Charlotte Gann reviews The Hopeful Hat by Carole Satyamurti (Bloodaxe, 2023)
Spending time with this posthumous collection is, for me, like spending time with someone alone with her thoughts. These poems are quiet, insistent, intimate. They’re plain speaking. Her canvas ranges from the personal to the global. And the collection draws to its close with a gentle, poignant sharing of the facing of her death.
An earlier section starts with the poem ‘Voicing the Void’. The ‘Foreword’, written by the poet’s daughter, Emma Satyamurti, tells that, after being diagnosed with laryngeal cancer, the poet had her voice-box and part of her tongue removed. Many of Carole Satyamurti’s poems explore this loss, and she refers to the human tongue as “this most potent sixty grams of flesh – / this truth-teller, this incendiary organ” in ‘Glossal’.
Yet there’s also a paring back, a necessary reducing, distilling, as this life draws to its close. I particularly enjoy her personal, in-the-moment poems. An experiment in mindful washing up, for instance, in ‘How to Wash Dishes on the Eightfold Path’, which has its own, delicious cadence: “the music of clatter and jingle / never quite like this before, ever.”
There’s music throughout these pages, and “hope’s stubborn paraphernalia” – a phrase I particularly like, used to describe a piano restorer’s tools in ‘Grand’. This also carries an echo for me of that hopeful hat.
These poems are quiet, insistent, intimate. They’re plain speaking. Her canvas ranges from the personal to the global
The poem ‘Inheritance’ sets out its store characteristically clearly:
I woke up worrying –
how would all my possessions
fit into my daughter’s small house?
I first encountered Carole Satyamurti in a book she co-edited with Hamish Canham: Acquainted with the Night: Psychoanalysis and the Poetic Imagination (Tavistock Clinic Series, 2003; the essay she authored had a lasting impact on me, as I acknowledge here, in my piece for The Frip on The Understory Conversation). I was immediately struck by how cannily she used narrative poems to explore psychoanalytic theory. And this poem ‘Inheritance’ seems another good example. There’s the practical, real, end-of-life problem of how her house-contents will be “scattered unloved”. And then, of course, there’s the metaphorical sense of ‘Inheritance’ – all she’s passed on emotionally and psychologically, and how she can trust she will be held in mind.
Had I imagined
that my whole life’s experience
would be assimilated into, crammed
into hers, and she too small to carry it?
The collection’s title poem – which is also the opening poem – features a “smug Victorian clock tower” (this is Crouch End, North London, this review in The Observer speculates where, it says, the poet lived). A woman “is blowing a bright pink descant recorder” but only playing “one hopeless note” repeatedly, we learn; “Beside her, on the ground, a hopeful hat”. It’s a sad scene, of course, and I like the line “I pass her several times across the morning”, but in the end the strongest emotion noted seems to be embarrassment. It interests me that this, then, is the image chosen for the whole book’s title. Is there the faint implication that the poet herself, or perhaps all writers, are a little like that busker, with a “hopeful hat” on the pavement?
Is there the faint implication that the poet herself, or perhaps all writers, are a little like that busker, with a “hopeful hat” on the pavement?
The poem ‘Small Change’ has “rough sleepers / strung out at intervals against the wall”. I’m often wary of poems written about other people’s experience. But here I’m persuaded by the care taken in her choice of words, especially “stunned” and “savaged”, which seem to me to meet the trauma:
Some are mounds under filthy quilts,
some sit, savaged by the wind, as if
stunned by trains thundering overhead.
And she is truthful about her own position:
Step after step, I stare ahead,
fixed on my warm and well-shaped destination.
What has a poem got to do with this?
I like that “well-shaped destination”. I think this is something she does particularly well: marrying the literal and the figurative (the collection title is another good example). And the more fully her speaker inhabits a scene the more I, in turn, feel moved by it. One of my favourite poems is ‘New Year on T14’. It’s set in a ward in University College Hospital – which is where, we also learn from the Foreword, the poet later died.
On Head and Neck, we’re at the window
with our drip-stands and drainage bottles,
fourteen floors nearer infinity.
Continuous tail-lights on the Euston Road
are rubies strung across wet tarmac.
It’s quiet up here. I think of peacocks
some people keep for their gorgeousness
and have the screech surgically removed.
Not that any of us looks remotely gorgeous
in our assorted, graceless dressing gowns.
I find this beautiful and elegantly worded. The speaker is very clearly part of the ‘us’, while retaining her humorous, detached, compassionate perspective. Satyamurti does have this observer quality to her work, which seems important. She likes to be alone and watch. In ‘Solitude’, she shares: “To be alone / is to taste existence”. And of course that aloneness takes on more and more weight and resonance as her life’s end approaches.
The book grows ever stiller and more beautiful, for this reader, as it progresses. There’s something about choosing the right words – ones that will bear fruit and witness
The rooms she lives in also have their own presence and identity, and she wants to be alert to those too, as well as to the seasons moving through the natural world outside. I like the short poem ‘Endurance’, where she notes the creaks and aging in the fabric of her home. Or, here, from ‘Sight Reading’:
Perhaps there’s some deep refusal
of harmonious twoness – as when
I asked you to move out, and the house
returned to sounding its single note
then settled back to silence.
There’s another “single note”, like that recorder played under the smug clock tower, but used to such different effect here. That “silence” is obviously really important too, and not only for her own lost speech – after all, “How redundant most words are”, she notes in ‘Sea Change’.
The book grows ever stiller and more beautiful, for this reader, as it progresses. There’s something about choosing the right words, ones that will bear fruit and witness. (In ‘Hold On’, she instructs “get out there / with your small voice, your light tread.”) And I like the final pages most, as the book, and we, bid farewell. The gift of words shared when “all the happening has already happened”, as she puts it in her poem, ‘Happening’. Or – once we’re on the ‘Shoreline’ – as a late poem is called: “You are less separate than you imagine.”
Float, then, at anchor for now,
rising, falling on the sea’s dark breast
without effort, until the hawser,
slackening, releases you
into the oceans of the world.
Charlotte Gann is an editor from Sussex. She has an English degree from UCL, and an MA in Creative Writing and Personal Development from the University of Sussex. She lived in London for years, working as Editor of Health Which?, among other roles, then moved to Brighton and had two sons. Her pamphlet, The Long Woman (Pighog Press, 2011), was shortlisted for the 2012 Michael Marks Award and her two full collections, Noir (2016) and The Girl Who Cried (2020), are published by HappenStance. She’s a freelance editor, helps on Sphinx Review, and is developing a project she’s calling The Understory Conversation.