Nationality: British. Born: Selima Wood in London, 13 October 1945. Education: New Hall College, Cambridge, special degree 1966. Family: Married Roderic Hill in 1968; one daughter and two sons. Career: Writing fellow, University of East Anglia, 1991; writer-in-residence, Royal Festival Hall Dance Festival, 1992. Judge, T.S. Eliot prize, 1999. Awards: Cholmondeley prize, 1986; Arvon /Observer Poetry Competition prize, 1988. Address: c/o Bloodaxe Books, The Old Signal Box, Falstone, Hexham, Northumberland NE 48 1AB, England.
Saying Hello at the Station. London, Chatto and Windus, 1984.
My Darling Camel. London, Chatto and Windus, 1988.
The Accumulation of Small Acts of Kindness. London, Chatto and Windus, 1989.
A Little Book of Meat. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1993.
Trembling Hearts in the Bodies of Dogs: New & Selected Poems. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1994.
My Sister's Horse. Westgate, Smith/Doorstop Books, 1996.
Violet. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, and Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1997.
Editor, Paradise for Sale. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1996.*
Critical Study: By Philip Gross, in Poetry Review, 83 (4), Winter 1994.
Selima Hill comments:
"All that is personal soon rots: it must be packed in ice." I have this quotation from W.B. Yeats copied into my notebook. I do not know where I first came across it, but I often remind myself, and the people I work with, of it. I also like Bonnard's "It's what I live by." And he goes on: "I feed the picture as one feeds a large animal." So my work is a combination of rot, ice, and animal food, it sounds like.* * *
Selima Hill's art is one of extreme sensitivity to the reverberation of memory (both personal and cultural) in the everyday, to speech (particularly the rhythms of suppressed anxiety), and to the subtleties of the craft itself. A deceptively relaxed iambic pace masks an intensity that can be both disturbing and disturbed. A poet who can recall Larkin at his most detached and Plath at her most stressed—sometimes in the same poem—can hardly be regarded as derivative of either. Hill can lure, lull, surprise, and scare, and she has superb timing.
In Hill's first book, Saying Hello at the Station, moments are both spotlighted by her observational skill and given shape and depth by the way she lets chinks of light (or shards of darkness) from the infant or distant past fall upon her subjects. The disquieting deities of ancient Egypt are often featured, haunting contemporary voices with their estranging names and the sheer potency of their myths. Not surprisingly, the most striking of these poems, "Inshallah-God Willing," sees a white man of the twentieth century menaced by these forces in their very heartland, the Valley of the Kings. One world seems to slide into another as Howard Carter's assistant ("O Pecky Callendar … you have disturbed /the King's long night") is addressed:
After the gold was discovered,
and you came back late
to the rest house, over the sound
of your donkey padding on the sand,
you heard someone call
for a light, and the door
of your room stood open.
The lines are beautifully subtle on two levels. Hill shows a story-teller's gift for the quiet mention ("came back late," "on the sand") that expands to fill the reader's inner screen, and she has a poet's unmistakable power to fill a single word—"stood"—with more significance than would be thought possible. The particular chill engendered by that word alone is beyond the scope of visual art.
Hill combines the common sense of knowing how much eye-or ear-catching detail one poem can hold with a true sense for single words, a sense existing somewhere between the true eye and the true ear and encompassing both. In a childhood memory, for example, a girl recalls the innate menace of sharing a swimming pool with an older boy: "His hands in the moving water /seemed to float between my legs." Here the subdued "moving" is another quietly perfect option.
Hill is a natural and flexible enough poet to employ images so fused with one another that they easily avoid the relentless hiccup of clever simile that lesser writers stick and are stuck with. The following image cannot be broken down but streams in several ways: "You imagine soldiers' blood /trickling down Europe's /ice-creamcoloured map /like syrup." Elsewhere, Hill relishes clusters of suggestive consonants. We hear Flaubert in the Koseir Desert imagining eating lemon sherbet, and the fact that the recollection is being refracted through a writer's thirsty imagination gives Hill the perfect license to enjoy the description: "You dip the spoon into the frosted glass, /you crush the little mound and lift the splinters /gently to your lips, you swoon with snowy joy." The ability to describe the outlines as well as the daydreamed essences of painful wants serves the poet well as she begins to turn her attention to disintegrating states of mind.
The voices and characters of My Darling Camel are much troubled by limitations, surfaces, and barriers, and they often break to admit menacing figures, Plath-like disturbers of sleep or repose: the Umbrella Man, the Ptarmigan Hunter, or Father John, holding the hand of whom "was like holding a helping of trifle." They tend to be male and demonic, transfigurations of childhood memory either responsible for past distress or symbolizing it. Whatever the connection, the voices tug us through the nightmare fairground of schizophrenia, paranoia, and dense memory loss: "Little feathers /journey past my cheeks /like boats. /I'm bubbling diamonds. /I'm just a head." Structurally, the poems often zigzag to a costly mental peace or at least to a balance.
Hill has the gift of stringing together apparently fragmented details so that they not only portray a state of mind but also create a tableau, a glimpsed scene. The tiny poem "Plums," for example, explodes outwards and is more than suggestive in its plot, scenery, costumes, and props:
The music rises like a party dress.
Nocturnal marriages are always best.
Parrot feathers. Ancient seas. Soft plums.
Shelter in my bedroom when she comes.
In "The Culmination of All Her Secret Longings" voices of Laura, a mental patient, visiting friends, and letters from home are mixed up with camels, set free after the Civil War, roaming the Arizona desert, copulating, out on the rim of Laura's sanity. Other voices intrude. These incongruous splinters and the fracturing of narrative into disembodied quotation, menacing italic, and lonely, disturbed self prefigure Hill's third book, The Accumulation of Small Acts of Kindness, which charts the mental illness and slow recovery of a girl in a psychiatric ward.
For much of this work Hill employs an incantatory iambic pentameter, though she often splits the five feet over two or three lines. This has the effect of accentuating the rhythm and jailing the girl in it, just as she is penned in with memories, fantasies, and outer and inner voices that are barely distinct. When rhythms knock so metronomically, the reader is conditioned to expect strong rhyme, half rhyme, or no rhyme at all, but by alternating strong rhyme with none Hill voices a disturbed, frustrated inner life in which the tragedy takes trivial forms and the comedy is awful. Notice how disconcertingly close to each other "kindness" and "kind" are said in what is a blithe, distracted voice:
'Afternoons of fruit and acts of kindness.'
'I treasure every word I think he said.'
'His hand is lying on my lap like liver.
Wiping up the blood. He's very kind.'
Few poets know as unflinchingly as Hill how to hit these right "wrong" notes. The Accumulation of Small Acts of Kindness is a risk that absolutely comes off because its poet, having long abandoned the appearance of narrative reasons for the rich and dangerous field of the troubled psyche, couples an exposing eye for the subterranean life of the mind with a magnificent gift for harnessing poetic form to depict it.