Jenny Hamlett is the third Devon poet who is launching her collection at the beginning of May. Playing Alice (published by Indigo Dreams) is her second full collection. Her first collection, Talisman, was also published by Indigo Dreams, and as well as these two collections she has published two poetry pamphlets and two children’s stories.
Like Rebecca Gethin, Jenny Hamlett lives on Dartmoor. She previously lived in Cornwall, and over a period of years she and her husband have been walking the country from Land’s End to John O’Groats. She is very much a poet of place, and many of the poems in Playing Alice are rooted in these places that she has visited or known well. For her the landscape is inseparable from the human lives that have shaped it and been shaped by it. In the first section of the book, If Centuries Were Seconds, she writes of the people, long gone, who eked out a living as best they could in harsh northern places. In the poem Naming she enters a Peak District church and through the names carved on the pews, ‘as if centuries were seconds/and they still had the power of speech’, some of those people begin to come alive to her. ‘In every creak of the church’s fabric,/ in the loud tick of its clock,/ in my footsteps on the hollow floor/ I’m waking the dead./ Candle makers, lead miners, sheep farmers,/ rope-makers from the huge cavern in the Peak….’ Other poems in this section speak in their voices. We hear the rope-maker who ‘won’t walk death across the floor’, the wife of a lead miner who knows what her husband’s fate will be, the weaver struggling over the Hollins Cross pass to work in Edale. One of the poems, entitled simply 1348, describes a man succumbing to the Black Death. ‘A wick burns in the empty house./ His heart is full of soft grey ash.’ The simplicity and transparency of the language lets us feel Jenny Hamlett’s sympathy with the people she writes about.
The second section, Going In, captures a series of moments in Cornwall at different times of year. Again nearly all the poems are set in particular places – Trebah Garden, Zennor, Trewey Hill, Marazion – and some portray particular people: a man painting in the snow, a woman singing in a pub, the poet’s son. The Marazion poem describes seeing sanderlings on the beach: ‘More like pale Easter chicks/ escaped from chocolate eggs’ and the exhilaration of being driven by the wind. ‘We ran with it, hair in our eyes,/ boots soaking as we splashed through puddles – / no book could tell us why.’ Even when metaphorical, the language has a directness that takes us to the heart of the experience.
Most of the poems in the third section, Winter Pass, are set in Scotland, on Iona and other islands. The imagery is sometimes striking. In The Grey Mare’s Waterfall, ‘the fall/ is the colour of a woman’s hair/ as she strides/ her last few years’ and ‘If seconds were iron bars/ she could jam/ in the cog wheels of a mill.’ In these poems we are again aware of the closeness of history, as in Ulva: ‘Let your feet down into the loch,/ watch them turn white./ Out there, coming in fast,/ are the longships.’ St Columba is very much a presence in these poems. In When the Lamp Oil was Spilt, the speaker is a serving woman whose accidental spillage causes the king-to-be to fall. She knows she ‘….would have been beaten/ until flesh fell from my back/ and life ebbed’ but the saint forgives her. Instead her life continues: ‘Serving my mistress/ quiet as an otter in the loch.’ In Prayer to St Columba, one of the most lyrical poems in the book, the speaker is again a woman: ‘I’m a wild woman heather in my hair/ goat-faced elongated arms web-footed/ I belong to the distant lands no one can visit.’ She recognises that the saint ‘…. smile(s) from spring violets/ from stitchwort campion wood anemone/ God’s companion sometimes I long to make your journey/ but mine is different.’ The last two poems in this section speak of people close to the poet. Oban Night, the final poem in this section, describes a visitation from her father, long dead. Like several of the poems in the final section, including the title poem, Playing Alice, it speaks of loss and the desire to connect with those who have passed away.
Like her fellow poets Sue Proffitt and Rebecca Gethin (in A Sprig of Rowan), Jenny Hamlett has been inspired by the Bronze Age burial discovered on Dartmoor. The last section of her book, Saying Goodbye, begins with a sequence of poems about it in which the speaker is a young man witnessing the woman’s ritual sacrifice. Pollen grains of meadowsweet were found at the burial, and meadowsweet is a recurring image throughout the poems ‘…. soft as summer fruit/ welcome/ as the first violets/ when winter unclenches its fist’. As in many of the other poems, Jenny Hamlett makes us believe utterly in her character’s story, which is described in powerful images : ‘That day it seemed we had broken out/ from a cage of rain and wind./ The sun god was fierce, his heat gnawing our skin.’
The more I read the poems in this collection, the more I appreciate their quiet power and unobtrusive skill. As well as writing about her own experience with honesty and humour, Jenny Hamlett has the gift of being able to put herself in the place of others far removed in time and situation. There is richness here, and a sense of the fullness of life.