Charlie Baylis

I May Be Stupid But I’m Not That Stupid

I May Be Stupid But I’m Not That Stupid
, Selima Hill, Bloodaxe Books, 2019, 152pp, £12.00 (paperback)

‘Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world, our own, we see it multiplied…’
Marcel Proust

Selima Hill is a unique voice in contemporary British poetry, as the title of her latest collection — I May Be Stupid But I’m Not That Stupid — implies, there is more to her than meets the eye. Her poetry is eclectic and electric; it cartwheels through juxtapositions and leaps of logic, and, as Proust opined, thanks to her poetry the world we see, through her art, is multiplied. Seemingly mundane subjects, such as farmyards and country life, are painted with new layers of vivid colour, forever fracturing a new world from the old. 

Selima Hill, though difficult to pigeonhole such a mercurial figure, is essentially a surrealist poet. However, unlike the typically bourgeois surrealism of 19th-century Paris, her surrealism is grounded firmly in oddly mundane countryside settings that reek of domesticity. Hill writes about marriage, family, rows, cows and spilt milk. Yet these seemingly dull themes are broken into something else through her writing. This magical formula has not changed since her first collection, Saying Hello at the Station, in 1984. They are accompanied by an ever-present, deceptively subtle darkness, which hides behind the lines and peeks out of cupboards.

It could be argued that Hill’s domestic theme makes her an exponent of the feminist surreal, as if women were the sole occupiers of their domiciles. One of the central tensions in her work is the absurdity of human lives being ground down to the domestic. The domestic – although departure from it is indeed surrealism’s founding principle – has never been given serious consideration in surrealist poetry; it is too obvious, too monochromatic. Far better for a surrealist poem to begin in an absinthe bar, or to tug a lobster around Paris on a gossamer thread, or to dial up Dali’s telephone. Whether Hill is a feminist or not, her positioning of the domestic within the surreal is a quiver to her bow, because it has not been sufficiently explored before. In claiming the domestic for surrealism, Hill broke new ground, and continues to do so with I May Be Stupid.

Selima Hill is prolific, aloof and uncontainable. Pace is the key to her work: one imagines she writes at great speed, with a thousand bright new sentences popping up before the old ones have spun away. Her poetry is a direct transfusion of her, allegedly stupid, personality (the title of her collection is, at least in part, a rebuttal to this claim). Obvious antecedents are visionary weirdos like Marianne Moore, Yoko Ono and Edward Lear, yet, like these outliers, she is far more original, and far less stupid, than others might conceive.

‘My Mother and the Rabbit’ is typical example of Hill doing what she does best:

She, my mother, is, to a mother,
as a Belgian hare is to a hare;

elusive as salukis or gazelles
made of silver slyly turning gold,

born to be dissolved, or to dissolve,
like unattended horses in fine mist

that seem to float, that I would need to grow
another pair of ears to hear repeating

that every girl must be a grown woman
and every woman an obedient wife

Has ‘elusive as salukis’ ever appeared in a poem before? Beyond the devilishly dapper internal rhymes Hill’s poetry works wonderfully on a visual level, which is unsurprising considering she grew up in a family of painters. Her poems are usually brief but loaded with subtext. The last four lines of ‘My Mother as a Rabbit’ display two common themes. The curse of a troubled childhood, Hill was badly burnt in her cot as a baby, saved from the flames by a farmer. Later in her life, she tries and fails to follow social and cultural conventions: ‘every girl must be a grown woman / and every woman an obedient wife’.

An amazing writer, Hill is a figure patently more influential than most of the poets still publishing from the baby boomer period. She was born in October 1945, not long after the end of the Second World War. Her poetry is still read and enjoyed by younger writers. There are numerous contemporary poets whose work displays her influence: Rebecca Perry, Wayne Hollaway-Smith, Rachael Allen, to name but three. Some of her appeal is that she would appear to have no interest in being part of the poetry establishment. She’s a tricky character to pin down, but she would seem to be far too eccentric for the Poet Laureate job, or almost any job, apart from Poet.

Regarding her own impulse to conform, Hill writes in the poem ‘Potato’: ‘They think that I must want to be different/ when actually I want to be the same.’ Hill wants to be loved by the people around her, and at certain points she wants to be like them, to fit in. She wants to follow middle class, gendered norms. She wants to fancy Rodger Federer, she wants to have tea with the Queen, but she can’t – her cards have been marked. She’s a one off, she can’t be normal, but for the reader at least, it doesn’t feel like much of a shame. Normal is boring; there are already enough bores in the world – a great deal of them write poetry.

The darker side to Hill’s poetry is often intangible, but ever-present, lurking between or behind the lines. However, in the collection’s penultimate poem, ‘Wrists’, it sits slap bang on the surface:

They may well be convenient for slashing
but wrists are here to keep your bracelets warm

and stop your hands from falling off and anyway
slashing them doesn’t even work.

This is a poem about suicide. At the same time, being a Hill poem, it doesn’t seem to take suicide very seriously – or maybe it skirts around the subject. Wrists are there to ‘keep your bracelets warm’ and to ‘stop your hands from falling off’. Ho hum – bizarre but beguiling theories for the function of wrists. At a certain point, the reader begins to wonder what Hill is trying to achieve by writing of a serious matter in such a roundabout way. Is she trying to hide something? Something about herself? Something about her childhood? Talking about suicide in this way could be considered breaking a taboo but it is furthermore, as Proust contended, another way of seeing the world through art. ‘Wrists’ through not taking suicide entirely straightforwardly, multiplies our understanding of the act, its consequences, even, most wonderfully, the practicality of wrists.

Hill’s poetry can feel like a long-delayed reaction to her being almost fatally burnt to death in a cot 73 years ago. Humour seems to offer her a layer of protection against an uncaring world and the dark figures which hover. Poetry is her way of finding catharsis, her way of rallying herself against the many demons that menace inside and outside the human mind. I May Be Stupid But I’m Not That Stupid is an entertaining collection from a complex, warmly welcome poet. Highly recommend.

Review by Charlie Baylis.

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