London Grip Poetry Review – Lisa Matthews



Poetry review – HARTSONGS: Pam Thompson is engaged and intrigued by this narrative sequence from Lisa Matthews


Lisa Matthews
ISBN 978-1-7393695-1-4
63 pp

You could do worse that read this intriguing series of poems from the beginning to the end and then re-read them, from end to beginning. The ‘story’ is of a young man, his death and the grief of a close relative who also feels guilt and a sense of responsibility. It is not linear and is related in reverse by the poet/speaker, the boy’s aunt. By the time we reach the closing words of the final poem, ‘Don’t worry, Aunty Lisa, I’ll be fine’, we know otherwise. ‘It’s not a puzzle, some carry the whole of the burden because not all backs are built for the load.’(“Hawk and heart: Hart”) My impression is that the boy carries a burden imposed by family turmoil and violence; that he has likely been involved in violence too. That the aunt gave him refuge from the family, ‘the herd’, and, for some reason, asked him to leave.

I felt that I was a sleuth solving a mystery. The accompanying notes were helpful. Hartsongs is part of a greater whole – a forthcoming collection inspired by Matthews’s PhD research into an 8th century calligraphy text by Yan Zhenqing (709-785), The draft requiem for my nephew. It is divided into four sections: “Hawk and Hart”, “Watchlar, 1”, “Watchlar, 2” and “Watchlar 3”. The poems are prose-poems, of varying lengths and of one or more sections. (You can read more on Lisa Matthews’s approach to prose-poems here). Strong emotion, displaced via allegory, is not diluted but intensified by it. Urban and rural worlds overlap to powerful effect via auditory and visual repetition and patterning.

The opening poem helps to orientate the reader:

                 The hart is the boy who dies. The herd are those 
                  estranging. The haul provides the raw materials.
                  Hauling is a job and you never know what it will
                  bring to light. The journey is the book in your hands.
                  I am hawk, just as you are the hawk of your life.

A hart is a male deer and also a homophone for ‘heart’. This short prefatory poem acts as prologue/dramatic monologue casting some light on what stands for what. The speaker is the poet in the guise of watchful ‘hawk’. The ‘herd’ is the family. That they are ‘estranging’ is suggested elsewhere, that the boy has run away, has been challenged, mistreated. The ‘hawk’s’ perceived complicity, intended or not, becomes apparent. I take the ‘haul’ to be the ‘raw materials’ of the poems: Language. The poet’s job is to find language to express situation and emotion, the ‘journey’, being the sequence. The ‘haul’ could also be the burden that the boy carries. Pronouns are slippery. Sometimes the ‘you’ being addressed is the boy, sometimes it is the poet/speaker and at others, here, might be the reader, as ‘hawk’, being watchful throughout their life.

“Hawk in green” begins with the trappings of mourning, the repeated ‘ands’ making the lines lift and break like tides:

           And sweep your black bird across the mantle. And
           turn the clock to the wall. And cover the paintings.
           And put the blackest feathers over your eyes. 

Matthews wants us to recognise the enormity of this loss. There are disturbances in the family, ‘the smell of old blood, new blood, caked blood’, and hints of favouritism, ‘the daughter. The golden child.’ The speaker is regretful, ‘a mess of things I wish we’d never said.’ I get the impression that the aunt had been the boy’s confidante, rescuer, but that something has gone wrong, ‘Taking the boy home without me /was an act of violence.’ Complicity in harm reaches far wider the boy’s death. We are all part of this. In the second section of the poem, there are ships:

                  One hides its secrets, sheds its cargo in t-bar
          sandals on a beach of sand, a beach of clay. And a
          lifebelt washes up the steps of a house with no
          windows. Another strangles a seal lost on its way
          back to the haul.

Here is inhumanity of human cargo, drowned and inadequate, overcrowded vessels; the irony of the lifebelt strangling a seal. The boy is ‘strangled’ metaphorically by the family who should have protected him. At the end of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the feud between the Capulets and Montagues is blamed for the deaths of the young lovers. The Duke spares no-one in the play’s closing speech, a speech echoed in one of a pair of poems under the title, “Hawk and Hart”:

                                                                        The walls are
           bowed in places, and crack above skirtings. Some
           houses fall, others hold. The plague bestowed on this
           one seethes and wears a watered smile on its face as
          it answers then closes the front door. You’ll have to
          leave, you’re upsetting me.


