Issue Five

Autumn 2012

 

Geoff Hattersley, Outside the Blue Hebium, 32pp, £5.00
Smith/Doorstop Books, The Poetry Business, Bank Street Arts, 32-40 Bank Street, Sheffield S1 2DS


Geoff Hattersley is a popular, prolific and well-known poet both in his native South Yorkshire and nationally. This collection of twenty-six poems ably sustains the reasons for that popularity. They combine humour with man-of-the-people directness, straightforward vocabulary with surreal imaginings, life on the working-class street with sardonic social critique. The poems are engaging and amenable. Some have the tone of a jolly uncle, others of a mate in the pub. This makes them instantly approachable, a pleasure reinforced by humour and tenderness:

she does watercolours, landscapes.
He can only sketch a matchstick man

kneeling in front of a matchstick woman,
and he places this on her easel,

making her laugh, turn and kiss him
all in one swift movement.

(In the Room and Out the Door)

and compassion

I held her in my arms
till the ambulance came.
It took more than an hour.

There are these times
when all I can do
is sit in the dark
listening to music.

(Poem for Kylie)

Sometimes the pleasant tone seems little more than chatty narrative, even occasionally reading like fragmented prose, as in ‘Nineteen Eight-Four’:

He was a good man.
He liked Captain Beefheart
and the Bonzo Dog Band.
He had a load of hash
buried in his garden
and he dug up three ounce.

Whilst this is accessible material and easily appreciated, there’s not much in the way of musicality or deep significance. It reads like poetry which will perform well, and so go down like a storm in the open mikes and slams, but on the page, it’s actually only its political content which carries the poem, and this is quite simply stated, too:

There were policemen and
police vans and
police dogs and
police horses
all over
South Yorkshire.

(Nineteen Eight-Four)


The subject might be 1984, but the poem seems to belong to 1968.

Perhaps that’s its appeal, as there are quite strong threads of nostalgia running through many of these poems. Hattersley is not yearning for a fictitious golden past, but there seems little in the current age that he has a good word for, with poems taking sideswipes at dole scroungers, the police, the army, the government, footballers, dog owners, poets – some of these with affection, most, especially where authority is implicated, with aggressive simplification. Conversely, those who get sympathy in these poems are the downtrodden, the disenfranchised, the victims – or people who can be constructed as such, the most prominent being, logically enough for a South Yorkshire man, the miners.

However, this is only one kind of Hattersleian poem: the tell-it-like-it-is assertion all liberal poets should believe in. Though perhaps Hattersley’s cynicism goes deeper than hostility to authority, as he seems to feel life itself is a mess, even hateful:

The object of the game
is to punish yourself,
those who love you,
and everybody else.

(The Game)


The dimension I enjoyed most in this pamphlet is Hattersley’s surrealism, best illustrated by the poem ‘Ten Hebiums’. ‘Hebium’ is a Hattersleian neologism. The ten poems each take that unidentified notion and riff on it, working from some slant on the made up word to imagine possible meanings:

He thought of how other people had hebium.
People had a limitless capacity for hebium,

everywhere he looked people were having hebium.
So why wasn’t he having any hebium?

(Ten Hebiums: 2)

‘Infection of the hebium,’ he said.
I’d rather have heard anything but this.

(Ten Hebiums: 9)

He’d penned, he said, so far this year
approximately two thousand hebiums.

(Ten Hebiums: 3)

So we have chemical, medical, poetic and physiological meanings, amongst others, each inflected by its connection with the others. This is fun and clever and it permits some interesting reflections, as, beneath the word-play, each section can be seen as a question of the ‘true meaning’ of the kind of concept it substitutes for, as in the complete eighth poem:

‘Happy Hebium, Honey!’

This surrealism can easily make us delve into the nature of meaning, how it is constructed by context and expectation and, indeed, the very form of related words (helium, cranium, hepatitis). Hattersley is fond of such wordplay. One poem is built around a misprint:

While still only fifteen, he embarked upon

a steamy love affair with a manure woman

(Infamous)


Another takes the ambiguity of the word ‘snapped’ to satirise the contemporary fetish for the digital capture of every moment:

I snapped my feet
as I got out of bed.
Then I thought I’d better
snap them again, individually.

(Snapped)

So, whilst many of the poems are sardonic complaints about the state of play in ‘The Game’, they are softened by the intimacy of others and, overall, the humanity of a gentle poet perplexed by the world he finds himself writing about.

 

 NW

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