Hare, Hugh Dunkerley, Cinnamon Press, 64pp, £7.99 (paperback)
Hare is a rewarding collection about survival, not just of the fittest, but sometimes of the luckiest. The opening poem instructs how to walk on a knife edge as a metaphor not just for challenges, but the whole of life: ‘You must keep moving … Then you can look back/and wonder how you managed for so long/to stay upright on that unremitting tightrope’. Within pages we have met nuclear contamination which threatens a farmer’s crop, a hive of bees and an entire ecosystem; a solitary astronaut longing for re- entry; and the forensics of a murdered child, perhaps tragic Sarah Payne, whose body in the grass heralds the shape of the hare in the grass in the final poem, although of course the hare has bolted and survives.
A Breatharian is a person who believes we can survive on air; another death is depicted as a result of such fanaticism, ‘the muscles,/the organs, consuming themselves in a final blaze’: Dunkerley dissects imagination with precision. Just so the hand of a young soldier, killed by an IRA car bomb after sleeping with his girlfriend, turns the key in the ignition with ‘the smell of her still on your fingers’, and Lazarus is ‘As white as a tuber, still filthy from the grave … everything tainted with the odour of putrefaction’. The corpses of fish in a Japanese supermarket meet the eyes’ ‘hungers’, an indication of his keen poetic observation. But so much death is portrayed as a backdrop to the struggle for life. In ‘Eels’ only one of the ‘six-inch slivers of darkness … fires’ itself successfully upstream over the sluice and by the next day the few left trying are ‘thin fuses burning out’. Moreover, this struggle has been going on throughout the history of evolution, as the description of magpies as if ‘just winged in from the Jurassic’ brilliantly captures. Equally, the juxtaposition of a dying sexual relationship in a vast superking bed in Canada, with the whiteness and blankness of ‘lethal floes’, tells of a struggle for survival which is more than human.
Indeed, the human fight of World War II is seen in the Air-Force service of his wife’s uncle, crossing continents. It is depicted alongside an angry territorial dispute between swifts and starlings. In ‘Hit and Run’ a ‘still cooling’ pheasant lies on the tarmac with ‘bright entrails’ and there is the ‘bone-wrecking clunk’ of a hare on a fender. Not only is the pain of creatures brought to mind but the human pain of being frightened and ‘appalled at what might still be twitching/back there in the darkness’ – and, by the same token, fear of darkness, death and our animal nature itself.
War memories resurface in the natural catastrophe of a storm that wrecks a veteran’s childhood haunts a month before he dies. Geese, symbols of migration and survival, feature in a pair of poems, both their fury and calm and the poet’s firsthand and timeless account of killing one with brute force: ‘It made a hole in the day/where the bird had been.//What remained in my hands,/soft, slack and undone,/was cooling machinery’: the ghost in the machine had departed.
The second section of the book comprises a sequence of seven vivid and well-turned sonnets. They chronicle a doomed extramarital affair from its dizzy beginning to its close, in keeping with the book’s theme that some make it and some don’t. What makes the collection so clever, though, is its third section (also titled ‘Hare’) about not just sex but sexual reproduction and survival. The first poem in this third movement, as it were, depicts Venus – not the goddess of love but the reductionist’s ‘clouds of sulphuric acid,/your five hundred degree surface … blasted by magma, cooking under a greenhouse/of runaway carbon dioxide’. Romance, mystery and religion are similarly omitted from a report of what it is like to experience a cardiac arrest: ‘there was nothing, you tell me,/no tunnel with light at the end,/no out-of-body experience’.
And then we come to the heart of this section: the moving efforts to conceive his daughter and her own life force. ‘Cycle’ is a brilliant description (not least because it is by a man) of menstruation in the face of attempts to fall pregnant: ‘Is this the body’s way of mourning … the egg’s faint hormonal cry lost in a chemical static … Maydays from the body’s dream of resurrection’? In ‘IUI’ he touchingly notes his own role in the impersonal fertility treatment: ‘you step into each boot, still a little wobbly,/still needing me by your side’. Juxtaposed with his daughter’s gradual coming into being are more poems about the natural world, the road-killed casualties of a nature centre, not least ‘Mole … July ‘69’, its skeletal ‘stubborn spine/and these feet with their wrinkled, human palms’, foreshadowing the newborn infant to come.
Here, too, are poems of passage to newfound land and of reciprocity within the animal kingdom in the race to survive, seen in a bantam’s vacillation between being wild and domesticity. ‘Slug Desire’ is almost comically human in its ‘bellowing noiselessly for a mate/in whom to find its moist release’, while there is something psychopathic in the fine Gunnian description of the weasel’s murder of the rabbit: ‘strike at the soft white throb/of the rabbit’s throat/and hold, hold’. Meanwhile, memories of eating mussels and raiding limpets come to him during sex, stirring ‘the pearly/softness between your legs … something sub-marine/and infinitely vulnerable’.
As the book crescendos a whale dies, a coyote escapes and an underground river floods. Then ‘Newborn’ depicts the book’s dedicatee, ‘a fish newly out of water’, gazing ‘rapt’ at the rain, just as her parents must be gazing rapt at her. Soon she is walking and talking, no longer a fish, but now ‘in the/spacesuit of skin, the words/she will grow into’. By the closing poem, child and hare exhibit the same life force. The hare is startled and bolts as the child bucks even in her father’s arms with ‘a fierceness/I’d never imagined, straining for release’, impatient on the journey of growth before becoming calm again and ‘now resolving itself back into you’.