Michael Farrell Reviews Richard Hillman

23 August 2010

The Raw Nerve by Richard Hillman
Puncher & Wattmann, 2009

Richard Hillman’s new book has a compelling red cover. A giant black semi-colon portrays a synapse letting through the electrical signal of the poet and book to its readers. A brilliant design, but one hard to live up to. The poems in The Raw Nerve are, for the most part, of ordinary domestic life; a kind of poetry no easier than any other to realise. The trap that Hillman falls into occasionally is presenting, for example, the subject of parenting, rather than using that subject sufficiently to make a poem.

In ‘Was Yesterday A Dream’, a comedy of errors, Hillman writes, ‘I went straight when I should have veered left’. There seems to be a metaphorical point here, one I disagree with. I think he turned when he should have gone straight. The poem seems to lose itself in the turn of the page, veering into the vague, and the sentimental: ‘any moment now the kids / will find a street sign deep / in their hearts …’ A father may well speculate what’s ‘deep’ in his kids’ ‘hearts’, but for me this projection is a stretch.

Sometimes Hillman seems to lack faith in his material, though there’s plenty of poetry to be had here. I don’t need generalities about ‘the heart’ but things that bring Hillman to his observations and feelings. I think ‘Renewing the Vows’ has a similar problem. Can vows be repeated ‘from the heart’? Is this ‘simple love’? It’s a clichéd turn that this otherwise quite excellent poem takes when we continue over the page. It ends:

its gestures as ordinary as a rented house
waiting to be furnished in our newness
by the lightest touch.

I like the idea of love ‘as a rented house’, but why ‘in our newness’? The light touch has already been compromised I think: something more examined is required, perhaps regarding memory. Or, alternatively, something more in keeping with the matter-of-fact epigraph: ‘”Why would we do that?”/ “To be closer.” / “Closer to what?”‘

Hillman writes a dab epigraph. The risk is that title and epigraph can seem sufficient: like that of ‘The Car Park’: ‘We can always tell who’s working / by the cars parked outside the store.’ This seems like a novel or low-budget movie in itself.

At his near-best, Hillman keeps the contingency promised by the cover’s semi-colon alive. For example, the delightful trio of ‘Interruptions’, ‘Interventions’, and ‘The End’. Here we get the payoff of kid-observation and the humour of the tension between adult-reality and child-reality, both somewhat melodramatic. These poems are dynamic, and in a sense more lyrical – closer to song – than those that ponder feelings.

I say near-best, because any book worth publishing should have one knockout poem: one that you want to read to other people. That poem in The Raw Nerve is ‘When It’s Too Hot To Play’, a quasi Snugglepot and Cuddlepie delirium where the girls’ metaphor of being alive coincides perfectly with the narrator’s description. The poem tests syntax as if the heat affects grammatical order. A new stickiness reigns:

‘tease slow air current’ (where ‘tease slow’ is an adjective)
‘swirl lifeline and freehand’
‘language of ants crawling in toe space or behind naked knee’.

It’s not perfect, has an alliteration too far in ‘stealing shade from / sunset trees in the sticky swelter of summer’, but here Hillman shows that clipping language need not result in a clipping of (or a clip-clop) rhythm.

In a long poem, ‘The Story Place’, Hillman takes the trope of citing Australian towns without being ironic, contrived or overdoing it. It’s what seems to me to be a rare thing: a sincere catalogue. Hillman builds into it. The first place (‘North Adelaide’) is on page two of the four and a half page poem; the naming as a continuing of an anaphoral device begins at the bottom of the second page:

from a hotel suite
                    in Thredbo
from the playground
                    in Warrnambool
from the vacant block
                   behind my old home
                   in Seven Hills

Each instance refers to a different goodbye from children to the narrator. The goodbyes and the places themselves are the subject, not the names. It’s a delicate, contemporary, sadder version of Bruce Dawe’s ‘The Drifters’, a poem that seemed to hover behind this book. It’s not that Hillman’s sensibility is like Dawe that much ‘ Dawe is wryer, and more (productively) repressed ‘ but there’s a similar characterisation at work.

‘The Story Place’ reminded me of an earlier poem in the book, ‘The Party Plan’, which begins, ‘My wife has moved all the chairs outside / as if she is charting a new sitting-down place’. It’s the ‘as if’ that’s the killer. It’s more desolate than delicate. It’s not restraint that makes this poem effective exactly; it’s as if a poem was the only way of saying anything at all; that if the narrator has any feelings left, they’re floating above him with the poem’s helium balloons. When he attempts a stronger expression of feeling in ‘The Fridge’ the result is predictable and melodramatic. Without the final stanza it could have been a companion piece to Carol Jenkins’ ‘A Life in Fridges’ (see her Fishing in the Devonian, 2008).

A poem that really takes Hillman out of Dawe territory is the daring ‘Incest Negotiated’ (though it does sound like a parody of a Dawe title). The narrator is, as throughout The Raw Nerve, a father – of, in this case, a boy and girl having an interaction that’s sexual, yet still on the verge of play (the father shows no sign of interrupting or intervening). It begins:

He’s worried his little sister is going to pinch his arse
or grab his balls, and she thinks it funny
when he covers his penis with his hands.

This innocent harassment continues. I began to wonder why the boy was naked, why he didn’t just get dressed. The poem strays from the territory of the playful, when there’s a sense of the narrator’s identification with the boy, and a projection of a feeling and situation that is the narrator’s problem. The poem ends:

There’s too much unwanted attention.
Too many demands.

She wants some part of him he can’t give.
She wants some part of him that isn’t trash.

She wants some part of him that’s still innocent.
She wants and she wants and she wants.

Children can be demanding, but this description seems to be going elsewhere. The ‘and’ repetition alone is an indicator the poem has run out, that what’s left is typing and negativity.

A wonderful poem by contrast is ‘All Fucked Up’, that gets a second rhythmic wind with the anaphora of ‘that’: ‘that the poet sat reading from a piece of paper for an hour / that he got no eye contact for his five dollars’, etc. Yet there is the similar ending: ‘she smiled and she smiled and she smiled’. The repetition gives us less rather than more. In the very next poem, Hillman shows what he can do with a similar ending. ‘A Boy Called Horizon’ ends with the striking ‘as happy as ten cynical toes beside a fire’. It has a lovely companion poem in ‘Thoughts in a Rearview Mirror’, another boy portrait.

There’s plenty of variety in The Raw Nerve, but the variation is in the quality as well (‘The Plea’, a prosaic complaint, is just one that shouldn’t have made the grade). The book is in four sections, but I didn’t get a sense of the logic behind the division. It felt like everything rather than a judicious selection of poems. Hillman worked a profitable vein in Raw Nerve, but I felt it gave me too much of the work, along with the profit.

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About Michael Farrell

Michael Farrell's I Love Poetry and A Lyrebird: Selected Poems are both out this year (2017): from Giramondo and Blazevox, respectively. His scholarly book, Writing Australian Unsettlement: Modes of Poetic Invention 1796-1945, was published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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