Issue 10


Winter 2014

 

Hamish Whyte, Hannah, are you listening?, HappenStance Press, 28pp, £4.00

Hamish Whyte has been publishing poetry and translations for four decades.  In 2012, Shoestring Press published his second collection with them, The Unswung Axe, and in 2013, he was editor of the Birlinn anthology, Scottish Cats.  Whyte founded Mariscat Press in 1982, with Kevin McCarra, and publishes work by Edwin Muir and AL Kennedy, among others.  Given Whyte’s output, and his commitment to poetry, I should have read something of his work before now, but his most recent publication, Hannah, Are You Listening? is my first encounter.  The pamphlet works along an axis of short lyrical expression and anecdotal incident, pinned to the page with images:

Any scaffold’s a dangerous
construction. 

These four men as they climb
two storeys to the roof
are so practised they hook 
us like circus performers.

They’re so relaxed they can afford
to be daft: one hangs over
and swings his arm like a monkey;
one leans nonchalantly rolling
a cigarette.

(Scaffold)

I can see these circus men at their work; the view isn’t short of clarity, and I can see how the ease of the lines is appealing.  But for me, the amble into the images (any scaffold … they are so practised, they are so relaxed) is loose and clutters the moment with exposition.  It seems a shame because the speaker’s presence is tangible behind the lines, and so the pamphlet comes close to something subtly effective.  In the title poem, I can hear the words being spoken, but again, why so much exposition:

It was a long time ago
and I was never on your radar
as we say now.  Why you were
working in a library I’ll never know

but it gave you, no-one’s minion, plenty of scope
for saying yes and no
in the wrong places.  I hope 
you’ve still that sass and gall
I admired so much.  After all
these years, remembering
your happy thrawnness, I just want to tell you,
long after you’d left, I did it too:

said no—to some mind-numbing
interminable catalogue-checking.

“Your happy thrawnness” is lovely for its own teasing “sass”, and I love this idea of a relationship existing on such a “tiny chime”, the will to connect being so strong and inexplicable.  But the structural commentary surrounding it could be working much harder.

At the other extreme, “Before” is quoted here in full:

before
was when
was where
was how
was who
why was
after
what’s the
puzzle

Recurring themes of love, family and memories build a voice of maturity; there’s a wealth of life experience underneath these poems that spans from grandchildren to great-grandparents.  “Debt” handles time with skill, slipping between generations.  It opens, “The grandfathers are the ones to thank, / they’re the ones who escaped hunger”.  In the second stanza, the poem shifts from grandfathers, to “My great-grandfather Berry”, and a photograph of Berry’s children, “all immaculately turned out, heads up, / looking out at their future. / One of them is my mother’s father.”  That “looking out” links the speaker with the image, reversing the gaze so that the viewer becomes the viewed.  The generic grandfathers and grandmothers in the first stanza are doing a good job, working as images grounded in consensus, but why have the phrasing be as unsurprising as what they do: “grandmothers … / making do and mending”, rather than playing with idiom, is only partially brought back from cliché in the next line, “socks, manners, grammar.”  

The poems looking back are felt without being sentimental, and there’s much humour here, too.  There are great lines lost in the noise, interesting experiences not pushed on the page, but strong images, and a real, likeable voice running through the pamphlet that’s sent me scouting round for Whyte’s back-catalogue.  

Angelina Ayers

long