Tuesday, 16 April 2024 10:34

Review of 'A Brief and Biased History of Love' by Alan Humm

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Review of 'A Brief and Biased History of Love' by Alan Humm

 A Brief and Biased History of Love by Alan Humm. £9.  Culture Matters.  ISBN  978-1-912710-55-3. Reviewed by Patricia McCarthy

This interesting debut collection from novelist Alan Humm merits reading and re-reading with its fresh, startlingly original images and equally original angles on ordinary lives, losses and loves.

The collection is introduced by what amounts to a three-page essay by Fran Lock. This is so articulate, so probing and detailed that it has to be wondered if it should have remained on its own as a wonderfully incisive review. The problem here is that the reader reads this almost overwhelming, detailed build-up to the poems to follow that, when the poems are encountered, with such expectations, they can only seem thinner and more slight than they should. Most readers don’t like having their opinions on a text dictated to, especially as poetry is elastic in meaning and therefore each poem is different to every reader. This is my only caveat.

Humm is billed as a poet who explores and represents working-class masculinities. I think this is to focus too narrowly, and too trendily, on his work. Yes his memories in these poems are those of a typical English male. The emotion seems somewhat restrained, withheld, which, in an ironic sense, perhaps gives the poems their power. It is a recognisable world of pubs, bars, squats, clubs with ‘girls sitting in a row’, village halls, estates, a mill, graveyard, river, a textile factory,  a supermarket which , in one poem, is visible in the playful rhyming couplet: ‘late at night/ like Santa’s grotto in the light’, ‘suburban nothingness’ circumscribed even from the very first poem by walls.

The walls of the persona’s body become the walls of his life viewed with the long-angled lens of memory in different lights. Within these parameters, the reader is confronted with the poet’s experiences of a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic father, a feisty mother who ‘can make a fist/with her whole body’, and is capable of having it off with another man, forgiveable perhaps when her husband ‘with lamplight dribbling down his chin’ who ‘looked like someone’s dog’ tried to rape her. There is adolescent fumbling with the opposite sex … as the poet or persona balances between ‘fear’ and ‘love’. ‘Love’ of course is what has to be learned in order for it to be defined – definitely distinct from plain male ‘desire ’as in the poem ‘Julie (again)’. His adolescent self idolises Julie: ‘She was so blonde/ that I could hardly bear to look at her’, but he quickly realises ‘she was just a girl’… ‘bewildered by the ferocity of my desire’. He can’t quite define the word ‘desire’ except to say it was ‘like a dull endless explosion’. Yet he comes close to defining ‘love’ earlier as ‘that dark shape in your heart/ that comes to claim you as its own’. He also can’t quite define ‘the thing that music names’ and he wishes fervently for ‘decent tunes/ and a bright millwheel for a heart’.

Similes and metaphors abound which make the reader sit up with their accuracy. This collection is haunted by the ‘disgrace’ of an alcoholic father who links to the theme of violence. He is matter-of-factly described as he ‘wielded the leather/ and the bucket like a matador’ but in the evening he ‘was doubled/ in the funhouse mirrors of the pub’. At times he ‘will upend the wine bottle, like ketchup’. His father’s voice is always a threat: ‘It ebbs continually,/ its timbre mussed by distance into a dull/downpour in the room below’. Even the silences are ‘contaminated’: ‘They all contain my father’s murmur/like a river does a crocodile’.

No wonder, then, that the friends addressed individually and fondly in a clutch of poems offer some relief. Yet what serves mainly as a counterpoint to the monstrous father is popular music which acts as a constant recitative throughout, whether it be made by an amateur band of youngsters ‘whose notes’… ‘had the breadth, the dull/intransigence of mud’. Even his own voice, he realises in retrospect, was ‘its own worst enemy;//each song weighed down/ by an acoustic like dull water’.  On the other hand, the voice of John Lennon, when the poet was a boy, made him rise from ‘Dumb skies’… ‘amplified, like a balloon’. Yet it is imperfect and perfect music that gives the poet a more wanted home than the one he has. He envies the house of his upmarket friend David who plays the cello: ‘Everywhere – books./  The house was built on them/in the same way that a mind/constructs itself upon/its memories’ – as Humm’s mind does in these poems.

Learning is a theme too: in the above poem he says ‘I learned that time/conspires to keep you/in the places that you love’ – just as in ‘Teaching at Addington’ he humbly acknowledges: ‘Which of us,/me or the kids,/ was teaching who’ pointing to the fact that teaching is the best way of learning, even to ‘become yourself/ when you transcend yourself’. Humm’s wisdom is apparent too in the haunting ‘Villanelle’ which elaborates on ‘Within the part of us that never grows/ the future is the past in different clothes’.

His friend Sam on the drums has ‘hands that begin to sing’ as his poems do when read, and re-read to give them their full understated rhythm and impact. In the poem ‘How to love music’, Humm states: ‘If rhythm was a liquid/ then a voice would be its grain’. And maybe in this collection he achieves just this: his voice the grain in the unswerving subtle rhythm of his verse.

Patricia McCarthy edited Agenda poetry journal for more than two decades. She won the National Poetry Competition in 2012 and has been a runner-up twice. Her poems are published widely and she has several collections to her name, the latest full collection, published a year ago, being Hand in Hand (London Magazine Editions/Agenda Editions) based on Tristan and Yseult, and the pamphlet A Ghosting in Ukraine (dare-Gale Press, 2023).

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