The Humber Mouth
Hull Literature
Festival 2002

Hull Literature Festival 2002 
 the humber mouth  14th - 24th November 2002

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Tariq Ali

An Evening with Jon Ronson

Weird Sisters Get Around

The Man with the Flower in his Mouth

Reality TV-How Real is Real?

Pete McCarthy

The Vagina Monologues

Reading the Metre

Robert Edric

Canongate Crime

General Enquiries:
City Information Service
at Hull Central Library
Tel: 01482 223344
E-mail: [email protected]

{ Critical Eye – on-line critic }
Diane Dubois

Reading the Metre:
David Wheatley, Caitriona O'Reilly, Justin Quinn, Randolph Healy

Central Library, 16 November

It was gratifying to finally see a festival event so well attended as was this evening's reading. The Central Library was packed out by a select gathering of individuals; many members of Hull University's English Department were present, as were several local poets. Like the room itself, the programme crackled with intelligence, and was certainly full, with each of the four poets delivering several of their complex, clever works, cramming what must have totalled around two dozen poems into an hour and a half. It was rather a lot to take in, especially as each performer had to compete with the racket of Saturday night's revellers passing by the building, while Hull Screen, situated just across the corridor, also contributed to the din.

First up was David Wheatley, who chose to heavily pepper his set with many poems about Hull. He tells us that he walks to his job at the university via Newland Avenue, and this much is evident in his description of Chinese takeaways, A2Z shops and bargain booksellers. Even the lairy-looking macaw that sits outside a shop at the southern end of the avenue is immortalised in Wheatley's unflattering verse. Though Hull is only my adoptive city I did feel my hackles start to rise as Wheatley proceeded with his unlovely account of old, rusting prams, tattoos and beery belches. Hull folk are funny, it seems. Though they may live on Hyperion Street, and piss under King Billy's statue, they do not know their literature or their history. A council flat on Oriel Grove is the closest they will ever get to Oxford. The assertion that "even the fish is imported" was breathtakingly insensitive.

There is a lot of skill and intelligence in Wheatley's work, but not a lot of warmth, except when he discusses Prague, or his native Wicklow. One shrewd poem draws out the ironies of Hull girls wearing paste diamonds as they strut down Freetown Way; another compares Wheatley's Irish accent with that of the people of Hull, but these two are about as close as we got to affection or respect. One wry, dark little poem tells of a funeral of a man called Stan, his name spelled out in a floral tribute. Wheatley tells us that he does not know anyone called Stan, and this comes as no great surprise.

Fellow Wicklow poet Caitriona O'Reilly is a slender, ballerina-like figure of tremulous and vulnerable sensitivity, her gentle speech all but drowned out by the noise of the streets outside. Hers is a nostalgic voice that reaches back through adolescence and childhood to the mysteries of history and folklore. Finding a fragment of opalescent, smooth-washed sea glass on a beach, the voice asks, "Was it really from galleons they came?" This is typical of O'Reilly's poetry, which whispers its astonishment in tones of awe-struck wonder.

O'Reilly's poems rely on small, often minute details observed in nature, rendered in a wide-eyed yet surprisingly level-headed manner and disciplined by a sometimes strict formal control. A spider is a still shadow of fragile hypersensitivity. An octopus is piteous in its mutability and mortality, living out a futile but courageous existence in a hostile environment. One hears echoes of Liz Lochhead and Sylvia Plath in the poems, which have a spooky, cobwebby feel to them, all full of dark spaces, shrouded shapes and shadows, yet sometimes punctuated by an oblique wit. Like a fairy tale, they are a blend of the magical, the sinister and the cruel.

Justin Quinn gradually won me over with his jet-setting account of the life of a modern poet, stuck on trains, sitting in cafés and swooping between London, Prague and, presumably, Hull. One gets a sense that Quinn feels rootless, at once at home anywhere and nowhere. One can imagine him pausing, as he sips his frothy cappuccino or imported lager, to discreetly draw out a slim, elegant notebook in which he will record his impressions of the urban landscape.

Most often one hears in his work a plea to be lifted out of wherever he happens to find himself. However, this feels less like dissatisfaction with the place itself and more like some sort of Zen desire for transcendence. Falling on the ear, his verse sounds very like a series of haiku, raining upon the mind as a shower of fragments or soundbites. This complements the shifting and disorienting vistas of the mostly urban, often frustrating and definitely global scenes he describes, as it does the diverse media through which we reach out to our fellow humans in our efforts to conjoin.

The final poet to read was also the most accomplished, impressing us with his modesty and humane warmth as much as his sheer breadth of knowledge. Randolph Healy can play incredibly sophisticated word games with science, mathematics, astrology, psychology, and even cochlea implant surgery. While he marvels at the intricacies of nature, his words seem to reach out beyond even those levels of the miraculous, to point towards something more profound.

There is a righteous anger simmering away under the surface of some of the poems. Healy tells us that only one out of every half million war dead get their names recorded in the history books; that the outrageous prohibition of sign language in Irish schools stirs up a hornet's nest of conflicts relating to languages and ethnicities. This latter issue impacts directly on the life of his hearing-impaired daugther, a fact that might provoke a lesser man. However, this most patient, forgiving and indulgent of souls would never allow anything so unseemly, so churlish, so spluttering and inarticulate as rage to cloud his reasoned efforts to understand.

In his poetry Healy reaches towards epiphany, yet he is not afraid of exploring the hypocrisies, pomposities and absurdities of religion. Little prosaic details undermine the grandiose icons of salvation. The audience chuckle at the brilliant, vivid and irreverent image of a man at prayer, "his face clouded over like a child on a potty." Healy leaves us with a vision of worlds within worlds, revealing to us startling images of complex and unexpected connections and interpenetrations, where ultimately everything and everyone in the universe is drawn together into some sort of miraculous, even divine unity. What more can you ask of a poet?