Breeze Block, the debut collection by Jake Hawkey, confirms Lumpen Press as a serious and exciting poetry publisher. Hawkey's haunting collection is the second in Lumpen's chapbook series, following on from Dorothy Spencer's accomplished and engaging See What Life is Like. Hawkey shares with Spencer a commitment to foregrounding working-class experience and voice. Breeze Block is particularly focussed on the often complicated relationships we forge with lovers, friends, family, and with our wider communities. In the brief 'Author's Note' that precedes the collection, Hawkey credits the title to the ingenuity of his family, 'the people of London who call talking nonsense chattin breeze', and to the council estates on which he grew up. This small gesture already offers the reader an insight into Hawkey's signature style and characteristic concerns: the tone is playfully self-deprecating, impling that the text itself is an elaborate form of nonsense. Yet the literal breeze block is also emblematic of the estates that contain the communities Hawkey so compellingly writes about.
In laying claim to this most utilitarian and uncompromising artefact in a genre of writing typically associated with the ephemeral, Hawkey reclaims poetic workmanship from the myth of bourgeois literary production, and the privileged interiority of middle-class prosody. These poems respond to and engage with the real world through the structure and stuff of language. Throughout the collection Hawkey's poems are admirably self-aware, they temper their moments of emotionality with observations both meticulous and tender; in places they evince a wry humour reminiscent, perhaps, of the late Frank O'Hara.
The opening stanza of 'Tuesday' (p.5) is perhaps the best example of this technique: 'I fire an email to a big cheese poet in Pennsylvania/ asking if my attached poems ‘capture God’,/ then realise this question is like asking/ if my balsa glider landed on the sun.' The way the first line extends beyond the rest of the stanza, both the nerdy specificity and the syllabic awkwardness of 'Pennsylvania' contrive to perform the email's slightly pompous overreach. That Hawkey's speaker catches himself in this moment of fallibility is both humorous and endearing. As the piece opens out through a series of vignettes – a hilariously banal vlog, a vivid description of birds on a wire, the death of an old lady's goldfish and her ritualised mourning of it – the poem expands into a meditation on how art and ego intersect with dailiness and our responsibilities towards one another.
Middle-class discourse and working-class experience
Breeze Block is a deeply thoughtful collection; but it is not a collection that traffics in abstraction. Rather, thought originates in embodied experience, specifically within (an often traumatic) working-class experience, and many of the poems expose the friction that exists between middle-class discourse and working-class experience, both inside and outside of the academy. 'Laughing Poem' (p.2) begins boldly with: 'I didn’t know I was poor until I could spell middle class subjectivity./ I didn’t know I was poor until I could write middle class subjectivity/ mistaken as objectivity to the detriment of everybody as a sentence. This is a form of wealth.' The poem then moves between a visceral memory the speaker has of hitting back at a bully with a truck of his skateboard, then running away while laughing, and theoretical discussions surrounding the nature of both performativity and violence in which the speaker's lecturer, his fiancée, then his counsellor act as interlocutors: 'A lecturer says collage should perform a balance of sorts./ I aim to write a poem where laughter is performative.' Hawkey writes, and later: 'My fiancée says male violence is wrong in all circumstances', then towards the end of the piece: 'My counsellor says rage is an expression of the deeper;/ anger cannot be judged moral or immoral in itself.'
By writing the kind of collage the text describes, 'Laughter Poem' becomes both an exploration and critique of the idea of 'balance' as a staple of middle-class taste and ethics. 'Balance' is not a luxury afforded equally to everyone. It is the aesthetic disposition of those who can afford not to be angry; who live without the disruptive overwhelm of traumatic memory. A refusal of violence is also a 'form of wealth'. Right or wrong are moot points when violence is your mechanism of survival. Abdication from this fact is a function of class privilege. By rippling and refracting the speaker's childhood experience through the lens of art, intimacy and therapy, Hawkey creates a layered picture of the ways in which childhood experience shapes our creativity, our relationships, and our sense of who we are. It is a satisfying poem, both psychologically and politically, and one of its most significant themes – a theme that recurs throughout the collection – is that the middle class has been so effectively naturalised as the sole implied audience for art and literature that they feel no qualms about using their own experience of the world as an absolute model for all human experience.
In 'Guts of a Piano in the Rain Beneath a Block of Beautiful Brutalist Flats' (p.14) the speaker's lecturer remarks that 'I have too many traumatised women in my work. I say I have too many traumatised women in my life. This lecturer has a brilliant poem in their collection highlighting the importance of a poem’s end, or its over-importance.' On the surface level the speaker's response serves as a witty riposte to a piece of unthinking criticism, but it also reveals the deep difficulty of accommodating and containing working-class experience within the strictures and limits of middle-class style. These kinds of observation from middle-class lecturers and critics will be familiar to many working-class writers, I am sure: write what you know. Unless what you know happens to be unpleasant or depressing or generally “too much”.
