe in his arms this time. At night my mother stars in the last reel, soars to another country through the fog, to freedom, over the sea.
The allusion to the famous last scene of Casablanca conceals similar facts about his mother’s ‘last reel’ in which:
She's baffled by my face, wonders at my words. I make no sense; but if I tell her who I am my name might echo down her corridors to a room where she sits by open windows, looking up from empty hands to find me there. ('Saying My Name')
The seven sonnets in the opening sequence work quietly together to unlock a calm bewilderment and deep feeling that’s always hinted at but never directly asserted. The fourteen poems in ‘Coming Home’ then immediately pick up the thread, almost literally. Here is the first, entire:
Then my mother knitted a brown jumper with a yellow camel across the chest. Who else is here now to remember this but me? I wore him with pride, the best camel in class. No-one could miss me. No other boy owned a yellow camel, no girl either. Did a green palm tree sway over my heart, that strange animal? Did my camel once wink his brown wool eye? In nine months I outgrew him My father went the way of camels and palm trees, and I forgot my jumper when we were sent packing to our new flat, where other shapes filled the gap of a camel, a father. ('Camel' )
There’s a good deal of restraint and self-control in a mix of 4 and 5 stress lines held by the sonnet’s traditional rhyme-scheme. This and ten others about Tamla, milk-shakes, an escapologist, an extraordinary aunt, Dinah Wahington, musicals, learning how to kiss, a teenage ‘affair’ and grief for a dead friend make an unusual vehicle for carrying us towards ‘Coming Home’, one of only four longer poems in the sequence. It’s a typically wild but strangely repressed scenario:
A late sun slowly swerves behind the flats. Foxes skulk between dustbins. This playground empties like a name called over and over to come home.
It is in some ways the expected ‘revisit’ finale but there’s a dream motif surfacing at the end which makes it once again different and surprising:
….Reach number 45 again (third storey, red door) but the keys are lost, your pockets empty. No-one answers, or whoever answers never heard of anyone who looks like you.
The seven sonnets that make up ‘Rimbaud Variations’ act as a gateway to end the beginning, but I find them lively enough without quite seeing how, as adaptations of translations, they earn their keep. The no-longer surprising ‘Arsehole Sonnet’ suffers, post-Raine, from over-exposure – and side-stepping the motive of parodying Albert Mérat as in Rimbaud/ Verlaine’s original leaves me wondering quite what’s left. Someone will no doubt tell me that avoiding the original’s parody is the whole point, in which case ‘The Golden Dragon’, which follows immediately, is far more direct and suited to the purpose:
Is my hand-stand not miraculous, from my catch-the-light crown to the immaculate arabesque of my tail?
It’s the tale (tail)-end of a precariously shaped ornament, a deliberately flamboyant introduction to a group of closely observed beasts, and, as in the first half of the book, three sequences make up the second half: Golden Dragon (creature poems); Husbands (on loves, griefs and ageing) and Being the Sea (a more substantial homecoming). One of the creatures (‘The Kestrel’) offers a gruesome description of a hawk spotted in a garden where the speaker ‘has to look’ – the subject being and having therefore a kind of helplessness:
her weight treading the starling as if dancing on a cushion.
One of the best here is ‘Failure, My Horse’ – a triumph over timidity inspired by James Fenton’s essay ‘A Lesson from Michelangelo’. Hamberger’s horse doesn’t care, may not know much about Art but knows a good tree for scratching. His preferences may or not be in fashion and he’ll insist that ‘raising one fetlock / before the other / requires art’. His conclusion (‘Being horse is sufficient’) adds up to the kind of ownership of failure recommended by Fenton. But all of the creatures – lobster, pig, python and fly – along with the horse and the dragon – are brought into focus with realistic detail whether or not they are real. At the end of this group ‘The Next Word’, dedicated to the poet Ann Atkinson, seems to be an alternate take on Hughes’ ‘Thought-Fox’, where word is caterpillar, crocodile and, finally, a hare leaving its print ‘on a fog-blurred page.’
