Wayne Holloway-Smith – anger and pain

At first sight, the first stanza of Philip Larkin’s This Be The Verse could be the prologue to Wayne Holloway-Smith’s collection Love Minus Love, shortlisted for the 2020 T. S. Eliot Prize:

"They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
      They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
      And add some extra, just for you."

Instead, Wayne takes an extract from Franz Kafka’s Letter to His Father: “I could be a free grateful guiltless upright person and you could be an untroubled untyrannical sympathetic contented father but to this end everything that ever happened would be undone that is we ourselves should have cancelled each other out”. Taking this, together with the dedication “for my mother, for her courage”, the reader is immediately introduced to the father as villain, the mother as victim as much as the son.

On page 16 the father is portrayed as “looking like James Dean”:

"he is slender in too-tight jeans he is going to do something
shallow soon and very bad"

and on the following page the mother is depicted as sleeping in the passenger seat of a Vauxhall Cavalier:

      "her hair done perfect curated       the windows done
up tight the exhaust fumes are your father gently filling up the car".    

The dysfunctionality of the marriage is a recurring issue, but comes out, together with the son’s memory of it, most strongly on page 51:

"your dad randy and playful
slapping your half-cut mum's
bum on the sofa
the one cherished thing 
you are able to hold in the bin of childhood
with the lid up for as long as possible
slamming it shut just before
his clumsiness the both of them
your mother a little too hard laughing off the awkwardness of her
middle finger

The poet’s love for his mother, and his vision of her as victim, come across most forcefully in the poem on page 54, about “posh mums boxing in the square”, which won the National Poetry Competition 2018. It has taken this collection, in which the backstory emerges, to make me fully appreciate the cleverness of this poem, in which the poet provides his mother with all the equipment she never had – blue spandexes, a husband with better disposition towards kindness, a best friend, all the panoply of the middle classes – and then, when she is weakening in the fight, distracts the opponent best friend so that

"my mum      in the nicest possible way
can slug her right in the gut"

In a blurb on the back of the book the poet Fiona Benson says: “Wayne Holloway-Smith’s poems are blisteringly beautiful, and probe at a siege-like nucleus of familial harm”. For this reader, at any rate, the beauty is at best intermittent. One of the highlights, apart from the posh mums, is the account of the session with the therapist or healer, which begins “‘I want you to leave your body now’ he tells me” and then, in couplets, describes the poet/patient hovering above a yellow kitchen in Swindon, looking down on “a tiny remembered body”:

"and there is the noise of a terrible ting
that is happening

and there is summer outside with its
other children

'he doesn't understand does he'
says the man

'he is so young'..."

Elsewhere the chaos of a disturbed mind, with all its pain and anguish, is beautifully described. On page 36 the poem begins “I’m shitting butterflies out from my granulated stomach/and back into the world getting smaller/and smaller”. The speaker is with a man in a windowless room who, at the end of the poem “is telling me to stop writing things down like a victim and be more like a warrior”. Between this beginning and end are filmic snapshots of a woman shuffling on a cream-carpeted landing; two French women “with vigorous haircuts” pumping up the tyres of a chopper bike; a blond man biting his nails and checking his phone.

This is a frequent device used by the poet: on the preceding page, 35, a rectangular block of text is apparently addressed to his childhood friend David: “keep…the three-meat sandwich we ate the rap song we made up together in a bedroom at your house then mine with our parents getting drunk downstairs and despising each other keep the elderly woman we both wanted to be on her bike riding her bike no hands keep the elderly woman we saw cold and knocked down in the street circled by an ambulance…keep the touching when we touched our boy bodies in out-of-the-way places in places that were out of the way…”

A profusion of lists of images is a fashionable device, but Wayne uses the trope well. On page 44 the poem has sixteen lines, divided into three sections. It begins “o anxiety keep the secret it returns/often”. Then “you think it can be avoided for a bit” and finally “and yet it’s everywhere”. In each of the sections these introductory words are followed by “like”, introducing a series of images:

"it's everywhere like magic like mods in the 60s Christian rock stars...
like unemployment       smashed schoolboys
it's under the bun in the salad on the corners of the mouths
of the people you love
a bit on the light switch door handles some on the carpet
the taste of it replicating itself like a pop song's chorus
on the tongue of the man down the road of the women in pubs
all humming between cigarette puffs and learning its words
starlings in Arkansas"

The puzzling effect for the reader is the absence of any explanation as to what “the secret” is that gives rise to this flow of images. On reflection, I felt this was probably precisely the point. The recurring type of anxiety associated with depression is caused by some intimate, pervasive, obsessive version of reality. The opening “o” associates the poem with classical odes – in other words, the poet is saying “stay as you are, because without this secret you are nothing”. The list of images then reinforces the intimacy of the secret by using the senses – sight, hearing, taste and touch.

In collections of poems focussing on themes of trauma, the reader hopes for some sort of resolution or happy ending. In this case the poet is pictured more as enduring the passing of time than enjoying it. On page 61, the penultimate poem, the poet reflects on the passing of time and where he and an anonymous other person – his partner? best friend? – have got to:

"...I have a dirty great sum totting itself up
above my head - a smoke alarm
the switch on our crock pot is not faulty
the pilot lights on all the household
appliances are working fine"

Finally, a brief word on the question of form. None of the poems have titles or punctuation. Some are more “concrete” than others. Stanzas of any form are the exception rather than the rule, and line-lengths vary considerably. On the other hand, line-breaks are generally not aggressive. The impression of being plunged into a slightly disordered sequence reflects the confusion of the disturbed mind, which I took to be precisely the point.

It is easy to underestimate Wayne Holloway-Smith. When reading this collection I was reminded of the artist Tracey Emin, whose confessional and autobiographical works are often dismissed by artlovers who fail to take into account the skill and care, let alone the background knowledge and research, that have gone into her work. If there were to be a group of Young British Poets, Wayne Holloway-Smith might be her equivalent. Notes on page 63 refer to a number of sources, indicating a depth of reading that might not be apparent either from the poems themselves or from the self-deprecating way in which Wayne Holloway-Smith reads in public. His poems are not an easy read, from the point of view of theme or expression. But he deserves credit for unflinching honesty:

"the protection of a cup final kids' match on Sunday
ruined by a football smashed against a crossbar
my team mates their parents
all despoiling in the sad horrible sun

my dad
I'm sorry I suddenly turned on him
and chinned the fucker"

Wayne Holloway-Smith's "Love Minus Love" is published by Bloodaxe Books.

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