Men Who Feed Pigeons 
by Selima Hill.
Bloodaxe, 157 pp., £12.99, September 2021, 978 1 78037 586 1
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One​ of Selima Hill’s oddest poems, ‘King of Trout’, appears in her collection The Hat (2008). It reads, in full: ‘His body, like a partly-jewelled trout,/doesn’t make a sound. Thank God for that!’ This brevity and wit is characteristic of Hill’s later poems; images tend to be pared back to a glimpse, yet somehow reveal a vista. They put one in mind of Anne Carson’s remark: ‘If prose is a house, poetry is a man on fire running quite fast through it.’ Hill was rescued from a burning house as a child, an episode to which she alludes throughout her work (‘The unforgettable smell of the singeing baby’, from her poem ‘PRAWNS DE JO’, for example). So let’s say, if it isn’t too apt, that in Hill’s case, poetry really is a man on fire. Running through a house (there are certainly a lot of domestic objects in the poems – baths and sponges and doorsteps and whatnot). And the man on fire, he’s very humorous.

Men Who Feed Pigeons is Hill’s twentieth collection. It takes its title from an odd detail about the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, who ‘fell to his death from a hotel balcony, while apparently feeding the pigeons’, as Hill related in an interview last year: ‘They always, always, always say … “apparently” … That’s interesting and sad.’ Much turns on how one interprets that sneaky ‘apparently’. The apocryphal reporter who first used the word in connection with Hrabal’s fall may merely have been insinuating that he didn’t think much of men who feed pigeons, though we might suspect he was more pointedly flagging up the (apparently) unverifiable cause of the writer’s death, which looks rather like suicide. Hill’s poems are fuelled by such ambiguities. ‘You either love a person or you don’t./That’s what I’ve been told but it’s not true.’

Her latest book is full of men whose suicidal tendencies are indistinguishable from forlorn, yet life-affirming, activities such as pigeon feeding. Among such characters, across the six sequences that make up the collection, there’s a strange, solitary uncle ‘who much prefers/to ring a little bell than to speak’; the pathologically disengaged ‘Billy’, whose companion observes that everything she says bores him; and ‘The Man in the Quilted Dressing-gown’, whose ageing body, ‘as warm and apathetic as a pie’, is tended to by young female carers, while all he wants is ‘to be alone with his Imodium,/his Viennese slices and the dizziness’. Even so, his will to dominance reasserts itself at times – when he ‘suddenly whacks’ a ‘small but evil-looking spider’ with his walking stick, for instance. Then there’s ‘The Beautiful Man with the Unpronounceable Name’, whose unspeakable attractions render his admirer mute:

What kind of woman am I not to speak?
Not to say a word, to be struck dumb,

to back away like a newborn toothpick
that hasn’t learnt to pick what it must pick?

‘What kind of woman am I?’ is one of Hill’s recurring questions, and it’s a question, really, about roles and the ways in which we inhabit or refuse them. ‘Up to their angelic necks in steers and guinea fowl,/there are girls growing up into women/without knowing why,’ she wrote in A Little Book of Meat (1993). ‘The Anaesthetist’, the first sequence in Men Who Feed Pigeons, takes the question of roles more literally, with each poem given the title of an occupation of sorts – ‘The Doctor’, ‘The Classics Teacher’, ‘The Father’, ‘The Tennis Player’ (Hill has an abiding interest in tennis players). The ‘Doctor’, who ‘holds my head as if it were a cabbage’, performs his role too well: ‘as if he has, as indeed he does have,/a perfect right to come so close to me’. If Hill’s work is suspicious of men, who often appear in their most brutal form, as if with a capital ‘M’ – adulterous, abusive, sinister – it is no less suspicious of women. The ‘Woman I’ve Never Met’ (the wife, I think, of the man with the unpronounceable name: the book’s blurb notes that this sequence is ‘about someone else’s husband’) is imagined to have ‘freshly-polished toes/whose pinks and blues will twinkle like fresh bedding-plants’, ‘a nippy car’ and a ‘perfect face’ that ‘shimmers in the mirror like Antarctica’.

The poems’ sympathies generally lie with animals rather than people, and Hill’s oeuvre has a whole menagerie – giraffes, snails, horses, ‘teeny flies’, poodles, lobsters, to name just some of the creatures that give the work its characteristic vibrancy. Her poems have often been described as ‘surreal’, but this seems to diminish them, remove them from the realm of the serious – the implication being that animals aren’t serious, and neither are jokes. Throughout the poems, animals stand in for a host of inexpressible states of being, offering an escape from the restrictions of humanhood (‘I want to be a cow/and not my mother’s daughter’), as well as a way of exploring vulnerability and violence. In the final sequence of Men Who Feed Pigeons, the speaker compares aspects of herself to ‘a shoebill underneath a coat’, ‘a hare/lying injured on a mountainside’, ‘a bird/that’s got no wings’, ‘someone’s dormouse’, ‘a snow-encrusted mountain hare’, ‘hosts of extraterrestrial grasshoppers’ and ‘the flightless birds that roamed the earth/thousands of years ago, [who] can’t talk’.