The temperature changes abruptly in the ‘Husbands’ poems, beginning with the execution in Iran of Mahmoud and Ayaz ‘In Justice Square’. Unfathomable bewilderment would be easy to get wrong, but Hamberger has an unerring way with big themes:
When his eyes looked at mine for seconds longer than was necessary, and my gaze strayed to his mouth like a bee to hibiscus, this was forbidden: each finger, that minute, my eyes, his mouth unlawful.
And then, in ‘Moment’, a poem about a friend’s death:
You stroked his arm, quietly said He's gone. I knew the air had dimmed because he no longer breathed in it.
These poems, eleven of them including five more sonnets, are, to risk a cliché, breath-taking. In ‘Late’, the waiting partner says,
I ransacked my head for reasons. It felt like the hour before I knew you, only lonelier.
You have to go back and check he wrote ‘head’ and not ‘mind’ or memory. I reckon this is powerful stuff in anyone’s lexicon:
I kissed a stone and skimmed it over waves the day you died, as if signing myself on water – always yours. ('A Letter to Helen')
which is followed by ‘Postscript’, as if to remind us he’s never going to be swamped by anything resembling sentimentality:
It's been three months. Can you come back now please? We haven't finished
These poems tread a fine line, often risking cliché but never succumbing to it, which is another way of avoiding timidity. It’s probably best not to quote from ‘Thanking the House’ or the sad and funny ‘Becoming a Lucian Freud Nude’ but rather just say they might be worth the price of the book on their own. This penultimate sequence ends with ‘Husbands’:
Husband – a language of echoes for me, having loosened the ropes from that name before we met. Might it set us free?
Sometimes a Hamberger poem can make you believe reticence is the new confidence. I can recall Lowell saying, when asked what he’d like to be remembered for, ‘I’d like them to say I was heart-breaking’, and just when you’re thinking Hamberger may never find a way to end or follow this, the final sequence (‘Being the Sea’) gets under way. It’s likely anyone who writes might try an ‘Unpacking the Books’ equivalent, where titles enclose and define a life:
A birdsong of Clares, rainbow of Dotys, sextet of Gunns – paper companions establish me...
He’s even willing to risk seeing his name ‘between Hacker and Hamilton’ (not unlike people who own up to googling themselves) but then comes the, by now expected, sting in the tail:
Drunk on someone else's lines, I forget my new address, open books to discover my absence, speak a phrase for burnished pages, a word that means alone.
A reader could be forgiven for expecting a continuing death-centred journey with titles like ‘Funeral Tie’, ‘The AIDS Memorial’ and ‘Leaving the Party Early’ looming ahead, but the expectation will again be thwarted by several life-enhancing moments. It strikes me that ‘Leaving the Party Early’ may turn out to be one of those ‘Lake Isle’ poems the poet never shakes free of, but unlike Yeats he can be at ease with this one – with its faint echo of the sentiment in Jenny Joseph’s poem about growing old and wearing purple. Here is the complete poem:
My dead friend said Why not leave the party early? So, on the stroke of midnight, before I become a pumpkin or mouse, without dropping a glass slipper, I abandon the songs I barely know, and hear – through open windows higher than myself – Dancing Queen, where I'd been a dancing queen ten minutes ago. The freedom of walking away, dodging the cars when lights are green. I eat a kebab, me – a vegetarian for thirty years – with no one telling me not to, thinking I'll dance for as long as I choose, and never leave.
Finally, the poet is recalling the secure and steady ‘Blue Wallpaper’ of his childhood while considering his new home by the sea:
I'm here and a hundred miles away; this morning and fifty years ago roll together, swayed in the hull, like light strumming water over and over. Without blue wallpaper, or my mother, without my children holding my hands, I stand at the prow of my house, a boat on the sea.
There are a number of images like the one of ‘light strumming water’. It is a kind of surrealism Hamberger frequently allows himself amid the otherwise insistent realism of his main diet. It’s usually unobtrusive, as I think it is here, and is made to work by the aptness of its context. And it almost goes without saying that we have been gently returned to the setting and subject of the opening poem – one among many reasons for seeing the whole collection as an attempt at the ‘life study’ sequence I mentioned earlier. I may be behind the times, but Waterloo Press, a new one to me, has helped in producing a very fine book, quite possibly Robert Hamberger’s best so far.