Cuttlewoman reviews Stu Hatton

26 December 2011

How to be hungry by Stu Hatton
Self published, 2010

Stu Hatton’s How to be hungry is predominantly a charnel house of modern, urban, party-going, substance-abusing youth. Hatton crams in the details of the worst of youthful socialising — friends as necessary accessories, drugs, sexual frustration, disappointment, aversion to boredom, lies, stealing, compulsions, addictions, the highs and the lows, even the consumption of adverts rather than proper food. In poem after poem layer upon layer of detail is accumulated like so much sediment, perhaps by way of a barricade against drug-fuelled forgetfulness. At their worst, these list-like poems are perhaps drafts of better poems — hasty, truncated, raw, a bunch of punch-lines tangled together, unresolved. True, there are many finely gnomic observations, but Hatton links them together fuzzily.

The best of Hatton’s ‘notebook’ poems is ‘rain’. Its two line stanzas have a raindrop simplicity poised around the yearning of wanting to accept. Three wonderfully understated ‘rain’ stanzas are:

someone jokes
that his hand lacks teeth

naked he stands,
a book in each hand

this weather
is a lot of information

Hatton’s themes are relentlessly cosmopolitan, however, and the weather per se is not one of them. Despite forays into the countryside, How to be hungry is a narrative of the hunger of cities and their citizens. Thus, in the context of the collection, it is the man standing in the rain in ‘rain’, meditating in his apartment, allowing the cupboard moths their lives, whose breath shimmers out of the page.

What Hatton does spectacularly well in his poetry is portraiture. At their best, his slants have the cynical wryness of John Betjeman portraiture — always faced with the poet’s own inadequacies whatever the remarkable failings of the personage under the microscope. Also like Betjeman, Hatton has a good eye for the details which evolve a stereotype into an emotion-provoking personality. Hatton’s characters include the recovering addict (‘apology’), the addict in denial (‘telltale’), the party animal (‘the party animal’), the gate-crasher(‘fashionably’) and the porn browser (‘porn’). The emotion most squeezed from the reader is a cringing embarrassment for the ridiculously shallow callowness of youth.

The wannabe party animal of ‘fashionably’, for example, whinges and whines: “it’s like I arrive & / everyone’s leaving.” We know his type: He arrives at the party demanding drugs and alcohol, clears the dance floor, drinks himself silly, crashes on the sofa, and he’s still there snoring in the morning. This fashionable idiot becomes the observer — slyly assassinated character-wise on the blade of his own shallow expectations of someone from another generation and culture — of the unlikely character depicted in ‘portrait of ledong qui’:

Fuelling the party
is a man from Manchuria
with lampshade hat—
in his worker’s bag
a bottle of 60% baijiu

The most surprising, perhaps, of Hatton’s characters is the awkward, writhing employee of ‘meeting’ (the party animal practising survival at work?) Hatton scores this poem with a delicate use of big words, more conventional sentence structures than is usual in the collection, and pathetically small emotions:

Continually looking to the clock
for lenience, you plan to slip away during lunch
& not return to the room for the resumption. Your
hand trembles as you reach for a biscuit.

Because thumbnail portraits such as these work so well for Hatton, where he is less selective, any poetic quality can be rendered overloaded and good things are lost. In a number of prose poems, ‘cashed’, ‘Night of the Living Dead (after the 1968 George A Romero film)’ and ‘the masculine’, the loss of rhythm inherent in loosing line-breaks is too earnest a replication of druggy rambling for my taste. Enjambment is still there, with its miniature cliff-hangers, but the work feels crowded and messed-up to the poems’ detriment rather than with the happy congruence of form to meaning of a poem like ‘rain’, mentioned above.

Hatton is, however, brave in the honesty of How to be hungry. Amidst the poems of degenerate pleasures and characters lacking moral fibre, Hatton takes on the challenge of describing experiences of a particular silent meditation retreat, known as Vipassanã. The significance of Vipassanã-inspired insights to the poet is underlined by the first of the quotes given at the beginning of the collection—words of the Buddha, whose enlightenment led to his teaching of Vipassanã technique.

‘Vipassanã’ and ‘retreat’ are earnest attempts at grappling the untamed realities of contemporary urban life in the quest for a simpler redeeming wisdom. Even so, even here, Hatton’s loyalty to the humour of the muck and the mire is displayed — such clay feet on the spiritual man, such a messy thing transcending the body can be! ‘Vipassanã’’s narrator, for example, notes how he must:

break my vow of silence
to inform the manager
that the first toilet on the left
has a blockage

Alongside Hatton’s portraits, his notebook poems, and his prose-poems, he embraces another genre-type in the Vipassanã poems. These read like diary jottings, giving a sense of undigested lived journalism rather than regurgitated poetical conceits. I have wondered how to write poetically about meditation, as opposed to meditating poetically. Not easy. Although Hatton’s attempt has possibly not produced the best of poetry, he may have started a journey with that one first step. The attempt is honest and real. In ‘down slow’, there is the possibility of real life, unmediated by cravings, lurking below the surface of addiction: “naked / beneath the drugs / this is what I am”.

Another poem, ‘self-portrait (with wires, city, no clothes)’, may not escape the hedonism of modern youth culture, but it stresses a more blatant connection with meditational life, observing the breath of the city, “the gap between / inbreath, outbreath”. The metaphor is integrated into a vision of self as both wired with its attendant meaning of being under the influence of recreational drugs (“am I colour-code wires?”) and wired into the life of the city: “city, be slow with me, / city… slow down… / (I love you)”.

This is another poem with that unfinished feel, interesting for its overt disintegration of language, expression and ideas. The poem’s raison d’être perhaps only makes sense in the context of a collection of poems firmly located in drug culture—standing alone, it is a rabid rant. As some will know and others will guess, Hatton’s interest in craving is not just recreational but as his bio puts it, he has worked “[s]ince 2005 … in research into drug use, young people’s use of health services, and depression.” Hatton’s insights into drug life perhaps inevitably must include despair, but he shows versatility and virtuosity in ranging from the brittle ‘down slow’ to the mocking, searing cupidity of ‘Inferno’. This latter poem, a surprisingly strong poem amidst scattered thoughts towards the end of the book, is a tour-de-force of wickedness, with hell envisioned as a place where drugs are “everywhere / but no painkillers / or sleepers.”

Unconventional in structural ways and bitterly irreverent, ‘Inferno’ includes a wonderful reference to the Garden of Eden as “snaketime” (dismissing God from the diabolical equation—it was the serpent’s showtime, not His!) ‘Inferno’ is one weird wild ride of a poem:

your bender will’ve
gathered such momentum that
you’’ll’’ve forgotten everything
important—even what they say
about the wicked.

How to be hungry is a collection of poems heavily dominated by substance abuse, yet by no means subsumed by that. Hatton crams so much more than drugs into his work, giving insights into modernity, its joys and woes, creating a dynamic, fleshed-out depiction of a city and layers of its sociable and antisocial inhabitants. This picture is built up over the breadth of the collection. If the quality of some individual poems is sketchy, How to be hungry contains some truly modern gems of characters with whom I am happy to grace my internal workings, in awe and without attachment.

Stu Hatton’s How to be hungry can be purchased from here and here.

Cuttlewoman is one of the WA poets selected in 2011 for a specialist series of poetry masterclasses at Peter Cowan Writers Centre, Perth. She has a weblog.

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