Selima Hill, Men Who Feed Pigeons – review

Many readers will already be familiar with Selima Hill’s brilliant and extraordinary writing. I’d urge any who aren’t to become so, and Men Who Feed Pigeons would be an excellent place to start.

Selima Hill is very obviously a highly intelligent and sophisticated writer but she’s not at all a difficult one. My comments may sometimes be heavy-handed but I want to emphasise that this extremely accessible book gives immediate pleasure that increases in a very natural way as the poems show more and more of themselves to the reader.

They’re mostly very short and are grouped in seven sequences. The first section presents lightning sketches of different men in action, mostly at work. Here’s ‘The Monk’ as a sample:

His eyes, like shrimp, or broken fingernails,
glitter in the dark which is tonight

the closest thing, alas, to a wife.
She holds him in a lap he can’t touch.

Ideas don’t ripple out from these tight-packed words, they explode from them, moving, merging, overlapping and transmuting so fast that any attempt to stabilize them or unravel them piece by piece would be futile. Even just the word “glitter” bursts with different ways of seeing the monk and his feelings. At one extreme it can suggest predatory intensity, at another, tears. Either would make a viewer uncomfortable. A broad effect that’s easier to pin down is the contrast between the concrete images in the first pair of lines and the abstract ideas in the second. It poignantly embodies the monk’s physical and emotional deprivation. And it’s made more telling by the subtlety of the writing. There’s a subliminal transfer from the sensuous imagery of the first stanza to the more abstract, reflective second one: the memory of “broken fingernails” gives bite to “can’t touch”. Similarly, “She holds him in a lap” makes us begin to imagine the sexual contact that’s denied by the end of the line.

Striking imagery is one of the book’s recurring pleasures. Here are a few almost random examples: a tiny doctor of philosophy “quivering with joy like a fly // quivering with joy above a wound”; a cake emerging from its icing “to quail at the touch of my knife”; the statement that the speaker regrets occasionally confiding in a certain friend because when she does “he acts as if I’m smearing him with honey / in the dark with my bare hands”; the description of this same friend as “like a badger hunting in the moonlight / who’s fed up to the teeth with eating worms”; the description of the same friend – now in hospital – as always looking hard-done-by “like a donkey / but without a donkey’s king-size ears”.

Startling metaphorical leaps are one way in which the agility of Hill’s intelligence shows itself. Another is the speed with which she switches between thoughts. We see both in a poem about a man the speaker hopelessly loves. It’s one of the longest in the book. Though it’s called ‘The Beautiful Man Whose Name I Can’t Pronounce’, the first line immediately contradicts the title:

I can but it’s so beautiful I don’t.
I prefer to think it’s unpronounceable,

to go to bed and think of him as fruit
glimpsed at night by someone who is lost,

who walks for many days, weighed down by maps
and dictionaries and old pronunciation guides

until she’s so exhausted and confused
she can’t pronounce the name of where she’s going to,

never mind the name of the fruit
into whose fat cheeks she dreams she’s biting.

Nothing in the poem is still. Its whole construction is like an Escher drawing in the way it creates itself out of its own contradictions, with the paradoxical relation between the dream and the dream within the dream replacing Escher’s contradictions in spatial perspective. Moreover, the speaker dramatises her feelings in wildly contradictory ways: wilful and capricious in the first two lines, helpless, exhausted and despairing in the middle of the poem, greedily (and vindictively?) taking what she wants in the final fantasy. Each state of feeling is expressed with brilliant vividness and economy, each gives delight on its own, but it’s the leaping between them that gives the poem as a whole its exuberant energy and its underlying pathos.

This is one of twenty-seven poems devoted to futile love of the same man, who’s someone else’s husband. Though the first section, ‘The Anaesthetist’, is about many different men, the rest of the book consists of six long sequences each focusing on a different man in a different relation to the speaker. Each should be read as a whole. This is not because there’s a clean line of development through it but, paradoxically, because the very lack of such a clean line, together with the abrupt way the speaker’s feelings change, creates the sense of a living, evolving and ultimately ungraspable truth.

I hope my quotations have suggested how full of life and humour the writing largely is, except in the last sequence. However, there’s an underlying bleakness to all the sequences except ‘The Beautiful Man with the Unpronounceable Name’. Most of the characters seem dissatisfied or unhappy and what accumulates above all is a sense of cross-purpose and isolation, whether because people are too self-absorbed to try to understand each other or because they simply can’t get through.

This is partly suggested by the imagery. The visual element in Hill’s writing is very strong but many of her images vividly evoke touch, often suggesting both yearning to touch and a hypersensitive discomfort with being touched. Some of the images I quoted earlier – the fly quivering with joy above a wound, the cake quailing at the touch of a knife, the Sylvia Plath-like bite into a cheek – hint at violence and an idea of touching itself as a kind of violation. Physical touching, of course, is the most intense and basic form of contact between people. The most indirect and elaborate form of meeting is through language, and this too repeatedly fails in these poems. Many in a section presenting the speaker’s relation with a friend called Billy explicitly deal with his and her failure to understand each other through speech. “When I talk it feels like I’m talking / to somebody who doesn’t speak English” is one of several similar statements. Through the whole section, it seems to me, these friends can’t read each other and aren’t really interested in doing so. And this is only making explicit what’s frequently implicit in the interactions in other sequences.

The triumph of the poems in Men Who Feed Pigeons is that even in clearly showing such darker sides of life, they delight and inspire with the fineness of their timing and expression, the vitality of their intelligence, their exuberant humour and sometimes a sheer beauty that makes it tempting to describe them as lyrical. But I think such a description would be misleading. Their way of working is really much closer to drama. They don’t set out to express the speaker’s emotion but to present moments of interaction as if in real time, from the point of view of one participant. By not giving a narrative or contextual frame to any sequence as a whole or making them expressions of the speaker’s emotion, Hill involves the reader more deeply. We are invited to imagine likely contexts, to speculate for ourselves about the feelings behind the different men’s actions and reactions, to fill in the speaker’s own feelings.  So the precise, vivid, specific information Hill gives us both releases a flood of imaginings of our own and leaves us with a bracing sense of the sheer otherness of other people’s minds. And although the individual poems are extremely accessible, as I suggested at the beginning of this review, I kept rereading them because they showed new facets of themselves as the stories I imagined around them changed, or as I brought them closer to other poems in the same sequence.

Men Who Feed Pigeons by Selima Hill. Bloodaxe. 160 pp, £12.00.

I would like to thank Danielle Hope, the editor of Acumen, for permission to post this review, which appeared in Acumen 102

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