Caroline Bird – The Hat-Stand Union

Statement of Prejudice: I’ve met Bird a couple of times and seen her read once. She’s an engaging performer, and has a vital ability to win over an audience to her skewed, wry universe. She also performs from memory, which always looks like sorcery to me.

Reality: You’d be forgiven for arguing The Hat-Stand Union doesn’t make a great first impression. The opening poems make explicit reference to their own ‘pose’, have at their heart a kind of playfulness that could easily be grating in the wrong hands, and run very tight to the sentimental touchline. There is a cumulative effect at work, however, and by the first section’s title poem, ‘Mystery Tears’, the subversive current boils over. The poem concerns an imaginary drug that allows the user to cry at will; Bird chases the conceit down to a very human point, that at some time in our lives we will be very literally addicted to our own emotional extremes. The closing line ‘Each day she woke up// calmer and calmer,’ hits unexpectedly hard.

Bird deploys this strategy throughout the opening section, toeing the line between her whimsical set-ups and often brutal punchlines, constantly negotiating between an impulse for the dreamy, illogical endless possibilities of the imagination and the flat, inconsequential responsibilities of life. Though a few pieces are slightly overwhelmed by their own creativity (‘Snow Hotel’, ‘Faith’), they still function as valuable counterweights to the shocks of realism (or real feeling maybe) in the strongest pieces in the section, ‘Method Acting’, ‘The Dry Well’ (a personal favourite because of its economy, stoicism and clear message that could almost be an ars poetica), and ‘Genesis’, one of several poems in The Hat-Stand Union that directly confront the discrepancy between middle-class disbelief (‘The people from the London suburbs don’t believe in God’) and a deeply felt need for something to replace it. The poem’s submerged suggestion is a more thoroughly engaged care for the other members of a shared community than ‘sigh[ing] for the economy’, ‘criticis[ing] each other’s choices when we love/ with all our hearts’, or the easy superstitions of Ouija boards and (implicitly) big cars, prescription drugs and fluffy liberalism.

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Worth noting here that Bird is more alert to and a better practitioner of rhetorical patterning than the vast majority of her contemporaries. She builds a convincing argument through repetition and variation of phrase that gives her work a structural energy lacking in most other poets (witness ‘This Was All About Me’, ‘Sea Bed’, ‘2:19 to Whitstable’, ‘The Promises’ and the superb ‘Medicine’). She’s also keenly aware of the comic potential of these structures, for example, ‘A Dialogue Between Artist and Muse’, in full:

John Donne: A fly is a more noble creature than the sunne, because a fly hath life and the sunne hath not
A fly: I find you extremely patronising

Also worth noting are ‘There Once was a Boy Named Bosh’, ‘Fantasy Role-Play’ and ‘Spat’, each of them capable and convincing little nightmares of suburban walls slowly closing in on their protagonists and their variously successful attempts to escape. which might be insufferable but for the implicated sincerity conveyed by Bird’s omniscient narrator.

The middle section, ‘The Truth About Camelot’, is an odd little sequence about Arthur’s violent madness and the inevitable disintegration of the kingdom. The sequence falls a little short of providing either a rounded narrative or a fruitful vantage point from which to criticise life the way the first and last sections do, and is perhaps better understood as an entertaining, if slight, breathing space between the book’s more emotionally demanding passages.

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The third section, ‘Sea Bed’, is very much a return to form, its opening poem ‘Damage’ hitting like a mailed coif after ‘Camelot’’s relative flippancy. Here, Bird’s characteristic run of free-associative sentences on the same subject (in this case a woman’s fanciful traumas) culminate in the narrative voice’s late intrusion: ‘I met her during the winter./ She said, ‘I need someone to save me.’ I did/ what any sensible person would have done. I did/ what any sensible person would have done.’ Those line breaks are heartbreaking. The poem is a good example of how to manage a surface that at first glance seems problematically twee; in Bird’s hands it provides a means of discussing trauma and emotional damage without exploiting or sensationalising the traumatised individual. In its idiosyncratic details it leaves the reader to imagine the true circumstances that the poem’s realistic and recognisable conclusion leaves implied, its specifics productively open-ended.

[Disclaimer: I’m studying Louis MacNeice in some detail at the mo and this para might be wholly coloured by that.] The third section also features – in ‘Sea Bed’, the thoroughly MacNeicean ‘The Promises’ and ‘The Stock Exchange’ – three examples of something often attempted but rarely well-executed in contemporary poetry: parable. By parable I mean semi-narrative piece that uses a central metaphor or repetend to explore an idea, which may only have meaning for the reader (for better definitions, cf MacNeice’s Varieties of Parable). In The Hat-Stand Union, these explore romantic negotiations, what is won or (more often in these poems) lost in our most complicated relationships. ‘The Promises’ is a particularly fun outing in which Bird shows such a deft hand with meter and (occasional) rhyme it makes one wonder why she does it so rarely. The story follows a fairy-tale series of changes of fortune and identity that cannot sustain its own idealised vision of love, and leaves the narrator only one active choice: to reject the narrative wholesale: ‘I flipped my God one last ‘You are…’// I took my seat at the bar.’ ‘The Stock Exchange’ and ‘Sea Bed’ are altogether more violent discussions, the former’s refrain of ‘you can have my body […] in the hope I might get something’ and the latter’s ‘He cared. But he didn’t care enough’ both leading to the same conclusion, that it is perhaps safer, if duller, to be alone.

This thread is very ably counterpointed by the absolutely scintillating ‘Medicine’, which in a different book might appear flimsy or simple-minded in its formulation of ‘My head says…/ My heart says’. In this collection it appears as the hard-earned note of optimism pulled from a world of failure, a grace note that is aware of its place in a largely grim collection, but also of its own internal patterning, as the simple oppositions of ‘head’ and ‘heart’ are complicated and, tentatively, synthesised. The Hat-Stand Union closes on a similarly positive note of hard-won optimism in its elegy for Joan Littlewood, ‘The Fun Palace’ (‘She tore up scripts. She guffawed. She changed the world.’), the collection’s only (more or less) straightforward love poem ‘Marriage of Equals’ and the final prayer-like ‘Corine’.

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Tl;dr: The Hat-Stand Union is one heck of a book, and totally contradicts some of my own thinking about poetry collections, particularly its length. Many times it pushes the boundaries between studied pose and moving reality, and a certain suspension of disbelief is required to make the leap into Bird’s imaginative scenery, but the book’s command of its own idiosyncrasies, its accuracy with its punchlines, its awareness of poetry’s dramatic qualities and rhetorical potential are nigh on peerless. Read this book.

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