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Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Portrait of My Lover as a Horse by Selima Hill

There’s a scene late on in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me where a white horse momentarily materialises in the bedroom of Laura Palmer’s parents — a surreal moment in a totally surreal film, for sure, but also a moment full of symbolic significance, as the film revolves around weirdly wrong things appearing or happening in bedrooms.

The cover of Selima Hill’s new collection features a photograph by Neil Astley of a horse rather absurdly standing in a room, and the same kind of symbolic disjunctions are achieved here and by the poems in the book. Natural things crash against cultural things; human spaces are invaded by beasts and other elements of the wild world. Words revel in their incongruous, promiscuous juxtapositions, and sentences begin sensibly and end in bewildering confusions of logic, like the one that makes up ‘Portrait of My Lover as an Elephant’:

to my serpentine hotel
where elephants exterminate small fish
by sucking them out of the fishtanks with their trunks
and squeezing them tighter and tighter until they die
and the glittering corpses catch in their ears like tiaras
that drop to the floor
where anyone running will skid
and sink without trace down a tunnel of endless night
where elephant babies are rocking themselves to sleep
while making peculiar little gasping noises.”

Portrait of My Lover as a Horse features one hundred similar poems, similarly titled, offering portraits of the Lover as anything from an Angel to a Zebra, from a Beetle to a Root — anything, that is, except a Horse, the portrait of which of course adorns the book’s cover. While this strategy is superficially jokey and entertaining, the David Lynch parallel quickly comes into play through the dimension of menace that Hill injects into these portraits. The book as a whole reads like a sinister act of evasion, a telling which fails to fully tell, a series of portraits concealed by the shadows of a dark relationship.

‘Portrait of My Lover as a Swan’ exemplifies this quality:

“A frozen lake
encrusted with dead swans
is not as stiff
as how I lie with you.”

The image here reveals its grounding in intense emotion even as it displaces that emotion; stiffness here is the chill of a deathly fear, transforming the “lying” into some kind of deception. The poem situates itself on surfaces (“the frozen lake”, the “stiff” body) in order to shock us into a revelation of the depth of the fear it addresses, and, as in many of Hill’s poems, we are forced to question the status and condition of the narrating persona.

Hill has used the format of recurrent titles before, in the sequence “My Sister’s Sister” in 1997’s collection Violet, and Portrait of My Lover . . . pushes this device to the extreme of an entire volume, alphabetically arranged but mocking the apparent order of such an arrangement by the sheer inventiveness of the poems in their seeking out of disturbing analogies.

Echoes of other poets abound (Yeats in the ‘Swan’, William Carlos Williams in ‘Wheelbarrow’, and even TS Eliot in ‘Teapot’, with its image of a violin playing “with all the sweet indifference of dreams / to sleepy women in remote hotels”). There’s a pervading sense here of a game being played with the reader, not so much ‘spot the allusion’ as ‘watch me conjure a line here, a cadence there, and then watch them evaporate’.

Several of the poems use the rhetorical device of the Lord as addressee, in the manner of hymns. The conflation of Lover and Lord introduces a religious dimension to the collection that is again hard to pin down in terms of its intention, but that allows moments of intense lyric beauty to appear, as in ‘Pearl’:

“Reduce yourself,
O Lord, to a pearl
made of nothing
but grains of polished sand
training themselves to become perfect spheres.”

The juxtaposition of poems like this with the more menacing ones noted above suggests that one of the book’s projects is to map out the diverse fluctuations of the experience of love; moments of tranquillity reside next to, and even within, moments of violent dynamism, and emotional certainties are wracked by emotional tensions. The experience of love, Hill seems to suggest, is always both tainted and enhanced by the accompanying fears and uncertainties it carries with it.

The collection closes with ‘Zebra’, which comes as close as any poem here to being exemplary of Hill’s ability to commingle the mundane and the astute, the bizarre and the humdrum, the shocking and the reassuring, the domestic and the exotic, closing as it does with a gradual modulation of rhythm into the conventional five-stress line:

” . . . the rabbits are striped
and the zebra’s a friend of mine
and the eyes of the cats
are the colour of vegemite jars:
O grant me, Lord, one night
beside a zebra,
one perfect sandy night
beside a zebra
that lets me rest my head against its neck.”

Ultimately Selima Hill’s world shares much with that of the Surrealists and their inheritors, including David Lynch, and her poetry offers a disquieting take on the domestic and psychological experiences of the modern woman (comparisons made between her earlier volumes and the films of Bunuel and Almodovar hit the mark here). She takes us on a trip that exploits the latent absurdity of words in their efforts to paint pictures and portraits, and shows us that surfaces, no matter how convincing, always require us to plumb the depths beneath them.