England my Dandelion Heart – by Barry Fentiman-Hall
Paperback, 68pp, 2018
In the 1999 film Wonderland, the camera swoops, pans and lingers over the daily lives of ordinary people. It peeps through their windows and follows them down the street, watching them go to work, drink, wash up, argue, shop, look after their children – but to a sweeping, swelling soundtrack, which gives their quotidian routines a certain nobility. It seeks to show you mundanity in a way that highlights how much of life is necessarily mundane, and what beauty and majesty that very mundanity may yet possess. While living with Barry Fentiman-Hall’s insanely good collection, england, my dandelion heart, I was reminded repeatedly of this technique. He, too, is greatly concerned to make a claim for the ordinary. There’s a poetry to people’s most humdrum workaday moments, and happily, on occasion, Fentiman-Hall is there to capture them.
He’s “mapping the future for meanderthals”, and as the pun suggests, he counts himself among their number. He loves a good pun, does Barry. Here’s a poet confident enough with language to refuse to take it seriously. Deft wordplay makes the collection joyous; playful as well as profound.
When he observes and records crass or idiotic behaviour – which he does fairly frequently – there’s no sense he exempts himself from the possibility of being idiotic. The plaintive tone of the title, the regret at England’s decisions on its future direction, are all recorded by a man looking around him, not down. He’s one of us, not snootily logging our quirks from some imagined, intellectual vantage point.
Take Sittingbourne Identity – the title itself brilliantly telling, and every word that follows it flawless. It describes a man filling his flash car – “He shakes off/the last drops/And holsters/His weapon/Copping/A gunslinger/Stance….Satisfied/With his position/In front/Of us.” At the pen of a lesser poet the moment might seem crudely offensive, a sly, sarky dig at a stereotypical figure of fun, but here Fentiman-Hall lets us inside the man’s psyche and helps us understand his pride, in a perfectly painted scene of only 55 well-placed words.
As you might expect, this is very much a collection about England and its people. Fentiman-Hall shines his empathy like a spotlight into doorways, kitchens and alleys, his own and others, and even at his most censorious there is still a fondness, a nostalgia at the heart, of recognition of self, of sadness at the growing divide between remembered past and the “Prescription Cockaigne” of the present.
The collection is in three sections – city, elsewhere, uncity. Although every one of them is superb, it’s in city that the real dope lies. Woozy vignettes of people we’re sure we recognise (the ballad of mickey 2 suits; sharon lives by the river), lyrical, aching hymns to an England which blurs between the country he remembers in the imagination of his heart, and the current version to which he struggles to be reconciled. The rage and regret which sizzles through this section make it jaw-droppingly good, immediate in its appeal; every piece has a moment to make you gasp. The other two contain more musings at nature, likelier to be discovered in time; gentler language and rhythms to be lived with, murmured, gradually unravelled. As he promises, “cotton days will come and the berries get heavy”, in On Wouldham Common, written partly in lament at the paucity of language to capture nature. Or is he secretly thrilled to be so “undone by this beauty/I cannot voice it”? There’s a note of pathos in this paean – “life’s only certainty/I may mock the river/but it will have its truth/Said in the spaces that I leave.” It seems the poet’s responsibilities end in the face of such relentless, indifferent beauty. If only he could simply enjoy it rather than worry about it.
From the musical references with which this collection is littered I guess Barry Fentiman-Hall must be nearing 50. But one is struck throughout this work by his easy familiarity with his ten year old self. He flashes back and forth between memory and observation, framing commonplace scenes beautifully, lovingly, each observation glazed with the imaginative musings of a child, wide-eyed with wonder at the most hopeless, helpless scenario. He can describe a tree’s beauty with the best of pastoral poets. But there’s also a sense he’s eyeing his tree with a view to shinning up the trunk, hoping to collect conkers for a match or lob them at passers-by.
The titular poem tells of his dismay at the path England has taken. “Oh England, my dandelion heart/What have you done/With that cross that you carved?” The beautifully placed “Oh” that begins his lament gives it a sense of regret rather than proclamation, regret he continues to explore in “old white people”, a piece as close to overt anger as Fentiman-Hall veers. (“That means nothing to me/I will be getting real/I cannot live in fictional England/I shall cross a line/Watch it burn.”
There are too many words I want to quote at you, yet to talk about them is to undersell them. Buy the book and take the time to wallow in every single syllable yourself.