Mark Burnhope reviews 'Host' by Sarah Hymas

Keep it in the Family

Host, Sarah Hymas (103 pp, £10, Waterloo Press)

Hymas’ engaging debut collection comes in two parts. Around two thirds of the book consists of poems which form an episodic, chronological family saga spanning four generations. This novel structure (pun intended) stretches into epic proportions subject-matter which is often confined to the small domestic lyric – familial relationships and traditions, connection to the land, etc. ‘Harrogate Bedrock, 1899’ (attributed to ‘Hannah’) casts tender and ironic couplets in terms of excavation metaphor:

    What I love about you
    I have yet to quarry.

‘A Wise Man Builds His House on a Rock, 1920’ (attributed to ‘Harold’) draws together strands like the establishment of roots, home, faith, community. Its title recalls the parable, and the children’s campfire song derived from it. Its longer lines and simple diction make it feel like a stretched ballad, while also maintaining a tight rhythm, alliteration, and pleasing near-rhymes. The occasional slips into blank verse support the feeling of loosely memorised tradition:

Call me Canute for choosing this cliff
for our new house, like the locals do. But Hannah,
it’ll weather the rain and the salt of the North Sea.
I can smell the grit and lime within this clay of Filey.
Our walls will stand a hundred years from now.
No one understands frontiers like a man
who’s seen the desecrating gold rush of the Yukon.

‘Upstairs, 1945’ (attributed to ‘Hannah’) locates the trials and hardships of familial love in pastoral metaphor. The woman’s words seem to become more childlike as she delves further into her memories:

The workhorse I married sired more buildings
than children. His muscle bound our home.

His sweat cemented these walls for our son,
his wife, their six, obliging them to nurse me now.

I hear her call me a lemon-lipped spoilsport.
They used to say my teas were suet.

This bed is too far from the window.
I can’t draw the curtains.

‘The First Meeting of Directors, 1957’ is one of several ‘rest-stops’ giving useful but dry information for the purpose of recapping and moving the narrative forward. Even as she uses thoroughly prosaic words, Hymas still pays close attention to line, rhythm and wry humour. The effect as a whole reminds me of the preacher who makes poignant use of those Biblical passages about nothing but genealogy:

    Mr Kibby hereby appointed Chairman of the Board.
    Proposed by Mrs Kibby. Seconded by Mr Kibby…

    Two hundred shares issued to Pa.
    Two hundred to Ma.

The smaller second section, Landfall travels out from the first into poems that explore themes already established – growth, sexual maturity, relationship, travel – in a fractured, wider-world context. Some of them feel slightly more predictably personal, even occasionally trite (‘Your Ears Send Me Delirious’) after the strong overall coherence of Bedrock. While they raise a smile in themselves, some of the comic moments (‘That morning, the choice of underpants was bewildering.’ – ‘Choice, 2003’) feel slightly out of place after the serious thematic depth of the previous section (especially because this one is already so short, it almost feels like an appendix). Speakers often go unnamed, the generic, lyrical ‘I’, ‘he’ or ‘she’ taking their place; so it’s hard not to pine for the well-drawn characters of Bedrock, who were fleshed out by story and setting. Finally, images occasionally seem less powerful without the narrative to ground them into specific time, place and concern. For example, ‘From Pelling’ admits to its struggle to effectively describe its mountains, uncomfortably mixing metaphors as it goes: ‘To call them mountains is to clamp / woodchip to magnolia, / chocolate bars to the Milky Way.’ I’m not sure why calling them mountains is comparable to these things, and clamping chocolate bars to the Milky Way seems unnecessary to this, or any, poem (and a too easy reach, considering the chocolate bar that is called ‘Milky Way’).

Perhaps it’s a case of the second section being trumped by the first. I almost wish Bedrock had been stretched out over the whole book. Therefore I recommend the collection, especially for readers looking for a fresh slant on the domestic lyric, or just a very enjoyable verse narrative. Host is well worth their while, and bodes well for Hymas’ future.

….reviewed by Mark Burnhope

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