Simon Turner reviews David Hart's Running Out (Five Seasons Press, 2006), pp. 272, £10.50
Though I've not lived there for some years now, I still think of myself as a 'Birmingham' writer, and I've spent a lot of time trying to work out precisely what Birmingham means in the grand scheme of things, and, from that, what it means to be a Birmingham writer. Is there such a thing as a Brummie aesthetic? If so, what does it look like?
If I had to find a common ground between various prominent Brummie or Brum-based writers of note (Johnathan Coe, Jim Crace and Roy Fisher being perhaps the most well known) it would be a shared formal restlessness - see, for example, Coe's biography of B S Johnson, or the plethora of different worlds and approaches deployed in Fisher's recent Bloodaxe collected poems - coupled to a particular brand of realism, a grounding in the physical facts of the world, even if that world is wholly imaginary, as it often is in the case of Crace.
David Hart is less well-known than the aforementioned Brummie trinity, but his productivity puts his Midlands compatriots in the shade. Running Out is Hart's most recent collection from Five Seasons Press and its size is a testament to his prodigious output. The sheer variety of material on display is something of an impediment to writing a coherent review, and as such this response will be extraordinarily partial, giving only the merest hint of what's actually contained in its pages.
Brummie chauvinism dictates that I turn to his Birmingham poems first, and my favourite of this little bundle is 'Spaghetti nature', where Hart's predilection for linguistic mutation and invention is at its most bizarre and focused:
"So much bright yellow, and the greens, the groans,
the reegs, the porslay, the brim, the wilt misted,
and the oot gross, and the votch, and the dack,
ond the dondiloons, all need dusting, and the brimbles."
Language is shifted and mutated throughout this poem, and as such, so is the landscape Hart describes, or rather enacts. For this seems to be another aspect of the Brummie aesthetic: change. The city has gone through quite a substantial overhaul in recent years (which Hart documents in 'The Bull Ring'), but it's always had a habit of shifting its boundaries and reinventing itself, according to the dictates of the age, and I see Hart's refusal to conform to one set of poetic ideas as a response, in some ways, to this. One of the problems of coming from the industrial Midlands is that you constantly have to jostle against perceptions: that Birmingham is ugly and unwelcoming, that the Brummie accent sounds 'stupid' (ignoring for now the fact that Chaucer would have spoken an idiolect very similar to modern Brummie, or that the anonymous Pearl poet very well might have hailed from the Midlands).
I could go on, but my basic point is that Brummies get some pretty bad press. For the Brum writer, these mis-perceptions are important, as it poses the question: how do you write about a city that people have already made up their mind about, and which, moreover, because of its relative youth, doesn't have the literary heritage of London or Edinburgh to fall back on when attempting to define its essential self? Hart's response to this question seems to be to ignore it altogether, or rather to define a notion of Brummieness which is without boundaries, without form. This formal, indeed philosophical openness seems, at least to this reviewer, a peculiarly American trait, and appropriately enough, a poem of Hart's which deals with the matter of form, entitled 'Book', includes a quote from Robert Duncan, one of the leading figures in both the Black Mountain group and the San Francisco renaissance. The poem itself revolves around the lovely conceit of finding a book in the Hay-on-Wye poetry bookshop in 1987 (then run by Alan Halsey, an astonishing language-centred poet and visual artist) which was previously owned by Roy Fisher (the connections keep multiplying). The book in question is 'The truth and life of myth', by Duncan, and Hart describes finding the following passage, which Fisher himself had marked when he owned the book:
"'Back of each poet's concept of the poem
is his concept of the meaning of form itself; and his
concept of form in turn where it is serious at all
arises from his concept of the nature of the universe,
its lifetime of form, or even, for some, its lifelessness
'Book' is a remarkable poem for a number of reasons, not least because of the ending, which is one of the loveliest pieces of writing in the collection, but also because of the seemingly casual way in which it enacts a poetics, a means of seeing the world (according to Duncan's argument) in the most casual and imperceptible way imaginable. The poem might stand as a kind of manifesto for Hart's approach to writing poetry, were it not so humble and quiet in its approach. It has no active design upon the reader, as such, but the reader comes away from the poem knowing precisely what Hart meant to say, nonetheless.
This review has perhaps already gone on a little too long, and as I noted before, I can barely even begin to give an impression of the scope of the collection. Taking a leaf out of Hart's book, which includes two list poems ('Ten Best Benches 2002' and 'Ten Best Doors 2003') I'll conclude with my own list: 'Ten-ish Best David Hart Poems 2007'. No doubt any prospective readers will have a different selection: it's that kind of book.
1. Then in the twentieth century
2. Hayden comes to lunch and sends a letter home
3. Spaghetti nature
4. When she asked
5. The gully hermits
6. Ten Best Benches 2002
7. Ten Best Doors 2003
8. Of the colours
9. Part of a day
10a. The jigsaw of history has an infinite number of pieces
10b. It's in my soul, this