Matthew Paul reviews Instead of an Alibi by Geoff Hattersley (Broken Sleep Books, 2023)
For those familiar with Geoff Hattersley’s work, reading Instead of an Alibi – his first publication since his 2012 collection Outside the Blue Hebium — is like unexpectedly meeting an old mate in the pub for the first time in years. You know you’ll pick up where you left off without any awkwardness, and that what you’ll hear will be richly entertaining and full of life in all its shades. For readers new to Hattersley’s work, this collection offers access to tales which may well be tall (see his poem ‘Coming Clean’), but will also be both piercingly resonant and funny.
Hattersley has had an itinerant poetry career; he’s been published by Littlewood, Bloodaxe, Wrecking Ball Press and Smith|Doorstop. He has now found a home at Broken Sleep Books, which is very good news indeed. Few poets can write poems which have as consistently brilliant openings and last lines as he can – and what comes in between ain’t bad either. Take ‘Stuck With It’, which starts and ends as follows:
He looks like he ended up with the face he earned
after smoking opium for ten years
through the oily barrel of a rifle
There’s an old jazz melody in his head.
Orange was the colour of her dress, then blue silk.
It’s good to think of stuff like that at times like this.
Some of Hattersley’s poems are like those word-ladders where you’re given a first and last word and a number of intervening blanks, and you have to change the first word into the last by altering one letter at a time: you know it will all make sense even if at first it looks impossible. He also writes fine portraits of odd, often fragile and sometimes criminally dangerous characters encountered in West Riding towns, such as “the ugliest gravedigger / in the whole of England” who’s “already threatened / to smack my face in once” (‘Head of Steam’). In ‘Bottleneck’, an old acquaintance is remembered:
He went to a very dark place
his wife tells us, her face like chalk,
and stayed there till the day he died.
We try to picture Pete in his dark place.
The last line contains both Hattersley’s dry humour and a more serious undercurrent. The backdrop to his poems is the post-Thatcher urban landscape in which employment has, for better or worse, long ceased to be industrial and steady, and “levelling up” is as fictional as it is gimmicky. ‘Warehouse’ revisits the impact of the old industries on Hattersley’s father: “We drove to work / in silence, more or less; / he was hard-of-hearing / from the steelworks – / fifteen long years then just like that / no more steelworks.”
For readers new to Hattersley’s work, this collection offers access to tales which may well be tall but will also be both piercingly resonant and funny
In one poem, ‘Hey There’, the subject might be the poet himself, and its principal cultural reference has connotations which take the poem to a wholly different place:
How come you find it acceptable
to watch quiz shows all of a sudden?
You scaled Masada once like a gazelle,
now look at you.
This derision – which continues superbly with “You’re there like a bongo / no one ever bangs a rhythm out on” – is affectionately wounding. Its comedy, like Hattersley’s more broadly, isn’t straightforward, and is likely to catch the reader unawares. In ‘Grumpy’, what could just be a joyless rant about the detriments of train travel in the north of England, is enlivened by comic exaggeration concerning his fellow travellers: “God’s second son / could fly by the window on a winged pig // and not one of them would notice, / not one.” Occasionally, the humour can be very dark, as in ‘Knife’ which opens “Always carry a knife” and is short, sharp and surprising. It can also take off into a flight of fancy, as in ‘Action’ which starts “One time I was a computer salesman / who stapled his scrotum to this thigh for a bet / and that wasn’t even the stupid bit.” (It gets more surreal in the next stanza.) Hattersley can do knockabout too, though always with sombre undertones, as in two adjacent poems:
You were scoffing fish ’n’ chips by lock gate six
when things went BOOM! You were burnt black, hairless,
rendered quite deaf, and you lost your sense of humour.
(‘Another Fine Mess’)
Punching the same ragged riff half to death
the tuning all over the place
he just knew he’d never impress anyone. So
he did a Pete Townshend, which was a hoot,
and taught himself instead to drink eight pints
without losing control of the pool table.
(‘1970s British Blues’)
Both these poems are in tercets, a form which Hattersley frequently employs. There is consummate subtlety and skill in the shape and sound of his poems. It is not just their stanzaic aspects, but also their varied line-lengths, line-endings (the dramatic pause of that hanging ‘So’) and – crucially – musicality (it’s instructive to read aloud that ‘Punching’ line) that combine to bring the best out of the stories he tells. Anecdotal poetry is scorned by some critics of contemporary poetry for not being sufficiently high-register and apparently too easy, but – essentially – it is the making public of what were once private stories, for wider benefit. In the case of Hattersley’s poetry, I have no doubt whatsoever that it enhances the poetic wellbeing of the UK and beyond, and its production is far from easy. If the anecdotal mode was invariably the default of the New York School poets, then its transplanting with a Yorkshire accent and attitude should not be disparaged. But however much those poets influenced Hattersley, he is without doubt his own man. Nowhere is that better illustrated in this book than in the five-poem sequence, ‘In t’ George’, of dramatic monologues by various Wombwell locals in their own voices:
Ah’d love a good smoke o’ resin though
Afghan black, summat like that
Like it used ter bi, ah meeun, back in t’ days
Tha cun’t g’ wrong wi’ that stuff
Thi mind went fuckin’ ivvrywheeur
(‘4. Cockroach’s Lament’)
To write in dialect English is an innately political act, an assertion against the ever-increasing spread of received pronunciation and the privilege underpinning it. Here, Hattersley augments the nobility of that act by capitalising the start of each line, something he does in other poems only rarely. Each of the five monologues captures an individual’s cadence, whether airing resurfaced memories or simply in mid-flow about their current fixations.
To write in dialect English is an innately political act, an assertion against the ever-increasing spread of received pronunciation and the privilege underpinning it
A parody of ‘If’ provides a long, but memorable list-poem, encompassing gems like these:
and if Tarring Neville was not a village but a procedure
and if Peter, Paul and Mary had been called Dick, Balls and Quim
and if no one spent their life looking for stuff to sniff at
The collection’s third and final section consists of poems set – and/or presumably written – during the Covid pandemic. Hattersley recalls the unreal scenes already receding into history, such as queueing for ages just to get into the supermarket:
A Nigel Farage thinkalike
in front of me turns round
to give me his version of things,
which goes on and on
as the shopping body shuffles forward
like it’s not well, forty minutes
(‘In the Springtime’)
The tedium and pain of that period, which included, for Hattersley, the onset of his father’s dementia, reaches its apogee at the end of ‘Winter Lockdown Blues’ with “Sometimes I get so desperate I recollect / something in me tired of turning the other cheek.” I think most of us can relate to that. But we can also surely relate to Geoff Hattersley’s chief existential concerns: everyday cynicism, fear and general sense of dissatisfaction, interspersed by extraordinary moments which enable faint optimism to prevail. It is heartening to see the return of this unique talent whose wisdom and wit are as relevant and necessary now as they ever were.
Matthew Paul lives in Rotherham and worked as a local government education officer for many years. His first collection, The Evening Entertainment, was published by Eyewear in 2017. He is also the author of two haiku collections, The Regulars (2006) and The Lammas Lands (2015), and is co-writer / editor (with John Barlow) of Wing Beats: British Birds in Haiku (2008), all published by Snapshot Press. Matthew Paul’s blog is here.