Selima Hill is perhaps best known for her surrealism. Pierre Reverdy has said of surrealism that ‘the more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true [...] the greater its emotional power and poetic reality’; this certainly applies to Hill’s substantial oeuvre. Deceptively anchored in the recognisable, often so-called ‘female’ worlds of domesticity, marriage, family, the poems’ deliciously bonkers juxtapositions and non-sequiturs illuminate the emotional truth at the heart of the work.
Born in Hampstead in 1945 into a family of painters, Hill read Moral Sciences at Cambridge and now lives on the Dorset coast. A prodigiously prolific poet, her first collection, Saying Hello at the Station
, was published in 1984 and she has since published fifteen further collections (including two Selected Poems). The most recent is People Who Like Meatballs
(2012), shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection. She was a Royal Literary Fellow at the University of Exeter between 2004 and 2006.
Fiona Sampson called Hill ‘arguably the most distinctive truth-teller to emerge in British poetry since Sylvia Plath’, and indeed there are similarities in the two writers’ preoccupations and apparently confessional (to use Sharon Olds’s terminology) styles. The opening injunction in Hill’s ‘Portrait of My Lover as a Dress’ – ‘Scream / like a dress, O Lord’ – illustrates Hill’s skill in bringing disparate images uncomfortably together to create new and apt realities. Combining imperative (‘Scream’) with deference (‘O Lord’) alongside symbolically gendered language (Lord / dress), in just one line she makes sharp incisions into the fabric of gender and power – central themes throughout her work.
‘All poetry is love poetry’, Hill once commented; hers are poems in which all things – including, particularly, violence, seem to be a product of intimacy. The title of her 1997 collection Violet
(which contains a passionate sequence of poems about marital betrayal), so close to ‘violent’, plays on these associations as though its ‘missing’ letter might represent the unconscious. In ‘Why I Left You’, the first poem in the recording, the place where intimacy bumps up against claustrophobia is captured in the chilling line ‘By “you” I mean me’. Hill’s reading of these poems is particularly powerful, conveying the emotional intensity of the written voice with a clipped and menacing exactness. Elsewhere in the recording she brings the poems’ narrators marvellously to life with subtle theatricality.
Despite these darker elements, the spirit of Hill’s work is playful and vivacious, exercising the imagination to its utmost. The sinister, the unsettling, the raw aspects of experience that she draws upon are balanced always by a tenderness of purpose, as in the charming conclusion to ‘Please Can I Have a Man’: ‘[…] please can I have a man / […] Who, when I come trotting in from the bathroom / like a squealing freshly scrubbed piglet / […] opens his arms like a trough for me to dive into’ – giving us a vision of love in its purest and most uncomplicated form.
Selima Hill’s recording was made at the Audio Workshop, London on 28 January 2003 and at The Soundhouse, London on 15 May 2012. The producers were Richard Carrington and Anne Rosenfeld respectively.