Nocturne in Chrome and Sunset Yellow (Salt Publications, 2006) is Tobias Hill’s fourth poetry collection. Since his first three (1995-98), he has published three acclaimed novels and it’s interesting to see a return to publishing a poetry collection.
The title hints at a half-lit world, a world dropping towards darkness but still framed with colour and beauty, a world of ambiguity where hope and despair co-exist, a world where one can’t quite see clearly but where vision is still possible. When the symbolic properties of the title are combined with the urban landscape of the poems, many of them set in London, the tension and passion that drive Tobias Hill’s work becomes apparent.
Hill brings the city alive through precise description, but not the dead precision we might find on a tourist’s postcard. In A Year in London, a poem in twelve parts – one for each month – Hill presents last-minute shopping in the January snow, old men in April playing chess in a scene more resembling Paris than anything I would have associated with London, an old fishmonger in the Chinese supermarket in July, fireworks and the memory of bombs echoing through the November air. The city can’t be pinned down, it thrives on its collisions. Metaphorically, it’s described in May’s nightclub scene, in which clichéd romantic longings co-exist with cold reality:
…the air is warm
and everyone is diamonded with stars,
where anyone can star in their own film,
a musical where star-crossed lovers meet
and dance, and slow-dance under the stars
until the stars themselves blush and wink out.
Tobias Hill employs a ‘plain style’ and combines that with a gentle surrealism, enabling him to look in on a scene from unexpected angles. In Nine in the Morning in the Station Bar, the ‘Old Masters’ on the wall tell the narrator that the trains will be a long time coming, while old men drink and a jukebox plays Relax, Don’t Do It over the Teletubbies on a silent TV screen. The poem ends on a despairing note, as if all possibilities have been closed off:
The Teletubbies rediscover shadows.
Frankie goes on and on to Hollywood.
Nine in the morning in the station bar,
and nobody comes in, and nobody goes home.
Several of the poems concern people who seem similarly trapped, although not all of them are without hope. The boy in the underground, lost in the world of his iPod and oblivious to all around him, could “disconnect, and all this will be yours, my son.” On the other hand, the woman driving away from a failed relationship in the deftly-constructed sonnet, Yellow, is left only with:
beautiful things. The perfect words you say
only later, too late, driving away.
One impressive aspect of these poems is how even the poems on domestic affairs connect to wider concerns. They don’t preach about the state of urban humanity, but render it visible, open it to enquiry, and often pierce the heart. The emotional core of a poem can often be translated from writer to reader through rhythm as much as through content. I remember first reading Eliot and being struck by how apparently simple phrases could affect me with the power of music, and Tobias Hill’s poems work in a similar way. Most aren’t strictly metrical, but there is an awareness of metre, a pulsing undercurrent, that succeeds in transmitting emotional depth. Combined with Hill’s narrative skill and ability to create tension, poems like Repossession have immediate impact from the opening lines:
The first we heard of it was the silence.
There was a morning with seagulls in it.
The air was grey, and held the smell of salt,
and when the rain began at last, at noon
a black van pulled in by the off-license,
so silently you had to look…
Who wouldn’t want to read on to the end after that beginning?!
The characters in these poems try desperately to make sense of the world, or at least to find a way to live in it with integrity. Different existences collide, just as they do in any city’s high street, and the poems strive to make their response. In The Wave, the narrator and his wife go about heir daily tasks while information on the East Asia tsunami disaster rolls in endlessly. They observe the silences and give to the appeals:
There is much more that we could know
and nobody can tell where it will stop,
or if it ever will. This is the news.
What should I do with this? you say, and then
What should I do with this?
But such questioning doesn’t end in apathy and despair. Tobias Hill’s poems take despair seriously, but don’t wallow in it, and seek as far as they can to glimpse hope. Most of the time, the hope felt hard-earned, but now and again, such as in Horse Chestnuts, where a quarrelling couple make up, recognising the pettiness of their arguments compared to the bond they have, I felt a potentially good poem was spoiled by a contrived symbol – the chestnuts fall from the trees and “reveal themselves, not cold/ or spent, but bright as blood, beating hearts.” I guess some readers might like that, but to me it felt like meaning constructed by the poet – too neat to be convincing.
On the other hand, the final poem, Nocturne, gives hope and feels authentic, and is more representative of this subtle and moving collection. A man walks through London by night, and all around are images of closure and death. Someone asks, Are we there yet? a question that takes on existential scope “in the blind spot/ you didn’t mean to find this evening/ or any night.” This is where so many poems leave readers, that blind spot where everything stops – the nearest one can come to a destination. But Tobias Hill has a few lines left:
You must be leaving.
Don’t look back now. Pick up your feet,
and keep walking. And keep on walking.
Nice review. I've just read and enjoyed this book too. I think, as you suggest, it only really fails when he starts trying too hard. Otherwise it's a pleasure, and almost makes me start thinking of London more kindly.
That's a really thorough review - why don't the PBS employ you to write reviews ;)
That's it in a nutshell, Matt. I don't often get to London, but the book almost made me want to take a trip.
Barbara, if anyone wants to pay me to write reviews, they are welcome to get in touch! I do write regular reviews for Sphinx magazine, of course. And another UK magazine is about to send me a couple of books to review. More of that another time. Although no money is on the cards.
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