After first purchasing My Darling Camel from a charity shop in Edinburgh some years ago, I’ve recently rediscovered this unique poetry collection with vigour. Hill’s poetry is strangely and grotesquely erotic. The frequent and intensely vivid descriptions that metaphorically link to reproductive organs and bodily function confuse the reader at the return to the image sex organs were invoked to describe. Inevitably every metaphor takes on an erotic or anatomical hue. The correlations are often startling and produce the effect of arousal followed by intense repulsion such as this excerpt from ‘Queenio’
Sand the risen peach, swollen with lust,
introduce a finger-nail tentatively
under its congested lip;
the juice will coil down her wrists
and lonely open hips, restless
engorged with maggots
In other cases the imagery, though still erotic in nature, such as the comparrison of phlegm to semen in the excerpt below, the scenes reject arousal through their distance or indifference. These moments are cold though still ‘viscous.’ We are rejected by the moments of arousal just as the characters are: sexually interested but somehow indifferent.
They seem to be trying
to kiss – in air
that’s too viscous for them.
He climbs onto a ledge of rock
and stares at the painted ocean.
she fingers her neglected curls
and looks across at him
as if she’ll never kiss him now.
He’s coughing phlegm.
It slithers down the inside of the glass.
The gang-connector’s not working properly.
It’s getting hot in there.
He dives into the water
like a knife,
disturbing the forests
of green eel-grass.
The lady covers her body
with cream, and wishes
she were happier.
(The Sea-Water Hall, p9)
We, like the lady in the above quote, are left covering ourselves in left over arousal wishing for something else, for something promised but forgot.
Hill’s poems explore this tentative relationship with sex and the body. The moments in which we are simultaneously entranced and yet repulsed. The moments that we are interested and yet disengaged. The poems explore the needy and thirsty nature of relationships of varying kinds and how without intent we often fail to fulfil the expectations placed upon us by the other person in the relationship. Such as in ‘Peggy’ “He wanted so much love, / that was the trouble, / yet, if you tried to smile, / he looked away.” (p17) We cannot provide because the desire changes instantaneously without satisfaction.
These contrasting emotions plague our relationships and are most apparent in sexually involved relationships or relationships the participants want to be sexual but are not, can not, for whatever reason. Arousal becomes a preoccupation where by every poem, often indirectly, makes some reference to arousal, sexual suppression or sexual satisfaction. In a poem about a ‘lovely boy’ and his relationship with his mother the poem turns from her caring actions in part 1, to his distaste and sexual activities in part 2
He hates the snow.
He can’t stop masturbating.
(Natural Wonders, p18
Part 3 culminates with a secret love-affair. Similarly ‘The Cupboard’ begins with a ‘mother’s boy’: “He was a mothers boy. / He hated everything. His lips were blue, / like cellophone, or iron.” This boy, his mother, his pet peeves, and his sexual activity: “anxious women, swollen seas, / premature ejaculation every time.”(Cupboard, p20) The sexual encounters and experiences contrast with the waxed lyrical poetics of “she wore bright yellow shoes / as if a field of buttercups / lay at her feet.” The boy forms a relationship with this girl ‘an angel’, but disappointment reigns “she was thinking I would rather be alone. // At night be moved towards her / like a ship” this line invokes the phrase “passed like ships in the night;” this relationship, like the one in The Sea-Water Hall, is ultimately dismal and disappointing.
The collection is full of repetitions and retellings of desire, recognition, regret and disappointment. Like Hill’s characters, we are never quite satisfied: her poems are like an orgasm that never quite peaks.