by Christopher Hampton
[88pp, £7.95, Katabasis, 10 St Martin's Close, London, NW1 0HR]
[86pp, $19.95 Australian, Walleah Press, Hobart, Tasmania]

Christopher Hampton is the author of Socialism in a Crippled World (Penguin 1981) and not to be confused with the well-known writer for stage and screen of that name. He is a formidable poet who has produced in Border Crossings a set of extraordinarily impressive poems, writing that straightaway demands respect for its assuredness of tone, its deeply-thoughtful and passionate commitment, its honest and courageous political plain-speaking. The collection published prior to Border Crossings was called Against the Current, the title of which clearly indicates the stance Hampton takes towards subjects generally eschewed by most British poets writing today, and taken resolutely on by him in the face of great odds and complexity. He writes, with enviable directness, of 'the tragedies of history' and of clinging to a hope of bringing 'back light/to a darkened and damaged universe.' This collection demonstrates that poetry really can after all take on global politics without descending into rant or propaganda.

It begins with questions about language, the difficulties of trying to 'make words witnesses'. Its first poem 'The Right Words' transfixes you immediately with its gravitas; you know you are not being offered anything glib; its quietly measured tone ensures the proper kind of attentiveness which this kind of poetry demands, while at the same time providing a radical and necessary antidote to 'spin':

     It's disciplined passion's the secret;
     stress that speaks and strikes and takes the strain
     of what's outside the frame and makes it sing;
     till even the abstracts are part of the song.

The diction and the rhythms have a meditative poise that immediately sets the tone and prepares you for what is to come; and yet the poems are about uncertainty, doubt, an almost despair that poetry is not able to cope with the matters in hand - the 'what it is/comes out of the unutterable':

     a coinage learnt from scratch to serve
     a million causes, used and unused,
     the worn and echo-sounding syllables
     that murmured at you in the womb -
     a sonic whisper, a vibration
     that you have to make speak sense,
     even if to no-one but yourself.
          [from 'What it Means to Speak']

Yet you know the attempt will not be shirked, the issues will be confronted with honesty and proper seriousness; we will be required to think and feel deeply ourselves, even if the poet is

     forced to turn back,
     knowing, like an atheist in an empty church
     listening for voices in a fruitless search
     for answers, I can make no more of what I see,
     the mind's quest balked by this complexity,
      than what these tentative groping words betray.
          [from 'Balked Flight']

There are moments of seeming consolation, moments in gardens among trees, Marvell's 'green thought in a green shade', but even here the questioning goes on ('the doubts that come by stealthÉthe questions that by-pass those who wait'), the weight of history is still felt, the nightingale is seen as the violated Philomel, Hampton's feeling his is a voice crying in the wilderness. History is not only a narrative of horror and betrayal; it carries an injunction of loyalty to the memory of the countless millions engaged in the common struggle for a better life, upon whose backs 'individuals abusing power / Ébuild positions for themselves'.

As Eliot once said, history is now. And for many of us our 'now' is the now of betrayed Socialism, a selling-out to the capitalists, to money-values; it is the now of conflicting ideologies in which 'missiles, bombs and mines/are seedlings for democracy' and 'terrorist certainty / Émurders in the name of God'; it is the now of people made acquiescent by the too-easy provision of commodities (let them eat cake) served up to all of us as consumers with the illusion of choice. It is not for nothing that Tony Booth, Tony's Blair's father-in-law and an old style Socialist, called his autobiography
What's Left?

Hampton finds positives also in a beautiful and moving poem about his dying mother, in which he is able to sense

     beyond this failure,
     what remains from a lifetime
     undefeated, things that last -
     integrity and courage, trust
     of womanhood, unjudging love;
     it's these, the unsayable, survive.
          [from 'What Remains Unsaid']

The things discussed so far come in the first section entitled
Into the New Millennium: there remain two others, Speaking for the Future and Out of the Past.

Speaking for the Future
contains poems about people and places: the preoccupations are still the same. Neruda's Chile 'Standing up in socialist/and open challenge to the profiteers and fascist/rulers', Heine who

     knew no new Jerusalem
     could ever be much more than a dream
     unless we believed it could be won
          [from 'Heinrich Heine']

the Greek poet Kazantzakis producing a body of work 'to challenge all that's settled,/speaking for the future/from the weathered silences of Crete'.

The final section,
Out of the Past, gives space to voices from the past, allowing them to speak to us in our now, 'on the threshold of the unforeseeable/questioning and teasing all our values out.' In the end it bring us back to language, the 'faltering words, that would speak / if they could, the difficult music of truth' and, despite 'armed democracy' and 'this money-system / which determines how the course will run', there just about remains the hope we might get back 'the power to get things done' and 'make resources work for the social wealth.'