The final stanza contains the gorgeously ellagic lines 'O to grow in a city where you cannot leave but you cannot stay' followed by the stark 'There should be a fully-funded team of counsellors on every council estate in Britain'. This stanza turns on a razor sharp description of gentrification; the 'posh regional kids who would form bands while ‘slumming it’ in working-class areas like ours; they cut their teeth on some grime to think of themselves as groovy, price us out, then take well-paid jobs elsewhere': working-class pain is hoovered up as middle-class cultural cache; stripped of its lived and loving context, hollowed out and parroted back at us in a series of two-dimensional symbols. 'Groovy' is the ironising distance afforded to those who may choose to leave at any time, for whom 'trauma' is a trope and nothing more. The poem's beautiful fuck you is an ending fearsomely sincere: 'Mum is still the strongest woman I know and I dedicate this song to my skinny girl cousins.' While Hawkey's phantom lecturer composes 'brilliant' poems about obtuse literary niceties, Hawkey's text is an unselfconscious salute to life.
Without being sentimental, Breeze Block is nevertheless an incredibly tender book. It particularly excels at chronicling moments of male intimacy. Working-class masculinity is not a subject typically given nuanced treatment within contemporary poetry, so Hawkey's collection is especially striking in this regard. Through the figure of the speaker's father, Hawkey explores love, reciprocity, communion, and grief. He also tackles the difficulty inherent in verbally expressing affection for the working-class male subject, and this is most affectingly realised in 'Fathers and Sons' (p.3), which uses an unobtrusive sonnet form as a quiet undersong of love and care.
In the first stanza the father-figure's casual dismissal (and disposal) of a handmade gift leaves the speaker inwardly crushed, 'a paperboy folded'. In the second stanza the speaker makes an imaginative leap to picture his father as a younger man, 'in the salt air of Blackpool [...] in dancehalls, in Church’s brogues'. This stanza concludes by uniting the speaker and his father through their 'shared taste/ for motorhomes beyond our means, further and father.' While the line suggests an experience of male bonding, the aural affinity between 'further' and 'father' implies a distance impossible to broach. In the final stanza father and son are united again, this time through a shared experience of financial precarity: 'We sell my first guitar when the internet is young,/ making one hundred pounds and did I love you/ wrapping our shipment like an Egyptian queen./ You cannot extract our money from the screen./ You’re so embarrassed I say Let’s send it anyway'. There is a great deal contained within these five lines: the tactile gesture of care mediated through the guitar; the recognition of the father as both fallible and vulnerable in his lack of tech savviness, and the warmth and solidarity contained within the speaker's determination to 'send it anyway', both to save his father's embarrassment and to acknowledge his efforts to so carefully wrap the guitar.
It is interesting to note that the son's protection of his father's feelings in this final stanza is an inversion of the father's obliviousness to his son's feelings in the first. Love doubles back on itself, mediated through a world of things – the cardboard foal, motorhomes, a guitar – and through moments of bruising miscommunication, emotional distance, but also a deep unspoken empathy and respect. As with much of Hawkey's writing, the portrait this poem paints of working-class masculinity is understated, complex and convincing.
The figure of the father is a significant presence throughout Breeze Block. In 'Self-Portrait with Jesus's Donkey' (p.4) he spends his Christmas day driving around in a doomed attempt to replace the speaker's broken Tamagotchi. The poem is redolent of exhaustion and defeat. It begins with the troubling admission from the young speaker that: 'The toilet bowl’s the red of the Nile where Mum’s been before me and Oldman is right to say drinking heavily makes you bleed from your arsehole', but the poem does not foreground or dwell on these details. Rather, the focus is on a detailed description of the father's care for his son, which is enacted in small and practical ways: through the shovelling of snow, placing the speaker into 'the tin belly of the van', and hitting the asphalt to find somewhere that's open. The pair are 'defeated', but they share their defeat. 'I’ll just have to wait for things to be better; I’ll just have to wait', the speaker concludes, in a statement that evokes both immanence and delay, and alludes not only to the broken toy, but to the disturbing disclosure of the opening stanza.
In lesser hands the poem might become mawkish or contrived, but Hawkey writes with admirable restraint and dark humour. The announcement that 'O my Tamagotchi is broken!' echoes and parodies the sounds of 'O Come, O Come, Emmanuel' filling the room from 'the lungs of the TV congregation'. The hymn, of course, is also a prayer for salvation and fulfilment. Its appearance lends further gravity to the speaker's 'I'll just have to wait' and signals a world of unrealised hopes far beyond the poem.
