Selima Hill, Women in Comfortable Shoes – review

Selima Hill’s Women in Comfortable Shoes is different again [to O’Brien’s Embark and Gross’s The Thirteenth Angel]. The poems are all short – many if not most six or fewer lines. They’re grouped into sequences but even within these I think they largely work as separate units. They have the punchiness of epigrams but unlike epigrams what most offer is not pithy reflections on life in general but flashes of extremely subjective response to another person or to the speaker’s immediate circumstances. She appears at different ages, as a child at home or a girl in a boarding school at one end of the book and as an old woman at the other. She comes across as highly intelligent and observant, vividly imaginative, prickly, rebellious and uncompromising, perpetually embattled with others and often conflicted in herself, bewildered by other people’s feelings and behaviour and sometimes almost as much so by her own. In some ways this collection is like Hill’s previous one – Men Who Feed Pigeons – but I felt that in Men the accumulation of impressions emerging between the lines of a given sequence encouraged me to achieve a sense of what the other characters in a relationship were like in themselves, independently of the poet-persona’s reactions to them, and to ‘read’ her and their reactions in that wider context. I feel that much less in this collection.

Although their economy and clarity suggests the application of deliberate art, in other ways most of the very short poems have the air of immediate releases of thought, lightning flash spontaneity and truth to the impulse of the moment. This gives a sense of honesty and makes us – or made me – feel very close to the poet. It goes with a willingness to express unworthy feelings without shame or apparent self-consciousness. And it goes with a willingness to take artistic risks, plunging, for example, into images that may seem surreal but are actually vividly oblique expressions of conscious feeling, as in this portrait of a school prefect:

What I hated most were the clips
that lived and died in hundreds in her hair,

cascades of coloured clips with floral legs
incapable of understanding anything.

In a book so full of subversive energy and arresting moments it’s hard to pick out particular examples – I’d probably go for different ones every time I tried to make a choice – but I was particularly impressed by ‘Curd’ from the sequence ‘Susan and Me’. This describes a vulnerable school friend who apparently suffers mental collapse as an adult:

When I see her in the threadbare dressing gown
somebody has wrapped her in like curd,

the gentle face that wishes it was air
now pressed against the wall, I lose my nerve

and walk away in tears, having witnessed
something I am not prepared to bear.

The overwhelming pathos of this is freed from any hint of sentimentality or suggestion that the poet is trying to pressurize the reader both by the deadpan nature of the ‘like curd’ simile and by the honesty with which Hill admits that in the end the most important thing to her is protecting herself from her own grief.

Selima Hill, Women in Comfortable Shoes, 256pp, Bloodaxe Books, 2023

I would like to thank Ann and Peter Sansom and Suzannah Evans for permission to post this extract from my review of books by Sean O’Brien, Philip Gross and Selima Hill in issue 69 of The North.


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