This is a deeply-caring and honest poet. Every politician should be obliged to read this compelling collection of poems and sit a test on it. It is one of those collections one immediately wants to share with everyone. It's a book I feel I've been waiting for.


Those who may have read Matthew Kneale's stunning novel, English Passengers will know something of the flavour of Tasmania and its history. And so will those who have read Nicholas Shakespeare's engaging travel-book, In Tasmania, where they will have come across the name Pete Hay. There he is quoted as a writer 'who believes Tasmania has never made an authentic accommodation with its past' and as saying 'That past has the stature of a dark family secret.' Kneale's novel, Shakespeare's travel book and Hay's Silently on the Tide set about exploring some of the dark secrets embedded in the turbulent history of the two hundred years of their island settlement - the brutality with which convicts shipped out from Britain were treated, the almost total extinction of the indigenous population, the island's violent politics, the fearful exploitation of its natural resources - in order to fulfil an obligation, what Joyce imagined as creating 'the uncreated conscience' of the race.

A lot of fine poetry comes out of Australia and Tasmania has its share, its most notable poet being Gwen Harwood. Among others well worth reading are Tim Thorne, Andrew Peek, Barney Roberts and Pete Hay.

A geographer, Hay has an intimate knowledge of the island's topography and a passionate concern for its welfare. In 'Nailing PooranaterŽ' he is scathing about proposals to erect a cable car on The Mountain:

     Then hear this edict of the oddly wise.
     This beloved thing of stars and snow and thunder
     has to go. We will tread it under.
     Clap it in irons. Put out its wildering eyes.

i.e. treat it as the convicts were in places like the infamous Port Arthur penal establishment. Hay knows about rivers, lakes, mountains, trees, birds, animals, weathers; he has the eye of someone used to being out there in the field. In a poem for the scientist, James Kirkpatrick, the 'scientist becomes poet' while out with Hay exploring a mountain moorland: 'There is poetry, indeed - its impetuous passion - / at the quick of his science.' Hay too has a generous helping of that impetuous passion

Silently on the Tide is mostly concerned with recreating some of the historical events which have spawned an 'age of data and dead hills' and which are a matter of bad conscience, despite 'resurgent botany' and attempts to sanitise the 'violated, unwanted past'.

     Here hell is exorcised, vanquished
     as emphatically as any warts-cleansing,
     praise-the-lording soul saver could ever wish.
          [from 'On the Gordon River Cruise']

The language is gritty in an effort to get below surfaces, to smell 'the acid stench of rotting, bristling life'. A poem featuring William Paterson, one of (if I remember correctly) the island's early lieutenant-governors and after whom the city of Launceston was formerly named, is followed by a 'Coda' allowing Paterson his own voice and saying of the poet;

     The poet stays busy
     and I become the town.
     I am metaphor.

     I will not have it, this spurious life
     of a literary artifice.
     I spurn a false posterity.

     I will plague the poet. Snag his every turn.
     I was wag/prude    quick/slow    easy/hard,
     strong/weak    short/tall    fair/dark.

     There is no-one to tell, now the real of it.
     But I lived one shortened life,
     and am owed it.

Like Hampton, Hay's poetry is one of 'disciplined passion', and political - though his is conveyed largely through narrative; it too has a profound sympathy for the underdog; again like Hampton it has the ability to find consolation in the small and unexpected. 'Sheoaks' ends with the lines:

     Beyond the sheoaks is short, browsed grass
     and the shit of living animals
     and the little gold suns of the guinea flower.

His diction has a toughness to it: it is spiky, sparky, gritty, almost elemental, in keeping with the landscape and the people who have ranged over it and exploited it. His forms are, for want of a better word, organic. The book ends with four pages of Notes - 'Ruminatory Afterthoughts' - which address the reader in a characteristically witty non-nonsense voice.

Should anyone be asking why they should be bothering with poetry from such a distance that is trying to sort out its own particular history, well there are two simple answers: (1) Tasmanian history is an integral part of
our history, part of our connection with the larger matter of Australian history, so vividly documented in Robert Hughes's magnificent The Fatal Shore, and therefore on our consciences too (2) it is honest-to-goodness poetry.


Finally, I wish to recommend two other books that have recently come my way. These are
Modern Women Poets from Bloodaxe edited by Deryn Rees-Jones (416pp, £9.95) which is packed with good things and intended to accompany her shortly-to-be- published book of essays, Consorting With Angels. The other is Alive in Cumbria - clever witty poems written by Chris Pilling to go with magnificent photographs by Stuart Holmes (64pp, £10, South Col Press).

          © Matt Simpson 2005