In the Assarts by Jeff Hilson
(Veer Books, London, 2010)
Now more than ever, if there exists a measure of what one could call a national character, indelible and prescriptive, it seems unlikely it can be held in the terms we seem to utilize. The limited, faded suggestions of temperament, appearance and culture are increasingly fraught. The valuable misnomer that the poetic in poetry is that which is lost in translation is a fair indication of how national character is found in the lack of a culture’s culture. I can only truly speak of England and Englishness, and what I deem to be it’s immovable quality, both it’s worst and it’s best feature – an unpretentious melancholy, a moaning disposition laced with satire, a call to arms without action, a sadness that has not the melodrama to make it public, a desire for privacy, a wit and observational keen which is razor sharp and practically dull. It is Beckettian, absurd and yet profound and civilized. When discovered, to those who know the paradox which stimulates this characteristic, it is a reassurance, a genuine philosophy of stamina and a lackadaisical intractability. When an artist can build this ungraspable quality into the very fabric of their work, you know they can only have done so without preparation or motive. Jeff Hilson, as a master of this vernacular, stands as one of the most singular and gifted poets of his generation.
Hilson's use of distinctive vocabulary, a lexicon of the banal, utilises a finesse that pales the false poetic posturing of those working in circles created by perceptions of what has come before and held as the established “tone” of English poetry. He is the creator of poetic vignettes, an imagery not of the surreal but of the proto-mundane, couched in the wry, unpretentious drawl of a fogged civil servant, tired but not fatigued, worn but not broken. Hilson elevates the speech of the lived life, accelerates it, never seeking out absurdity, rather that would be too much agency for the singular voice purveying lines of observation and reflection. His poetic is not one of alarm, not one of lamentation – it is poetry of urbanity. The Assarts are 69 individual poems, collecting themselves in a distinctly humorous glossary of satire, using the language of faux British history interspersed with disjunctive references to the emergent world of the reader. Each poem is an imagistic and wry observation of acts escaping description, sending up anecdotal poetic masturbation, so prevalent in British letters, and doing so without caution or cruelty. Each Assart maintains an almost objectivist clarity and all the more does this seem so as the ineradicably English wit seeps glum between the lines.
Only in England when the sheriff turns up
& the sheriff
I mean you are completely hidden
in this relationship.
I want to know the men separately.
Harold who held my hand.
Steven was an easy catch.
Ed, Ed, some trees is just a shed!
This cannot be true meaning my love poetry.
I love you who are called ‘broads.’
And this new gigantic poetry
on the edge of the green –
I mean you never return my calls you
mean I never returned your balls.
Hilson’s mode is to shed light on the ever present – what we seem not to have noticed in its readiness, the pitted corners of language which are fundamentally drole and bloodless. The Assarts are potent in their act of redress. Their form – graceful, fleeting and wry is so exacting, that it makes it appear his excavations are both necessary and even neglected. They relay an architectural apparatus that requires a deep philosophical understanding of the speakers pathos, of the poet's own fraudulent and fragile voice as it emanates. Hilson mines with affection, for his voice is never harsh, never angry, almost never pitiless in its satire. It is the love in a pale dejection, the homesickness for an ugly English town. His work full of British ennui, if that term was not one that did not immediately refute itself.
only into Rymans o my soldier
& the month of May
I dreamed I wore a bloody crown
of staples o my bride
its just a red Rexel Bambi
I came over all
the Bisley cabinets
your sweet lavender highlighter
it's just a felt tip
pen correction pen
o my soldier
are we meant to hide away
in Rymans or come out & play
Hilson exposes too the churlishness of the poet who takes no time to examine their own position, the ego behind the pen. His honesty, his lyrical inventiveness, his affected bleakness produces a strong sensation in it's readers / listeners because of its central truth. It is then a poetry that is necessary because the poet does not profess its necessity. Only the reluctant can offer the objective truth that poetry must evolve, that it must be allowed to warp and break and rejoin in order to be in anyway new, and in being new, represent a culture that is truly contemporary. And even then, only within a form of an apology. Against Hilson’s work the concept of the poetic soul, the poetic pretension, is exposed as a welcome fraud. The melodrama of poetry is refuted and we are left instead with a very English sagacity of intellect and poise.
And because I cannot dance
with my parachute
I dived all over her.
Billy G's not my lover
she's just a girl
like I used to.
In fact the cry is boy-up,
cleaning the o-hole,
when I was a fag.
Oi I waited for the language
he did not have it down
or any pudding.
When you arrived jump boy
where are your lovely shining end
In old English the Assart is a word with two meanings; the act or offense of grubbing up trees and bushes, and thus destroying the coverts of a forest. Or it is a clearing, a piece of land that had been stripped of trees and bushes to reveal something new, man made, cultivated and given potential, despite it being just a scrub square of dirty land. So is Hilson’s mode, a reluctant bulldozer, a brilliance that just is, refusing to call attention to itself. Deeply underappreciated, “In the Assarts” maintains Jeff Hilson’s place as one of the finest English poets of our day.
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Steven Johannes Fowler (1983) is an employee of the British Museum. He edits the weekly Maintenant interview series for 3am magazine showcasing innovative, contemporary European poets and is the author of two forthcoming collections, Fights (Veer Books, 2011) and Red Museum (Knives Forks & Spoons press, 2011). www.sjfowlerpoetry.com www.maintenant.co.uk