2 June 2011
Simon Jenner reviews an illustrated poetry collection by Colin Hambrook commissioned by Up-Stream as a strand of Accentuate. The book charts the author's journey through mental health breakdown and survival.
Colin Hambrook’s poetry is some of the most devastating of its kind: precise and appalled, his poems of personal history, psychic disquiet, cultural figures (Cocteau’s gloved Orpheus or Artaud) explore loss, recoveries, the loss of friends; and of self, through mental distress.
His work unflinchingly avoids sentiment and jags feeling through broken imagery. In the lariat inner diaspora of moving addresses, ‘100 Houses’ he records ‘memories like melted glass’. Contrarily, in ‘Un-breathe’ Hambrook asks: ‘If I could roll back the years/would I un-breathe me?’. This hollowing out, negativing, is a response not to florid imagery but the very act of un-begetting the mistakes of living, the trajectory of a life where feeling itself or its consequences have been in some ways the wrong turnings. Readers might disagree: Hambrook’s sensibility is unique. But Hambrook rocks back and is quizzical. He’s occasionally like the sceptic in Joseph Wright of Derby’s famous picture. Is the experiment on the air pump of his life strictly necessary? He distances this with cultural enquirers like Artaud and Cocteau.
One raveling he doesn’t escape, is that of engendering, of parenthood, which positive it transpires holds unusual negatives for Hambrook. Equally, the avowed unsettling of Hambrook’s nomadic life till fairly recently as ‘100 Houses’ has it, centres on an edge-of-frame identity, glancing with a flash of self-recognition in a tarnished mirror.
Hambrook continually sets such concerns in a cultural and mythically cultured environment, sometimes very specific, as with the gloved Orpheus above:
Watching from the outside,
it is enough to incite laughter; endure war;
believe the smile of the pin-stripe;
walk on water,
and move through liquid glass.
We are a family of miracles,
Orpheus smiles and we follow;
it's in our genes;
gin and schizophrenia
Hambrook melds the 1948 Cocteau film with a stepped-in glance at a passing everyday pinstripe off the street. The imagistic effect heightens the black and white original so the protagonist becomes part of the film as he enters through daily life: which is what the film did too. Once there the liquid glass, that of high-rises, becomes that of the mirror. Inside, we’re with the family. There’s distortion in the glass too, and ‘we’ the family follow into it, a world of small hells and mirrors.
Here Hambrook’s self-reflexive trope finds its exact image in a mirror. It’s not exactly the laughter-distorting mirror of Galician dramatist and anarchist theorist Ramon del Valle-Inclan (1866-1936). But it does share that absurdist skew vision – Orpheus does smile; Cocteau – perhaps Hambrook - seems aware of Valle-Inclan. For Hambrook Cocteau’s cocktail allows the protean refraction of some ‘genes/gin and schizophrenia’. These fabulate as it were in such a film-noirish late 1940s environment. But there is an Orphic ‘family/of miracles’, the possibilities of song and redemption. Cocteau is always ambivalent. Hell is something of a two-way mirror; a word contained, cradled phonetically, in ‘miracle’, with all its immanence. It answers a similar darker phonetic pairing of ‘genes’ against ‘gin’.
Hambrook’s vision is necessarily antagonist, and it’s significant he chooses two dramatic figures: one, Cocteau, chameleon; the other, Artaud, wholly anarchic, even more than Valle-Inclan (whose dramas, only now translated, haunt with art directions resembling Hambrook’s own artwork, which is why he’s mentioned). Hambrook’s imagination is here performative; myths interact and develop.
‘Artaud’s Bastard Child’ focuses more exclusively on Artaud himself, apostrophizing that writer’s life in a congeries of knotted images specific to Artaud. But it opens out:
Artaud’s stone laugh
hides tears; a history imploding
with broomstick knowledge
A ritual banishing of ghosts and cultural fire-storming validates Artaud’s own cultural ’shit to the spirit’ that Hambrook also invokes. This defiant robustness eschews palliatives (or drugs, as he repeatedly points out). Hambrook’s claim rounds a remarkable poem, validating Artaud’s and many survivors of cultural distress (let alone mental).
‘Burning’ wraps grief more intimately, the guilt of genes and the terrible intimate knowledge of new life – your own family - wrenching growth to nightmare:
Held fast in the youth chair;
you are a broken cup
a little more
to pick you up.
burns my skin
Hambrook’s appalled honesty probes such consequences, leading onto other questions, as in ‘What's the use?’ where ‘Love without intimacy/is rain without wet’ - again paired negatives, the non-self imagery Hambrook often deploys. This again self-reflexive imagery hints at civil war in some poets (often erupting by living through civil war from Marvell to Heaney), and here, perhaps the argument with oneself. Hambrook asserts with coruscating truth that the most devastated self-knowledge (and self-reflexive knowing) is that of parenting. You almost feel as Larkin put it (in a gendered way that works here) ‘man hands on misery to man’. But Hambrook didn’t ‘get out’ to or refuse to ‘have any kids’ himself, as Larkin forbore to do. More, he’s courageously faced what many confronted by such disturbance never do. And not only literally, but psychologically examined and written it out through himself. The death apostrophized in ‘For the Boy Who Died’ isn’t physical, but psychic:
...wrapped in brown paper dreams
and mailed to the dark of the moon.
What was in the vanishing cream
you inherited from birth?
Hambrook refuses to step aside from such genetic (or other) responsibilities. In ‘Man Suit’ the complexities of a son grown into manhood is laid starkly bare, an identity shutting against such attire, and the warping shut against even gently guided livings, as a kind of second skin that refuses itself:
barely a mouth
to describe the new
to grow into the gap
He also generously records the interventions of others – including some who helped him – in lines of wry affirmatives (the refugee origin of one therapist) and tact, as in ‘A refugee in angel-land‘ where he’s finally also spared ‘pill-shaped tears’. ‘Old Waters’ quizzically suggests redemption of the spirit, though Hambrook as ever is equivocal, self-reflexive and exact:
On a circuitous route;
the path to liberation
is my jailor, swimming
towards the universe
a babe in my own arms.
There are more picaresque personal histories, where a flash of rare humour is the more valuable for being deftly deployed, as in ‘Brixton to Streatham and back again’.
Hambrook’s power resides in the exact compression of significant – sometimes heart-rending - events turned to imagery of great power and exactitude. It’s no coincidence Hambrook is such a powerful visual artist, one of his skills being a tremendous draughtsmanship (recalling the baroque, Piranesi or even Wyndham Lewis) that here finds its corollary in a pared language of anguish, tenderness, forgiveness even of self, and the drypoint affirmation of writing.