An Honest Map

Hilary Menos shares a poem and chats to Charlotte about the importance of craft and remaking the world.

White Pebble

Tonight, after the bath and the bedtime story,
somewhere in the space between hanging
and folding damp towels, I kneel down. From here
it is barely a breath, a slow tipping forward,
until my forehead rests on the tiled floor.

In our story the children throw down a pebble trail,
escape from the woods and find their way back home.
I fold the corner of the page to mark our place
and smooth the hair from a sleeping face.
Nobody knows how a story ends.

Here’s a pocketful of pebbles, and a mountain of crusts.
Here are small white pills to be taken every day.
There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.
I follow your trail to the copse and kneel down,
rest my forehead on a damp carpet of moss.

The Mud Man whispers to me in a dead language.
Noli timere, he hisses. But I am afraid.
I do not know how I got here and I will not pray.

Hilary Menos, from Human Tissue, Smith|Doorstop, 2020

Charlotte Gann: I have such admiration for your skill with words, Hilary: the pictures you paint, the characters and dialogue, the images…

In this poem, I’m moved by the reality of the scene: head tipping to rest on that tiled floor. The children’s book. The trail of pebbles and pills. And that Mud Man, a recurring and predominant presence in your collection Human Tissue, whom I’ve never met and yet adore! There’s something so profound and individual about him, planted there, in the middle of this all. Something mysterious. And defiant…?

Hilary Menos:  Thank you, Charlotte, that’s really nice to hear. ‘White Pebble’ is quite an important poem for me. When I wrote it my youngest son Inigo was six or seven, so I was immersed in that lovely time when stories get made up about everything. One day when we were out walking in the copse we found an enormous fallen oak tree. Iggy looked at the yawning hole it had made and declared it to be the mouth of a Mud Man. We brought things to feed him – berries and flowers and nuts – and he became a kind of pagan entity.

At the same time, my son Linus’s kidneys were starting to fail, and we were dealing with the prospect of him needing a transplant. It was a really tough time. I’m a card-carrying atheist, but at times I was tempted to pray. I didn’t know who to put faith into – doctors, the C of E God who I suppose is culturally mine, or this tangled pile of roots and earth. The Mud Man was one of the things I hung my hope onto.

CG: I love that Mud Man. And how individual he is – to your vision. Like something built from nothing, or from the rubble and material that surrounded you.

One interpretation of the ‘Understory’ is that it’s about getting to the heart or essence of our endeavours, each of us. Spending time focused on what it is we’re really driving at, or towards, in writing our poetry. I wonder what that might be, for you?

HM: What am I driving at? I don’t know – it’s different in every poem, but I guess it’s always about finding the truth of something, as I see it, and communicating that to a reader.

Above all, I like the craft. I try to convey precise and nuanced meaning in a way that people will understand, and enjoy. So, grammar is important, punctuation is important, poetic technique – the play of sound, rhythm, the arrangement of words on a page – all are important. I believe I owe readers something in return for their attention so I work hard to make something which is beautiful (or clever, or funny, even, sometimes) in its own right.

CG: To create a new entity (not unlike that Mud Man)?

I know that, as a reader, I often tend to gravitate towards the quieter poems in any collection. For instance, those two facing sonnets towards the end of your book Red Devon, where you contemplate leaving the farm that has been your home and work for the previous decade. In ‘Cleave Farm’, I’m moved by the views of the farmyard: ‘the puckered slate of the stepped mounting block, / the worn lip of the trough, the scours and scars / etched by constant rain on rock’.

It’s the simplicity and clarity of language here that I find transporting. Or that ‘I fold the corner of the page to mark our place / and smooth the hair from a sleeping face’, in ‘White Pebble’. (I like that it’s ‘a sleeping face’.)

These are quiet, reflective moments when I as reader am given a window onto the poet’s thoughts. They’re intimate, in a way, as poems.

HM: Those two sonnets are at the quieter end of my work. There are no fireworks in them, they are pretty conservative in form – broadly half-rhyming sonnets, five beats per line, one has a rhyming couplet at the end – they’re not obscure or difficult, they simply tell it how it is.

Reading them now I find them tender and thoughtful, but also rather melancholy and certainly not as lively as some of the other poems in the book. I’m interested that you’re drawn to them. I prefer poems that are a bit more showy – that are playful and crafty while also speaking to a reader in a meaningful way.

When I find myself considering the formal elements and the sound patterns and start to comb, comb, comb a poem into an enmeshed, working machine – that’s when I get the buzz. I’m as excited by the form of a poem, the craft, the wordplay, as by honing its purity of meaning, which is, I think, more what your poetry is about. Perhaps I am intimacy-avoidant!

