Oct 20 2023
Poetry review – WOMEN IN COMFORTABLE SHOES: Kate Noakes is impressed by Selima Hill’s collection of cleverly constructed sequences
A lovely and generous book this if you enjoy Selima Hill’s wry sense of humour and surreal approach to difficult subjects. Her latest is a collection of eleven sequences of poems and is a masterclass in how to tie poems together with imagery and motif.
There is much to enjoy and learn from here. For example, the opening sequence, “Fishface”, has the mother obsessed with mosquitos and variously ‘drenched in eucalyptus oil,’ walking ‘about her house with a tea-towel/ twisted round her head like a turban,’ and ‘armed with citronella’ in poems leading up to the crescendo of the final poem, ‘Zvuv,’ their Hebrew name and titled after the sound they make:
Mosquitoes have got too many legs. They’ve come to give her elephantiasis.
There is more than one mother too as the irreverent child speaking these poems attends a Catholic convent school where she has to be polite to Reverend and the other Mothers. Here she asks why the Virgin Mary is ‘always got up so impractically?/ No wonder she looks charming but pissed off’ and later parenthetically ‘And as for being saved, I’ll save myself./ The Virgin Mary looks too bored to bother.’
Hill’s inventive imagery is always a rich delight. Even in this first sequence we have: ‘Maybe she just sleeps all day like pears,’ and the simile ‘my fingers are warm as melted chocolate.’ There are ants who ‘march across the floor like bouganvillea- / orange, gold, vermillion and dumb,’ and cuckoo clocks which ‘cuckoo in the dark rustic Swiss/ as if they haven’t realized I can’t ski.’
The next sequence, “My Friend Weasel”, is set in a 1950s boarding school where ‘Perfection is to spend days/ walking upside down on our hands.’ But some of the girls are unhappy, ‘here because we’re here to be forgotten’ and ‘lying through [their] teeth/ talk about fathers [they’ve] invented’ or ‘to teddies, daddy-long-legs, trout.’ Fathers are something of a focus in this sequence whether they are mistaken for a chauffer,(“The Plait”), a doctor who has seen the Queen naked (“The Queen”), or a French suicide (“One Hot Day”), Mothers too are distant, except their substitute. Matron in “The Shimmering Plains of Africa” allows all kinds of fun and
is capable of nothing except something we later understand to be love.
Unhappiness is in the list of forbidden things from skinny dipping to licking chocolate pennies (“Mosquitos”), homes ‘where nothing is alive except flies’ (“Mothers, Mothers, Mothers”), and even after their rebellious end of term alteration of school uniform in the toilets of Waterloo Station, ‘smelling of cigarettes and patchouli,’ the girls don’t know if they are ‘laughing or crying.’ And on it goes sparingly reworking its key images.
Hill’s collection demonstrates how the pitch perfect short poem can be woven into a series of troubling woman-centred tales. It is a rewarding read, one to be returned to often.