Carole Satyamurti, The Hopeful Hat – review

This posthumous collection is a work of impressive artistry and depth.

It was written under the shadow of a terminal diagnosis of laryngeal cancer and after the removal of Satyamurti’s voice box and part of her tongue. Some poems refer to these things. The way in which they do so reflects one of the qualities that make Satyamurti’s writing so attractive. Whatever may have been the case for her as a person, as poet she approaches her situation in a way virtually purged of ego.

We see this in ‘Small Change’. It opens:

This must be the room of last resort,
this half-lit passage under the dripping bridge
where, on the only route to the Underground,
you pass four, sometimes more, rough sleepers
strung out at intervals against the wall,

the same, day after day, week after week.

The tone is masterly. The language is unemotive, almost prosaically plain, suggesting a pedantic concern for factual accuracy by the pausing over ‘four, sometimes more’. And yet from the first line the scene has the compelling resonance of symbolism and myth. And line 6 seems to ache with empathy, not through emotive language but because the effect of its repetitions is heightened by the stanza break. What’s involved is a very skilful use of poetic technique to make facts seem to speak for themselves. They’re made to feel immediately present (‘This must be’) and the reader is drawn into a direct confrontation with the sleepers (‘you pass’). Keeping herself out of the picture, the poet makes us face the horror without distraction. And what we see is how for these rough sleepers the real has taken on the extremity of myth.

The poetic ‘I’ appears later in the poem. Again, though, she does it in a very objective way, not making the poem about herself but putting her life into its presentation of other things. She becomes an Everywoman, wanting to do something, seeing that doing anything meaningful would demand more than she’s prepared to give, and guiltily aware of her own selfishness:

I want them gone. I want to be absolved.
Shall I give some coins to each of them?

If it were only one… Or just one day…

If she started moralising or breast-beating at this point the poem would be corrupted by egotistical self-regard. The purity and truth of its dramatisation of a common experience would be lost.

A good poem keeps moving us to new places intellectually and imaginatively and this certainly does that. In the last line there’s a total surprise:

What has a poem got to do with this?

Sheer unexpectedness would be enough to make that conclusion send out shockwaves and ripples of reflection. It’s also deeply ambiguous. Read one way, it suggests that poetry is irrelevant to the problem of homelessness. Read another, it suggests that poetry is morally compelled to do something with it – that poetry becomes irrelevant or shirks its responsibility if it doesn’t take this kind of reality on board. The ambiguity of ‘got to do (with)’ forces a confrontation between the two ideas.

The first stanza of ‘Small Change’ shows how much can be done by sparing use of figurative language. Satyamurti’s natural gift for metaphor is abundantly illustrated in contexts where a focus on metaphors themselves is appropriate, as in the second stanza of ‘Solitude’:

To be alone
is to taste existence,
its small choices
brushing me like moths.

Interestingly, the poem’s weight is felt more through the colourless metaphor of tasting existence than the more arresting one of the moths, and comes not from the metaphor itself but from our knowledge that the speaker’s time for tasting existence is running out. The fact that this isn’t stated in the poem itself allows the poem to speak equally to and for people whose tasting of existence has less urgency.

I said some poems do confront the poet’s situation directly. Some of these ponder the value and point of poetry. Others focus on mortality, or what our knowledge of it means for our sense of the value of life.

Again, what I find impressive isn’t just the precision and economy with which these poems are written but the stance they take, the direction of their vision. Instead of asking us to look at her own situation, Satyamurti looks through it at other people’s experiences and broader human meanings. The second half of ‘Glossal’ goes:

What prudent torture it was,
to cut out dissident tongues,
knowing that the subtlest manoeuvres

of this most potent sixty grams of flesh –
this truth-teller, this incendiary organ,
this evolutionary achievement
as vital to the human core of us
as the heart is – can shift the world.

Such breadth of perspective is continually present. The last poem – ‘Solid’ – ends on a note that brings together the cosmic and the personal:

For nothing goes to waste
no atom is destroyed
just redeployed.
And the molecules here now
were here when time began –
no animals, no man –
and Earth was wilderness.

But there’s no denying
one day you will be dead
and where do the colours go
when the carpet fades?

Here, the brevity of the lines and the hint of interrupted song in their rhythm create a tone of musing inwardness. Their spare style allows subtle shifts of tone, register and mental focus to make themselves felt both quietly and deeply.

The poems I’ve quoted use similar styles of reflective speech. I should mention some in different modes. ‘All that is Solid Melts into Air’ (the title a quotation from Marx’s Communist Manifesto) brilliantly parodies the speech of hotshot City slickers, gaining depth both from the way the title invokes mortality and from the shift to a more rueful tone at the end. ‘Requiem for a Death Foretold’ and ‘The Climate Game’ both supplement Satyamurti’s skill in creating a speaking voice with typographic devices of an ‘experimentalist’ nature.

Altogether, this is a book I’d warmly recommend and expect to enjoy over many years.

The Hopeful Hat by Carole Satyamurti. £10.99. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN: 978-1-78037-653-0

I would like to thank David Cooke for permission to post this review, which appeared in his magazine The High Window.

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