CG: Ah, that made me smile. But I definitely get the ‘meshing’ thing – love your ‘comb, comb, comb’. The sound and language and weave and rhythms have to be there for me to feel satisfied with my poem: get the buzz, as you call it. Or my equivalent. But yes, you’re right too: there’s a purity of meaning, which is the ‘cargo’ of any poem for me (and which I discover through the writing).

Your sonnet ‘Gift’ starts ‘I want to write you a small square poem’; then ‘pitches in headlong’ to some wonderful, worked detail, a whole Italian townscape, so richly drawn:

                                          a piazza where,
between candy-stripe carts of ice-cream sellers,
past lunchtime chatter, waiters bringing Lavazza
and orange juice, it finds firm ground,
lands on the page like a flag

What is this ‘firm ground’, for you?

HM: ‘Gift’ is about writing poetry, yes. It riffs on the idea of a sonnet, a small square Italian poem, zooming in from outer space – the blank page, perhaps – and finding its way to its representation in the physical world, an actual Italian piazza.

It says I want to be able to take the broadest view but also focus right down on the smallest detail, and make from it all a kind of map for a reader, written down on the firm ground of the page ‘like a flag’ – claiming the territory and attracting attention – a map which can then direct readers, even transport them.

I think the page is my firm ground. And the actual language – the way sound can amplify meaning.  I’m a stickler for people saying what they mean, and meaning what they say. I’m not sure what this has to do with intimacy. I think it’s more to do with honesty.

CG: So, it’s an honest map you set out to draw. An accurate depiction of….whatever that poem’s subject finds itself being.

HM: Yes. And I think the imaginative side of writing a poem is what’s most important to me, being able to use my skills with language to capture or evoke or convey something else – a feeling, a sentiment, an understanding.

CG: I picture a kind of imaginative escape into and through and out the other side of that all-important crafting. You take ‘a pocketful of pebbles, and a mountain of crusts’, and make something meshed.

Is ‘escape’ a relevant word? I feel a bit like I’ve ‘escaped’ in writing my poetry. Escaped into a version of the world seen and crafted by me, with my mind, body, experience and, actually, subtlety.

I’m also struck by your final word ‘understanding’…

HM: Yes, that chimes with me. I think it’s a kind of remaking of the world such that I fully understand it, from the inside, if you like, and trying to imbue the poem with enough clarity and richness and clues to allow a reader to understand it too.

Maybe we are alike in that way – both meticulously arranging and changing, weaving and combing, until our respective creations speak in the way we want them to. I think we do approach the business of writing a poem in a similar way – we both edit hard, interrogate everything, search for the exact word.

I’m interested by your use of the word ‘subtlety’, because that’s also important to me – in a way I’m looking for people who ‘get’ my poetry, who understand the subtle nuances of feeling and meaning, and I suspect it’s a similar story for you?

CG: I loved this response, H. And perhaps especially the meeting around the word ‘subtlety’. Talking about it like this makes me see just how much that matters to me. In fact, I think it’s the key.

And yes, the thought that what we’re maybe ultimately hoping for, trying for – reaching for – is to find people who ‘get’ our work. I even breathe a bit of a sigh of relief reading that. I think that subtlety between people has always drawn and entranced me. Or the hope it might be possible. In life – not just in poetry.

I can sit quietly in this room and really work at making a piece the best I can. And of course, in the process, this affords me a deep and involved conversation – and resonance – with myself

HM: Yes, that resonates, the notion of learning about myself in the process of writing a poem. Though at heart I think for me writing poetry is mostly a sort of elaborate show and tell – ‘Look what I made! Do you like it?’ Which of course – once you want to show your poems to anyone beyond friends, family and workshop / group colleagues – gets us into the whole can of worms that is the publishing industry, celebrity culture, prize merry-go-round, about which probably the less said the better…

CG: Although perhaps at some level, these things all connect – our wish to make, and then to ‘show and tell’. If we can just step back and glimpse the bigger map?

In ‘White Pebble’, you connect the children’s story with the living through trauma. ‘Nobody knows how a story ends.’ That moment, in your poem, for me resounds and resounds. It’s like I’ve been told the truth in a way I can take in.

HM: In which case I guess the poem has done its job. I make the poem out of my truth, you read it and it means something to you, and together we have made a connection. It’s like an intangible but resilient bridge. Surely poetry that does this makes both the writer and the reader feel less alone. I know that’s how it works for me.

CG: And for me. Thank you, Hilary, for delving into all this with me.