I first encountered Siân Hughes‘s poems sitting around a table with some talented teenage poets at the Arvon Foundation‘s writing centre at Lumb Bank. We were looking at her poem ‘Bear-Awareness and Self-Defence Classes’ (subtitled ‘Or Fathers and Husbands’). Like many of Siân’s poems it is short and made of words and sentences an eight-year old could read. But while its subject matter is about what happens to some children, it is absolutely not a poem for all children.
I will be honest, as I listened to the discussion of Siân’s poem I did wonder if I was missing something. I wondered if the poem was all it was cracked up to be, these plain words arranged over three ordinary quatrains, which suddenly just stop.
And then it hit me. Like being winded. Like waking up in a sweat. Like the air leaving the room.
The point of this poem about domestic violence (as I read it) is the control with which it is executed, through the simple-looking but deadly metaphor of wild bears. Painful subject matter has been rendered truthfully and (apparently) artlessly, with no poetical high flourish and certainly no moralising. The unstated words of comfort implicit in the poem iterate in nothing more than a whisper that by being truthful, by using song to describe our suffering we can overcome what threatens to overcome us.
Siân Hughes does this in poem after poem in her book The Missing (Salt, 2009). I nearly wrote ‘pulls off this trick’ in that last sentence. The reason I did not is because I do not think what is going on here is about literary artifice alone. I think it is a genuinely held moral position of the writer that she chooses tact and taste over coshing her reader with Misery. Choosing to make the poems appear slight is, therefore, one of risking being branded inconsequential, when they are anything but. In this way I think the poems share some similarity with the work of Hugo Williams.
This can illustrated by looking at the poem ‘Results’ in full:
Of course it was always going to be secret,
an envelope no one would know had arrived
that I’d lock myself in the bathroom to read.
Nothing like coming down late to breakfast
and you saying ‘How you failed history
I’ll never know.’ Or standing in a queue
in the only taverna with a land line,
the owner grinning between black teeth
while I ask you ‘How did it go?’ and wait
for a pause that might mean well, or not.
Out on the terrace the old dog gets up
and drags his chain two steps into the shade.
As I read it this poem is about three sets of results: those being read about in a locked bathroom, those concerning a failed exam, and those being relayed over a bad phone line. By concentrating on the latter, the poem craftily moves our attention away from the main action, which is in the bathroom with the envelope. The clue to these results being the poem’s authentic subject is contained in the words ‘Of course’ and ‘always’, with their sense of prefiguring the inevitable.
What is actually described, though, is a queue, a waiter, a silence, and a dog. I love the owner’s black teeth. He has a two second cameo in Siân’s book and yet I will know him forever. (Siân would make a fine film director, perhaps). I love the placing of the word ‘wait’ at the end not just of a line, but of a stanza, emphasising the ensuing pause, the articulate gap between words we all know but would rather avoid. And most of all I love the dog.
I love the comforting-sounding chiming of two doom-laden words: ‘chain’ and ‘shade’. I love the undercutting of this comfort which the words ‘dog’ and ‘drags’ perform, their bare bones d’s and g’s contrasting with the ‘ch’ in ‘chain’ and the ‘sh’ in ‘shade’. We are not told any more about the envelope in the bathroom because we do not need to be.