The Guardian Art Critic, Adrian Searle, wrote that there are many artists, “who, furrowing their brows and trying to convince us of their seriousness, aren’t half as profound or compelling.” He was referring to Turner Prize 2013 Nominee David Shrigley, but he might equally have been speaking about Selima Hill, whose latest work, Jutland includes two sequences, “Advice on Wearing Animal Prints” and “Sunday afternoons at the Gravel-pits”.
Previously published as poetry pamphlet, picking up the Michael Marks award, “Advice on Wearing Animal Prints” consists of twenty-six poems titled sequentially after the letters of the alphabet. Typical of the whimsical aspects of Hill’s work, the letters seemingly have no meaning other than as a device to lead us through a narrative poem series about an Agatha who, going by the perspective of size, might be an animal, or perhaps an animal representative of a human. Accordingly, these poems present the most remarkable surreal visions with some very simple language; in “K”,
She rolls against the door like a giant
who rolls against the door of a club
where giants in uncomfortable dresses
soothe each other with their large hands.
Humour and anthropomorphism are tools which are employed to great effect, making the bizarre seem real and relevant – in “M”,
She’s on the terrace, dressed as a cow
(with real milk!) when a tall giraffe
Bespangled with white fairy-lights comes up…
However, the poet then progresses to present darker, more serious visions – in “Z”:
but by the time they reach her
it’s too late.
She’s lying on the floor as good as gold.
No wonder she can’t breathe, she’s got no breath.
By the end of the first sequence, the reader is left with a headful of outlandish images and a feeling of unease about the violence perpetrated on and by Agatha, and this is good preparation for reading the poems in “Sunday afternoons at the Gravel-pits”.
From the very start, there are mixed feelings – the humour is still there, the surrealism, but now every poem is laced with portent. We start with “Golfer in the Snow”;
My father, when he sees his new-born daughter,
Stiffens like a golfer in the snow
who thinks he’s going to cry when it hits him
he hasn’t got a golf-course any more.
“My father” is the recurring theme throughout all these poems, and the poems are linked with repeated images of swimming, water, flowers, animals and children. As the reader continues, it becomes clear that each poem can be considered freestanding, or can be read as a set of memories and images. Are some of these poems recollections of childhood abuse? Hill certainly hints strongly that this is the case. In “Rubber”,
His lap is like a lap made of rubber
from which it isn’t easy to escape
because this rubber is the sort of rubber
that makes your skin go red if it touches it.
By the time we reach “My Father’s Horse”,
I should have been a girl he could have raped,
I should have been a woman, or a horse…
and then on to “Hope”:
I know that if I’m ever to forgive him
I have to give up hope – by which I mean
hope for an entirely different past
to supercede the past I must forgive him for.
The multiple references in this second collection to some form of abuse are clouded by the reliance on memory – but then all recollections, all memories are essentially flawed by time and subjectivity. Yet at their heart, somewhere lies the truth; and as Hill herself has said, “I like to think that I’m giving a voice to the silenced”.
And herein rests the beauty of Hill’s craft. The poems in Jutland, in their vivid, capricious, surreal, carefully constructed and brutally honest style have at their heart the simple act of human expression, with all its failings and strengths; and underneath all these layers, the purest of truths.