'I retrace my steps, a stranger to myself.'

, Lucy Hamilton (90pp, 8.95, Shearsman)

The inspiration behind Lucy Hamilton's collection of prose poems is a fascinating mixture of fragmented memory, dreams, imagination and literary sources. Their images stayed in my mind days after I'd stopped reading, and I felt compelled to go back and reread. The poems work together to create a kind of memoir, or perhaps 'anti‑memoir', since there is no immediately recognisable chronological order. Nevertheless, the book has a kind of flowing structure, so that the fragmentary quality of the work does not prevent it from reading also as a coherent whole. Stalker is divided into seven sections, or one might say 'movements'. The first, 'Ghosts & Clochards', goes back to memories of childhood and youth, exploring the narrator's discovery of, and relationship with, what she experiences as 'other'. This other may, for example, be a part of her own body, or perhaps someone who is an outcast on the street. In the prose poem 'Feet', which offers a memory (or dream?) of staying with 'Tante Annie',  the child narrator wonders what she looks like as she wanders through the woods. It is as if she is for the first time becoming aware of herself as an object in the eyes of people she knows or doesn't know. Later, she sits 'on the edge of my bed cradling each foot in turn, trying to read its sole. Where does it want to go? Is it any part of me at all?' There is of course a play here on the word 'sole' with 'soul'. This is an apt poem to begin the book, for the narrator is at the dawn of an as‑yet unarticulated realisation that her life must take certain directions, and she wonders how much say she will have in the matter. At the same time, we as readers are made aware (though not in any obtrusive way) that the writer is haunted by this past self, whose mind and body she re‑enters as she looks back at the pathways taken or not taken.

In the next pages we see the child or adolescent narrator noticing those who are outcast. She is separated from them, and yet one feels that she too is going to experience what it is like to be an outcast herself. Her body is 'hard and young under the reversible green and gold cape my mother made for me', but she 'can sense their bodies, misshapen and clammy inside newspapers and rags' (from 'Ghost-riders'). There is already a sense of the conflict between literary reality and the reality she sees, hears and smells around her. 'Why pick Les Fleurs du mal
, I ask, when le clochard is my daily staple?' (from 'Clochard'). Indeed, much of Lucy Hamilton's book, it seems to me, is an attempt at bringing different realities together to make a life which retains its subjective passions, that which renders us unique as individuals, yet which must also take into account the demands and needs of the rest of the world. There is, by implication, an existential questioning of what it means to be a self. How much of what we are is defined by the way others perceive us? How is it possible to live authentically?

Section 2, 'Storms and Stations', looks at youthful relationships and the adventures offered by 'romance', in the widest sense of that word. Reading these poems brought back to me my own youthful experiences of living and working in Paris. Both the city and an epoch - that of the late sixties and early seventies - are evoked in a series of vivid sketches. The narrator knows the metro stations 'like the freckles on my skin, each with its own distinction' (from 'Montparnasse-Rambouillet'). 'The aisle rocks with bodies clinging to leather straps [...] Someone flicks a Gauloise to the floor and stubs it with his foot... all eyes switch to where it smoulders between two slats. I watch the barge disappear as if it's taking my life away' (from 'Dark Matters').  Later she will remember the man 'slumped on the metro steps, clutching a board with the words veteran de guerre: veuillez aider
' (from 'Old Man').

The next sections take us from Paris to the USA and Greece, before coming to early adulthood in the UK.  Still the narrator is living two different realities - the literary and the one she experiences around her - and trying, impossibly it seems, to make them meet in one whole. She arrives 'in Aberdeen with nothing but a small suitcase and 200 duty‑frees',  and with 'the 'problem of Katúsha Máslova' occupying her mind (from 'Nigg Bay, Aberdeen'). The seeming casualness of the fact that she has for the moment ended up in Aberdeen of all places reminds us of the sheer absurdity of the chance factors that can shape our lives, whatever else we may have decided. The narrator goes through a time of intense anguish where 'each morning I try to open my eyes, touch them and wince. I grope along the corridor clutching the wall-tiles. This is the dawn ritual' (from 'Sleep'). 'Absurd friends' help her while the doctor 'prescribes medication, tells me to break my affair with Ionesco' (from 'Absurd Nights'). There are, however, also moments of celebration, of sheer joy in living, for example when the narrator and her friend 'wash our hair on the ferry drinking Whisky Mac. Sleep either side of a man, in his triple sleeping-bag' (from 'A Cliff at Hayle').

There are more travels, to Germany and through the UK, more meetings, more friendships, more romances before the narrator, at least to all appearances, settles down into early adulthood and work ('a blessing I cannot always feel'). Yet it is clear from the last section, 'Stalker', that the author's life is still a haunted one, one where she must stagger to the mirror 'to face the stranger in my face [...] The reflection is distorted. If I break the mirror I'm done for' (from 'The Compulsion').

Lucy Hamilton's Stalker
is a courageous and beautiful book. It is one I shall keep returning to.

     Ian Seed 2012