Skip to main content

Review: Siân Hughes's The Missing



Siân Hughes’s The Missing is a short collection of, typically, short poems; a fact that belies this debut’s exactitude, hard-won emotional truths, and long road to completion. It is some thirteen years since Hughes’s vignette “Secret Lives”, appearing here in book form for the first time, first graced London’s tube trains as part of the Poems on the Underground project (and winner of a TLS competition), depicting a familiar suburban world of complex relationships with magical panache; where dressing gowns meet in the middle of the night to “head for a club they know / where the dress code is relaxed midweek, / and the music is strictly soul.” As much of The Missing demonstrates, Hughes has a real talent for capturing such fleeting, subtly significant incidents: a blend of delicate suggestion, invention and colourful wit characterizes her best poems, expressed in unobtrusive, idiomatic language. “The Girl Upstairs”, for example, treads the line between personal happiness and polite society’s expectations with conversational ease. Elsewhere, “The Stairs” provides a familiar snapshot of the difficulties of modern, often fragmented, young families, describing a party “where the children have taken the seats / in the living room”, and “no one consoles / the woman in a low-cut dress sitting outside the bathroom.”

Around midway through, however, the overall tone of the book changes: a shift from the playful, albeit tense feel of these earlier poems, to the brave and compelling pieces of the latter half. The focus here is parenting, particularly its many unforeseeable difficulties, with a number of poems addressing time spent in and out of hospital. These are as affecting and effective for their evocative, yet rarely merely decorative, description (“Fireworks on Ward 4C”), as for their arresting and deft use of speech patterns (in “Mengy Babies”, a distressed mother is found crying: “‘I kept phoning and telling them, something’s gone wrong.’”). But it is in a provocative elegy, “The Send-Off”, that Hughes’s writing seems most urgently committed. A haunting, touching address to the poet’s lost child, diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome before birth, it is difficult to examine the poem in typical critical terms: honest, and devoid of any agenda as it is. Along with many of the poems in The Missing, it memorably reveals the work of a writer capable of addressing emotionally difficult subjects with exceptional clarity and feeling.


first published in the Times Literary Supplement

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Trouble with Poetry: Billy Collins's Aimless Love - review

Dubbed the “most popular poet in America” by the New York Times, Billy Collins has won countless admirers for his chatty, witty, wholly dependable poetry. At pains to welcome the reader with avuncular charm, he writes lines that are more serious than they seem, though by how much, you’d be hard pressed to say. Wry and self-mocking, his favoured territory is the suburban everyday – a pop song stuck in your head; people-watching on public transport; a “perfect” spring day – though he is most at home striking a knowing and self-referential pose, “looking every inch the writer / right down to the little writer’s frown on my face”. ‘If This Were a Job I’d be Fired’, quips the title of one poem, its narrator swanning off having penned the most inconsequential of verses. Philip Larkin would have surely labelled him the “shit in the shuttered chateau”. But while some critics have called Collins a philistine, there is a productive quirkiness to his poems, finding surprise and profundity in unp…

Poetry in Motion

POETRY IN MOTION
Why one Reds supporter is committing his love for Liverpool FC to verse


Liverpool FC and poetry have a lot of previous – from John Toshack’s Gosh It’s Tosh collection in the late 70s, to the verse of Dave Kirby and Peter Etherington in the fanzine Red All Over the Land, to the lines written by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, a University of Liverpool graduate, in the aftermath of 2012’s Hillsborough findings. Now there’s Ben Wilkinson, Reds fan and book critic for The Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement, who’s compiling a series of poems commemorating the club’s legends. “Football is part of the fabric of life, and anything that’s important to people finds its way into poetry,” he says. “Wilfred Owen’s poem 'Disabled' describes a soldier who loses the use of his legs, meaning he can never play football again. Philip Larkin’s 'MCMXIV' compares boys queuing to join the army to fans outside Villa Park. These poems have stood the test of time because t…

Way More Than Luck (Seren Books, 2018)

From the thumping heartbeat of the distance runner to the roar of football terraces across the decades, Ben Wilkinson’s debut confronts the struggles and passions that come to shape a life. Beginning with an interrogation of experiences of clinical depression and the redemptive power of art and running, the collection centres on a series of vivid character portraits, giving life to some of football's legends. By turns frank, comic, sinister and meditative – ‘the trouble with you, son, is that all your brains are in your head’ – these poems uncover the beautiful game’s magic and absurdity, hopes and disappointments, as striking metaphors for our everyday dramas. Elsewhere there are tender love poems, political satire and strange dream worlds, in an urgently lyrical book of poems that take many forms and modes of address: pantoum, sonnet, sestina; epistle, confession, dramatic monologue. All are united by a desire to speak with searching clarity about matters of the heart. Way More …