Books: The sunday poem

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The Independent Culture
Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work

7. Selima Hill

To get over emotional truth as precisely as possible, Selima Hill's erotic, anxious, funny, deliberately ungrand poems combine naked directness with wildly original images, juxtapositions and far-out similes which pour through poems like loose change, upsetting some male readers who fail to see the disciplined intelligence at work. (Hill read Moral Sciences at Cambridge and won the 1988 Arvon/Observer Competition.) A magic realist, a surrealist, she writes convincing sonnets when the form suits the poem, but mainly opts to fall free and see where image, scrupulous cadences, and always digging deeper into emotional truth may take her. This is from her sixth collection, which explores the emotions you least want to face: jealousy and hatred.

The World's Entire Wasp Population

This feeling I can't get rid of

this feeling that someone's been reading

my secret diary

that I kept in our bedroom

because I thought nobody else but us

would want to go in there,

except it's not my diary,

it's my husband,

I'd like you to smear this feeling

all over and into her naked body like jam

and invite the world's entire wasp population,

the sick, the halt, the fuzzy,

to enjoy her.

A single-sentence poem about the helpless horror of knowing your husband's girlfriend knows your secrets, which grows from repetition (like a muttered prayer) to end in the sweetness of imagined revenge. The first four lines, bound by rs and ds ("rid", "reading", "secret", "diary", "bedroom"), create a private world which starts opening up at a new sound: "because". The poem exists "because" the bedroom's closed book - the first surprising image, "husband" as "secret diary" - has been broken into.

The line-breaks after "there", "diary", and "husband" would anyway suggest a pause, but commas underline it. As in algebra, they "show the working", the steps of thought away from impotent pain towards the final image. Hill prepares for the last image by the second one; "feeling" as "jam", which she gets to via "smear". (Resonances of cervical smears, smear campaigns, dirt.) In "jam", the initial feeling - unwashed linen exposed to a hostile gaze - solidifies into stickiness smeared back on the intruder whose "naked body" sums up what this poem is about: sexual jealousy. The last three lines implicate an "entire world" in this feeling and expand to formal, Biblical vocabulary. "Population", "halt": that archaic word brings back the initial ritual atmosphere, but now we are in curse territory, not prayer. "Sick" and "halt" remind us of the poet herself. The invitees are not happy wasps. They suffer - like her, or like beggars called by Christ to be healed.

The "zz" of "fuzzy" links the poet's dazed confusion, and original bedroom intimacy (pubic fuzz, "fuzzy" fluffy toys) to the final buzzing sting, where the poet enjoys imagining any "enjoyment" (eg her husband's) of this "naked body" turning into pain. Yet the anxiety, care, and self-scrutiny make this not so much a revenge poem, as a poem about evaluating your own desire for revenge.

c Ruth Padel, 1999

'The World's Entire Wasp Population' appears in Violet, Bloodaxe