Tobias Hill - Midnight in the City of Clocks (1996) [Salt Publishing, 2007]
by Joshua Jones
The most spectacular thing about Tobias Hill’s second collection is how abrupt the transition is from it seeming exciting and alive to it becoming, ultimately, boring. This Salt version, its third incarnation, is a beautiful edition, hardback, the cover art a blurring sunset cityscape, swathed in green and yellow, murky and enticing. The title promises something strange, something other, an enigmatic collision of time and space. It informs us that Hill has been “selected as a next generation poet”, and comes with the Poetry Book Society’s seal of approval, as well as praising pull quotes from such ‘big’ establishments as The Guardian, The TLS, Poetry Review and Poetry Wales. All of which conspire to boost one’s expectations going in. Even if you don’t especially rate the mainstream leanings of these heavyweights, the fact it is on the esteemed Salt Publishing creates an aura of authenticity, of something quality, of importance. It’s a shame, then, that Midnight in the City of Clocks only ends up staid.
The problem with Hill’s poetry is as explicable through its form as its content. They adhere for the most part to loose pentameters or tetrameters, sometimes for effect but often arbitrarily and destructively. Many of the poems would have worked better if ‘tradition’ or ‘the norm’ had been not just disregarded but attacked. It never really is, and the collection’s formal blandness sadly reflects the poems’ content.
Take Part One, entitled ‘Transit’. It is a series of poems written abroad, the majority of them set in Japan. They have two modes: attempts at character writing and lyric snapshots, postcards of travel. While the writing is technically strong, it has the air of being written by an educated man on an extended gap year. The character pieces are dull imaginings, fleeting as a train passing through a station and with just as much depth. The poems’ main strength comes from the originality of their imagery, although even this is wildly varying in quality. There are many occasions when, in attempting to describe originally, Hill overstretches, as in this poem about a sumo wrestler in a sushi bar:
learns flatness under his weight.'
(from ‘Sumo Wrestler in Sushi Bar’, p. 18)
And then you’ll get an excellent description (this one not only in the same poem but on the next line):
'His thighs flop down like sunstruck apes.'
Elsewhere he reaches for a distinctly Japanese lightness and lyricism, for the most part unsuccessfully. It reads forced and affected, if pleasant:
'[...]A white scorpion
waits without motion
in a frail cloud of blossom.'
(from ‘Green Tea Cooling’, p. 20)
Part two, ‘Back in the City’, utilises the same techniques, albeit the Japanese lightness is reduced and a forcefulness and brutality appropriate to London replaces it. Which is, at least, appropriate. The problem is that Hill’s knack for interesting, idiosyncratic imagery is not put to good use; instead we get banal lyric after banal lyric, a slightly embarrassing fascination with the city’s underside (as in ‘North-West London, 8.15’) and a massive waste of a descriptive talent.
The blurb describes it as a collection “crammed with a young man’s curiosity and eye for detail”; I would translate this into “a collection of poems crammed with a (not so) young man’s lyric self repeatedly superimposed over scenarios that could have been more interesting if they weren’t so stricken by a formal adherence often failingly compensated for by too much detail”. But then that doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Nonetheless, the third piece, ‘Prisons in a Departure Lounge at Midnight’, is a masterful fragment of travel, of the dazed observations one makes late at night when the plane has been delayed, of the glazed separate worlds we can see from the outside but never get inside, where things have become slightly unfamiliar: the praying man’s “white beard left on like shaving foam” (p. 6). Maybe skip this collection and just Google that poem. Because after the book’s sixth page it’s all downhill from there.
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