Speechlessness is another of Hill’s preoccupations. The tussle between speaking and remaining silent imbues the poems with peculiar energy: ‘me, as silent as a fire alarm/whose silence is a kind of thwarted ringing’, as she writes in The Magnitude of My Sublime Existence (2016). Denise Riley, in her essay ‘Lyric Shame’, proposes that ‘literary writing may function, for some, exactly as a means of not speaking.’ The writing of poems, in this sense, does not contradict but complements silence. In ‘The Beautiful Man Whose Name I Can’t Pronounce’, the speaker admits that she can, in fact, say the man’s name ‘but it’s so beautiful I don’t./I prefer to think it’s unpronounceable.’ To pronounce something, that is, to voice it ‘correctly’, might somehow reduce it. Correct pronunciation can also be about fitting in, something Hill’s speakers resist: animals, of course, don’t have to fit in, and the poems generally have a soft spot for the ‘not normal’. ‘The Son’, from ‘The Anaesthetist’ sequence, cheers me up inexplicably:

She says that he was forty, and obese,
and on the day she suffocated him

she says she asked her son one last question:

Can’t you just be normal? But he couldn’t.

The poem represents a win for the son – a last act of resistance. If you can’t be normal, you can’t be normal, not even to save your life.

Hill was mute for a period in her twenties, and spent time in psychiatric care (she and Jenny Diski were inpatients together at the Maudsley Hospital in the 1960s). In an exchange of letters with Julia Copus, published in Poetry London earlier this year, Hill noted her tendency, when drafting, to ‘loosen, loosen, loosen’ and then ‘tighten, tighten, tighten … Maybe one tenth of the original length remains … I suppose I could say that I aspire to silence. Silence not as nothing but as everything. Not a retreat but on the contrary, a touch, or a touching.’ Her work often seems tactile – or ‘sensory’, as she herself has described it. Some of the short poems have the immediacy and speechlessness of found objects or readymades. And, like such objects, they can feel indivisible, complete in themselves, so that one hardly thinks of quoting from them except in their entirety. Take ‘Table’ (‘Familiar, inert, he’s like a table/that wants to tell me something but can’t’), or ‘Bucket’ (‘He sits beside me like an old bucket/someone’s put beside a fire alarm’). I can’t think of another poet who can translate visceral unpleasantness so directly: ‘His touch is like the touch of a bandage,/soft but slightly sinister, or berries.’ But it’s where the intangible is brought forth into the physical world that the poems are at their most striking, as in ‘Chicken Thigh’:

The awkward question, like a chicken thigh
sitting in the fridge on a plate

in a sort of green and lonely glow,
is getting more awkward by the minute.

Or ‘Windowpane’:

Something cold and thin, like a windowpane,
is thickening, inch by inch, between us,

him on one side, me on the other, waiting
to see how long it takes to be unbearable.

In Hill’s early collections, such as Saying Hello at the Station (1984) and The Accumulation of Small Acts of Kindness (1989), the poems are considerably longer, with more of a narrative drive. It’s not that the recent work has no narrative – the poems always come in sequences – but they have the feel of comic strips rather than novels, and the unit of currency is the image. Hill writes so much that, taken in isolation, some poems can seem inconsequential or fail to land decisively. But this is almost beside the point – the sequences accrue their characters and moods; the poems are part of something larger, like ornaments crowded together on a mantelpiece. In her letters to Copus, Hill says something that seems to crystallise her approach to images: ‘A final thing about metaphors: my father was said to have a “sweet tooth”. I thought this tooth was an actual sweet, a barley sugar, in fact, that was sharp like a translucent flint and very, very frightening.’ Children often interpret symbolic language literally, which might seem counter to the work of a poet, who is usually in the business of making metaphors, not dismantling them. But the child’s perspective persists to powerful effect in Hill’s poems, where images are formed, as it were, backwards – the symbolic becoming the actual. There can be something comforting about such an approach, where what is abstract and hidden is made real – not apparently, but definitely. But it’s also frightening, as Hill acknowledges. Is it better if the monster under the bed is a real monster, or an imaginary one?

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