Perhaps the most affecting piece in Breeze Block is 'Dad’s still in a coma so I’m sent' (p.6). A poem in four parts that leads the reader from the initial stages of end-of-life care to the father's funeral. The poem is notable in a variety of ways, but perhaps most significant is its focus on relationality: the way people feel and are together in times of grief, what they do to get through their worst experiences. In part one, the speaker is sent 'beyond the hospital doors for five bags of chips', and the errand becomes an occasion for reminiscence and humour – a release of pressure and a solidifying of familial bonds.
Do geezers go to heaven?
In the second section of the poem the speaker begins by asking 'a blonde Irish nurse if geezers go to Heaven/ and she gifts me two handfuls of rectangular shampoo/ like it’s mayonnaise or ketchup.' The poem then focusses on the mundane details of the family's bedside vigil: attempting to wash Mum's hair over the sink in the family room, attempting to sleep on gashed ICU settees, smoking endless cigarettes for something to do. The revelation that 'Dad's being switched off tomorrow' does not appear until the sixth line of the first stanza, immediately followed by a description of a bottle of Strongbow in its 'blue plastic shroud' below the basin. Hawkey does not rely on a high-stakes emotional register to achieve his effects. Rather he explores with an acute eye for detail the way in which grief and tedium intersect and exacerbate one another in end of life care.
The father's death is not described, but signalled through a shift to direct address within the third section of the poem, and the stanzas contract and compress into tercets embodying the tension between the desire to speak and the inability to do so. In the penultimate stanza the poem succumbs to rhyme: 'A patch of Brylcreem left/ on the board of your bed/ as you’re confirmed dead', as if that singsong musicality were needed to carry the speaker through the difficult description of his father's last inglorious traces. The brevity this section creates a palpable sense of awkward silence and oblique disclosure, of an inward struggle to fit words to feelings. When the speaker and his mother walk past the statue of Eros at Piccadilly Circus and 'Mum says/ It’s not Eros—it’s Anteros./ God of love returned', we read between the lines and are deeply moved.
The final section of the poem expands back into the family and language, there is listing and ritual; shared memories and jokes, and a humanist celebrant who fudges the 'pyjamatime lyrics' unique to the speaker's family: 'Dad’s lull bathing us before bed:/ Jim-jam gooly-wooly gooly-wooly get your jim-jams on, jimmy-jams on.' It almost feels fitting that the celebrant gets the song wrong. The celebrant is not part of the family and as such cannot fully participate in this ritual of recuperation. In this section of the poem Hawkey gives us the power of words to map meaning onto tragedy, and to unite a family in grief. Throughout the poem Hawkey's speaker does not dwell on their own subjective pain, but rather describes and expresses that pain in communion with others. This differs significantly from a good deal of contemporary lyric poetry which is apt to exceptionalise the suffering of the individual. Hawkey's poetry feels generous and socially situated in comparison, and it is difficult not to read that difference along class lines.
In 'Death Metal Rainbow' (p.41), a drunken Nana on her birthday 'knows more than most,/ as do I, the real battle waits/ within;/ the real fear is being/ unable to withstand ourselves'. This fear is the ambient hum at the back of Breeze Block, infusing the text with a nervy restless energy. It is the ambient hum at the back of working-class life too. Sometimes this fear solidifies into tangible forms, and its damage and destruction become explicit in the text. Lenny (p.42) beings with 'The counsellor says Being the child of an alcoholic/ can create confusions around love, death and women.' Alcohol, alcohol abuse, and alcoholism are all strong currents throughout the collection, but Hawkey doesn't write about alcoholics, he writes about people: loved, loving, and surviving as best they can. 'Self-Portrait with Jesus’s Donkey' contains a savage indictment of the festishising ends of much contemporary poetry in relation to drinking: 'it is not glamorous like in the movies or poems imitating poems of the past with their lah-di-dah never-worked-a-day-in-my-life lyricism, la la la.' Indeed. Hawkey's text is refreshingly empathetic and non-judgemental. Rather, there is an embracive reach toward the wounded other, an acknowledgement of shared trauma impossible for Hawkey's middle-class poetic peers to adequately capture or understand. These final lines from Lenny could very well serve as a epitaph to the collection as a whole: 'Yes—I know why you stay out late, where all this begins, why we need to be loved so ferociously. Sit here now, stay with me.'
Fran Lock Ph.D. is a writer, activist, and the author of seven poetry collections and numerous chapbooks. She is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.