Annie Fisher reviews Women in Comfortable Shoes by Selima Hill (Bloodaxe Books, 2023)
This is the twenty-first poetry collection from the unstoppable Selima Hill. These days she tends to present her work as sequences of small poems, some extremely minimal. Women in Comfortable Shoes consists of eleven such sequences. Their power lies not so much in the individual poems as in the cumulative, immersive effect of each sequence, and in Hill’s charismatic voice which seizes attention from the get-go. The subject matter is, as it has always been, her life – her memories, passions and preoccupations. In this collection she writes about these things from the perspective of a woman who’s reached the age of ‘comfortable shoes’.
Selima Hill has written and spoken about her Asperger’s. The syndrome is, I think, a significant factor in making her poetry as unique as it is. There is an unfiltered brazenness to her writing, a childlike outspokenness, and a mischievous playfulness. Her poems zing with unpredictable sensory details, such as in ‘Froth’ from the sequence ‘Reduced to a Quivering Jelly’ which concerns an elderly woman called Vera:
Large and fragrant (like a launderette
that smells of bedding and encrusted froth,
froth that’s now the texture of holly)
Vera sits and glares at the street,
at people getting younger and younger
and further and further away.
Hill often introduces the sense of smell into her poems. Here’s another example from ‘The Smell of Cows’, part of the same sequence:
Everywhere she goes she smells cows.
Even the montbretia smells of cows.
She’ll be fine when she’s sitting down.
The smell of cows plus sitting down: perfect!
Vera understands the smell of cows.
Selima Hill is never boring. She has a way of hooking you in with titles that are sometimes lyrical, sometimes weird, sometimes funny: ‘The Shimmering Plains of Africa’; ‘The Blood-Stained Mower’; ‘Large and Small and Medium Sized Face Cloths’. Similarly, the oddity and immediacy of her opening lines means you simply have to read on, for example: “Our love was like the love of two potatoes”. As for last lines, they are never what you expect, and never anything you might have come up with yourself – such lines as: “They float away like babies in formaldehyde”. Or: “Maybe she just sleeps all day like pears”. Writing like this might look easy to do until you try it. Selima Hill succeeds at it because she isn’t trying – she’s describing precisely how she experiences the world. She’s not trying to be odd. I’m not even sure she’s trying to be funny.
She’s not trying to be odd. I’m not even sure she’s trying to be funny
Certain themes recur – childhood, mothers, men and desire for men, animals, her love of swimming, aging, the feeling of being different. My favourite sequences were those to do with childhood, where the voice of an unbiddable, intelligent, questioning child is utterly authentic. Selima Hill went to a convent boarding school, as I did. To my mind, she captures the singularity of the boarders’ world brilliantly. This is from the poem ‘Hula-hooping on the Log-Shed Roof’:
No wonder they can’t stand it. I mean look at us
hula-hooping on the log shed roof.
Showing off again. They can’t stand it.
And here’s a lovely image from the poem, ‘Perfection’:
All we want to do is spend our days
walking upside down on our hands
across the lawn and round the lily pond.
We brush the daisies with our perfect hair.
Everything about us is perfect –
our Aertex shirts, our Chilprufe underwear,
our tiny shorts the colour of meringues.
She sees the huge gulf between the child and the adult world – a gulf which was much greater in the fifties than today. This is from the poem ‘Sherbet Lemons’ (Hill adores sherbet lemons!):
Perched up in the tree we’re not allowed in,
we suck our sherbet lemons – while our fathers
strut around the desks of distant offices
encased in suits like men encased in icicles;
our disinfected mothers, meanwhile,
squeezed inside their corsets, slips and brassieres,
take up their positions in their kitchens […]
Hill loves to riff on words she likes the sound of – ‘laburnum’ is one. ‘Shimmering’ is another. In the poem ‘Summer Term’, images of a privileged, yet emotionally deprived girlhood quiver like a distant oasis:
The assistant matron’s shimmering eyes and eyelids,
the shimmering tufts of lemon meringue pie,
the shimmering hooks and eyes of tiny bras,
the shimmering Sunbeam Talbot’s tortoiseshell dash,
the shimmering courts, the shimmering drool of cows,
the smooth and shimmering marble of our armpits […]
It’s a whole movie – so simple but so vivid. She never wastes a word.
… images of a privileged, yet emotionally deprived girlhood quiver like a distant oasis
Hill’s ‘sensory’ style and use of animal imagery work wonderfully when she’s writing about desire. The sequence of poems weirdly titled ‘Girls without Hamsters’ concerns an older woman’s obsession with a younger man. This is from a tiny poem called ‘The Fly’:
Like a fly
walking on a fish,
I almost touched your hand,
And I loved this image from the poem ‘Tenderness’:
Like a shoal of fish in the sea
the words I need suddenly change direction
and head off somewhere else as if to say
Tenderness? Don’t even think about it!
I seem to see the world more vividly and sense it more intensely after reading Selima Hill, and this highly readable collection is no exception. She shakes things up and wakes up your mind like no other poet. She’d probably hate to hear me saying this but – genius!
Annie Fisher’s background is in primary education, initially as a teacher and later as an English adviser. Now semi-retired she writes poetry for both adults and children and sometimes works as a storyteller in schools. She has had two pamphlets published with HappenStance Press: Infinite in all Perfections (2016) and The Deal (2020). She is a member of Fire River Poets, Taunton