Review: Ross Hattaway – How To Sleep With Strangers

How To Sleep With Strangers, Turas Press, €12.00,
ISBN 978-0-9957916-1-9

How To Sleep With Strangers is Hattaway’s third collection, after the highly readable Pretending To Be Dead and The Gentle Art of Rotting, both published by Seven Towers. The book, fittingly, is dedicated to his previous editor and publisher, Sarah Lundberg, who passed away in 2014.

Churched sees Hattaway explore the role of outcast, concerning a woman who stands against the Church’s practice of considering a woman after giving birth as unclean. The poem talks of scandal (“Quite the local upset”) but lacks a sense of outrage, either from the locals or Hattaway himself. However, this sense of being an outside continues in Migration: “we’re all from somewhere else”. Ross is a New Zealander by birth, Dubliner by residency since 1990, so it is natural perhaps that a degree of separation is felt throughout his work. “Escape is part of your story” and “Writing loss and distance” hammer the point home, and its blows resonate elsewhere.

Riposte is a short snarl of a poem, opposing the widespread emigration of the Irish against a reluctance to take in immigrants. The couplet “Romantic Ireland was never meant | for the servant or the factory slave” is a powerful condemnation of the current political climate. How it Happens similarly laments the persecution of the Māori people, their homelands sacrificed in the rape of earth’s resources.

Strangers is an examination of parameters and possibilities. It explores spaces, concrete and metaphysical, easily moving between the natural and the man-made: “There are many rooms | in the house of my eyelids.” (Sometimes When); “Examining the minor archaeology | of my compost heap… | …All the fossils of caring” (Caring); “The space between | the ground and the rain.” (Oration); “mirrors are for | looking behind you” (Looking). Hattaway comes across as eager and inquisitive, yet emotion is not sacrificed for clinical analysis. Take Story, with its open, catch-all title:

+++Possibility is what separates
+++and its limits.
+++The lucky and the unlucky.
+++The young and their history.
+++Strength and the merely strong.
+++The beaten and those
+++outside the game.
+++The loss we choose
+++along the way.
+++What happens
+++when the story goes wrong,
+++however long we chase it.

Death is a permeating theme here, whether in the sense of an ending, or the end of life, the “big leave”. A coal mine in Roscommon threatens with “a cave-in | and dead lungs”. Of Those We Know sees “drowned lungs” and “no cure or measure” for cancer, reminded us that death is rarely a decision. If all this death is too much for some, a lighter note is found in the pithy retort On Being Accused of Miserabilism.

Hattaway is a fan of tanka – both his previous collections have featured them – and a curious series of odes to the pāua (the Māori name for abalone) feature in the middle of the collection, counterbalancing death. The edible mollusc with decorative “black skin, perforated shell” takes centre stage, as life is seen revolving around it in easy conversation at the dinner table. The pāua, it is ability to cling onto rocks using their large muscular foot, becomes a metaphor for survival, “a vision of life”, Hattaway elevating the lowly sea creature to noble “glory”. It’s near-absurd, unexpected, and wholly fitting with the themes of the collection.

Safe is a curious love poem, seeing two people come together, the union starting with “each other’s temples”, before spreading to the crowns, ears, necks, shoulders and on down. It is a quirky reminder that love is cerebral as well as physical, and it is a trait of Hattaway’s writing to approach such a subject so acutely.

Call retells a telephone call beckoning the speaker to some kind of emergency happening behind a locked door. The poem captures the jeopardy and tension of everyone involved, although never reveals what is exactly happening. The true action happens offstage, Hattaway mature enough to entrust the reader to associate and create their own sinister events. Elsewhere, the scope of Hattaway’s more playful side is at full force in poems like Unravelling the Edges of Speculative Physics, which ties the origins of the universe to knitting and kittens, and the title poem, encouraging us to mingle with strangers; again, the outsider theme comes into play here.

I Have Done Terrible Things is a confessional piece, full of self-condemnation: “I have stolen optimism | and given despair.” And yet for all its death and xenophobia, Strangers has plenty of tenderness, humour and joy. There are moments of love dotted throughout, and while never fully pastoral, Hattaway comes across as thoughtful and seeking pleasures in small things along his way, to neutralise the hardships of life. As the poet says himself, “To know where you are going | is very good | but it’s not the walk.”

Strangers will leave you will a curiously angry smile on your face as Hattaway chooses to answer life with whimsy in places, but bemoans the certitude of heartache as well. Its publication is a steady start for the new Turas Press, and a very firm footing for a third collection.

1 Comment

  1. McSkeane Liz

    A very thoughtful and well-considered review.


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