Tuesday, June 10, 2008

9. From Kensal Rise to Heaven - Michael Hofmann

Missed yesterday. I’ll try to catch up.

From Kensal Rise to Heaven is a series of snapshots of urban squalor, written in unrhymed quatrains. A description isn’t just a description but a view through the poet’s lenses, a snapshot of his sensibility and opinion.

The “passed deadlines” on old posters must be “disappointed/ to find they still exist”. Numbers for prostitutes adorn the public phone booths, dogs and pigeons rake through the rubbish, the street is spattered with blood from the evening before. The usual black humour is much in evidence. MH describes the repainting of a local Chinese restaurant around a naked calendar girl and finds time to mention that “I see an orange topcoat calls for a pink undercoat.” As for the plague of flat-roofed houses– “some are truncated pyramids, others whole glazed shacks”, the mix of the positive-sounding ‘pyramids’ and ‘glazed’ being entirely undercut by ‘truncated’ and ‘shacks’ (note those thumping stresses at the end of that line too) – a long way from the title’s ‘heaven’ of course. I’m sure there’s a name for that technique…

There is a political dimension to this although it’s never specifically mentioned. This is 1986, Thatcher’s Britain, the age of the yuppie, what was billed as a time of privitisation, the emasculation of the trade union movement, an economic boom and prosperity (soon followed by a bust), but Hofmann’s poem captures how things really were for most people, many of whom – inexplicably – had voted Conservative.

My favourite lines are:

The surfaces are friable, broken and dirty, a skin unsuitable
for chemical treatment. Building, repair and demolition
go on simultaneously, indistinguishably. Change and decay.
– When change is arrested, what do you get?

‘Change and decay’ is lifted from the hymn, Abide with Me – “Change and decay in all around I see. O thou who changest not, abide with me.”


Anonymous said...

And there's that recurring theme again: the Chinese calendar girl

"simpers behind potplants like a jungle dawn."

Another one of my favourites, this. The tower blocks (Dickens House, Blake Court, etc.) being "thirteen-storey giants" .. so there's both the incongruity of overpowering commercialism christened after artistic figures and also a humble nod to their literary stature in comparison to MH's own.

And about the "sweet dessert colours" of the houses' paintwork in comparison to the red road:

"They spoil it, but you understand
they are there as the sugar in tomato soup is there."

That "but you understand" is a slippery phrase to judge .. and all the better for it I think. Is he imparting knowledge, in a mock-stuffy way, or acknowledging something which others already know?

And this line:

"the slippery, ecclesiastical gleam of wet slate."

.. about a school roof which also features a Byzantine crucifix. 'Slippery' on its own prompts a bit of thought .. the relationship between church and state, perhaps.

After the references to casual and bloody violence earlier in the poem, 'slippery' here has an element of danger to it which it might not otherwise carry. Not least because ice skaters Torvil & Dean are also mentioned afterwards ... something heading for a nasty fall.


Anonymous said...

And you've got Kendal in the post title instead of Kensal ... you're thinking of mint cake and another place altogether :-)


Rob said...

Kendal! Oh no... No, I knew it was Kensal, not Kendal, but a subconscious slice of mint cake (which I don't even like) must have got to me. And of course, d is next to s on my keyboard... I did write 'Kensal' in the post, just not in the title. I'll change it.

Well-thought-out comments as ever, Andy.