A ‘hawk’, a note explains, ‘is also that flat a square of wood with a handle to put wet plaster on far on for skimming.’ The act of plastering – whether literal, metaphoric or both – is the act of repairing the house, sealing the cracks. Or trying to. The poet/plasterer tells the boy to leave the house that has served as refuge; ‘words rotting in the base of their kettled chests’; and these words, once said, have caused regret.

Hart”, has the feel of a ‘scandi-noir’:

        rowan bends itself together, it is boxcar, sonar, one
        krone left in a pocket from the body pulled out of the
        ford. The ground is bitter cold.

The boy has died in this landscape, has folded into it like one of its creatures, a deer, ‘The shape of sacrifice is an antler in a snowstorm …’. The first part of the pamphlet ends with “The Hawk in the Rain: Redux”, shadowing Ted Hughes’s poem. We are told in the notes that this hawk is Hughes’s hawk. Its lovely sounds and textures effect linguistic play on the earlier poem. In Hughes’s poem, the speaker is separate from the hawk though no doubt identifies with it. This hawk is poet-creator, avenger and witness-bearer, contemplating trauma, betrayal and loss’:

                                                     this hawk hangs a 
          demi-monde among the lodestars, their hate a march
          of hollow endurance: and aye (!)

          Shoddily made, shamed by encompassing guilt	

Through guilt and horror, it brings testimony and elegy, ‘mixing hart’s blood with the wound of my writing hand.’

The rest comprises the three short “Watchlar” sections which are devoted to the boy under his other guise as ‘Watchlar’ (a stag). Lisa Matthews is a visual artist and various images of a stag can be found on her Instagram. The notes refer to the track, ‘Watchlar’ by The Cocteau Twins, Hartsong being a heady mix of influences.

There are several instances of ‘flight’: the boy leaving one home or another. “Foundling” hints at both love and neglect. Injury? We fill in the gaps, are reminded that we are reading this ‘story’ backwards: ‘… Curtains on a / ward. The word Aunty and then some others. There / was a flood. And the foundling fled.’

In the title-poem, the boy is an outcast in nature; the tone is oracular:

                                And the quarry of affected theft goes to
           ground. And then the rain comes, he is glad and moves
           on. And Watchlar is his name.

Prior to this, the boy has travelled, is travelling (across borders?), ‘is bird in boxcar’. And the aunt – who too has been displaced, has a purpose, ‘to deflect and restore all that / is wrong with the herd’. ‘Hawk’ and ‘Hart’ are gradually absorbed into a recognisable human ‘story’. There is no rest for the hawk:

                            I try to close my eyes, to sleep. Your words
             put paid to that. You bark them from your hart-throat.   
             You bark them across the years – you don’t want to
             know what I’ve done for money. You don’t want to
                                             (“Winter nights”)

In ‘The fall’, the penultimate poem of “Watchlar 2”, disturbing events unfold over four short sections. The ‘red bloom’ at the bottom of a stairwell ‘where your skull hit metal railings’, ‘a chair, some rope, an arc of petrol’, ‘A scabbed hand, a tab / burn below knuckles’, ‘Zippo flick and flit across the city’. The aunt is asleep on a sofa in a living-room, maybe having given up her bed to the boy. That she dreams ‘a tower of flame was / burning down to nothing’, and sees ‘that we are never going home’ is a final sign of some terrifying, and tragic, occurrence. I wondered whether, in the light of what he says at the end of “Winter nights”, if the boy has caused other deaths. In “Portrait of a boy running through a field”, the speaker is in a city, looking back, remembering:

                                                     You stood, with the skyline
              behind you, and told me I’d left you to it, left you in
               the middle of this mad holding. And as I said I was
                        sorry – because I knew you were right – your
             forgiveness flowered between us. Such a gift to give.

The final poem in the pamphlet is buoyant and under-stated but with undercurrents of unease: ‘the brace of pheasants’ the boy hangs from a window; the calling to a neighbour ‘details of the /evening’s appointment’; ‘the underground garage’; ‘Blood-red steps at sunset’; the repeated assurances to the aunt,who says:

                                                                              The trees,
             when I go back, are taller and full of about-to-fall 
             leaves. The tape’s stuck here and we’re in this
             moment forever, me looking up at you –
                                                     (“You don’t need to worry about me”)

The impact of this poem is poignant when we reach it.

Hartsongs is exquisite in content and design. I may have been wild in my interpretations. The poems warrant reading and re-reading. I haven’t seen any more reviews of it. As I mentioned earlier, these sequences are taken from a longer work, Lisa Matthews’s prose poetry collection, The hauled-up notebooks, forthcoming from Broken Sleep Books in Autumn 2024. This too will be an intriguing read.