In Blossom Hibbert’s debut collection a lively (to put it mildly) imagination seems always to be wrestling with the loads of things going on in and around it. Inside and outside worlds collide and intermingle – much as they do in what we like to think of as real life – and the consequence is a poetry that, instead of trying to order everything neatly, and struggling to articulate what may or may not be its meaning, allows the imagination to come out on top in all its jumbled and often bewildering honesty.
I’m pretty sure purists will object to some of what happens in these poems. Lines have unexpected gaps and as unexpectedly fall apart. Utterance is sometimes fractured. Thoughts and images arrive from who knows where and are rapidly replaced by other images and thoughts because that’s often how the head behaves. As we think, as our brain sometimes overflows, we are not always meditating calmly, or recollecting in tranquillity.
Take this, for example, from the first piece in the book, ‘bedman’:
butcher holds paint-splattered knife. causes both grief and fullness,
complacency and excitement. would rather starve
rotten bedman and me. lost him for quite a while. decades
even. ran away without saying
his curious form
his roadside shirt
into breast pocket
neighbours beside my beating fish. gasp!
bedman watches me write all languid evening long, yearning to win my
cold heart over. i never give in.
[where did he come from?]
bought the lighthouse to live in across from puffin island. ran toward it
pulling gaunt backbone grand piano
beautiful sonatas dropping onto
ten foreign cargo ships
sweating men on the docks swayed toward the ripping noise, wearing
started as a novelty but within a week became common:
wood pigeon’s coo-coo
I won’t claim to understand everything that’s going on here, or to be able to explain comfortably the train of thought, but that’s part of the pleasure. I love that ‘all languid evening long’, and the pianist and grand piano. And “medalled rain”! Writing of this kind is worth way more than the price of admission. And if that’s not enough, there’s the form: the breaks and gaps and lineation jog me out of any readerly complacency from which I might be suffering to pay full attention to what’s being said, whatever it may all ‘mean’. Also, I wouldn’t mind betting a pound coin that some of the form is a direct transcription of how this stuff first landed in Hibbert’s notebook, brain to pen to paper . . . I almost added ‘unthinkingly’, but that would be wrong. There is thinking here, but it’s the kind of thinking that happens when a poet is on a roll.
Never one to shirk a sweeping (and possibly inaccurate) generalization, I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere quite like this before. There’s a very definite and individual mind racing around here, and the form, along with often startling imagery, is enough to render the reading experience . . . well, I’ve been into the thesaurus, and I’ve come out of it with ‘invigorating’. It’ll do.
Hibbert’s writing is always springing wonderful surprises. The unexpected just keeps on coming: the poem “whole days”, which may or may not have its origin in a broken relationship, or a separation, has the brilliant
spending whole days
remaking your sudden face
vacant houses cry to be touched but everyone is afraid of deserted
solitude and dying alone with
[single egg on toast]
surely this cannot be
Hibbert’s natural avoidance of the obvious and her trust in the instinctive serves her well, and you can’t teach that stuff. Writing courses don’t offer it because they can’t. You either have it or you don’t.
While a poem like “bedman” sprawls across three or four sometimes bewildering but never less than engaging pages, Hibbert can also pull off the opposite, in length, form, and subject matter. “circumstances” is short enough to be quoted in full:
men drink white tea and
women black coffee
table legs strain with weight of all these old books
mug handles clunk and
toast crumbs sit between pages
large nose presses against window
Throughout the collection, arresting images and phrases abound: there’s a ‘buttoned shoreline’, ‘the leaf is full and swollen now’, ‘tasty salvation’, ‘brave fire’, ‘i smell my shoulder and start again’, ‘god forbid what i’d do if i had a half decent dog to walk’, ‘where sofas smell like sneeze’ . . . This stuff obviously just comes so easily to Hibbert it never feels forced. When ‘drizzle’ ends with the lines
i can’t even remember
why i wanted to sit on that
in the dark rotten first place
it just kills me, because it sounds so damn good, the authentic voice of an authentic person. Another poem – ‘for my eyelids’ – ends
yours, mouldy plum in the room above
and you have to smile, surely. Character and personality is absolutely oozing out of these poems, and in a world where so many of today’s poets sound like loads of other poets that’s priceless. But there’s much more here than images and surprise and a hefty dose of individuality. There’s a bright, inquisitive, restless and self-examining intelligence underpinning everything that becomes more impressive with each repeated read. The collection ends in much the same way as it began, with a long (in this case, prosy) poem, ‘old book’, that starts out as narrative (sort of):
i say, i think we should start reading to each other in the dark times.
i say, we should start selling coffee grounds to the pope who
comes to the door every wednesday evening. . . .
– you must go find an old book to read to
me when the candles are lit.
I don’t have a clue about that pope, but frankly I don’t care. So they go to a shop and ‘he looks for an old book to read to me when stars shine wild’ but the search appears to be long and fruitless, and the speaker (poet) leaves him to it and goes to sit on a (park?) bench, where she (I assume ‘she’) watches a toddler stumbling around ‘the way they always do’, then ‘he comes back from the store . . . holding a yellow old book about boats.’ And I’m missing out quite a lot here, including ‘the way women look at other women. pity.‘ [underlines and bold typeface are as in the book, by the way.]
I don’t plan to try to paraphrase the whole un-paraphrasable poem, but the narrative (such as it is) shifts to the speaker “recover[ing] from heavy illness” and the poem morphs, briefly, into a contemplation of the self (which description sounds too pompous; I may need to re-write that, or maybe I’ll just leave it as it is):
. . . not sure who I am or where to go
Momentarily, the poem threatens to become, or sound, a tad too much like the speaker (poet) talking conventionally about themselves and their problems, but Hibbert – perhaps because she’s being honest rather than through anything more complicated like, for example, a theory of poetics – sidesteps the trap:
i am strange and mysterious and increasingly under the care of god.
pity me not because sun has gone behind the clouds and the soft
world is sleepy, but because back is moving towns. pity me because
i am losing a shield —- me for i am in the middle of a battleground,
music abruptly stops.
PITY ME! why should i?
i will learn that i can
survive without ‘important’ things.
This is pretty impressive stuff, and one of the beauties of it is that I may have a lot of it completely wrong in my head, but it’s a great read anyway, and repays a lot of re-reading.
The only caveat I have is rooted in personal prejudice and so can probably be ignored: I’m not fond of writing that’s 100% lower case. The persistent lower case i in particular can really get on my nerves – it annoys me just to see it, and it annoys me even more to actually have to type it when Microsoft Word insists on capitalizing it. Whatever. I think maybe I had to say something vaguely negative because I want to keep young Blossom on her toes.
Finally, here’s the back cover blurb, which I can quote in full without a qualm, because I wrote it:
Hibbert is a new and invigorating voice, the archetypal “breath of fresh air”
so often spoken of but so rarely encountered. These are very early days, but
it’s a pleasure to be present at the beginning of what promises to be an
interesting journey. One can tell there’s something special going on by the
fact that although Hibbert is studying and training to be a vet there are no
poems about animals anywhere to be seen.
Martin Stannard 21st April 2023