“contradictory pleasures of shock and sweetness”

New & Selected Potatoes, John Hegley, Bloodaxe 2013, £9.95
reviewed by Pippa Little

hegley potatoes
I have to admit a soft spot for John Hegley. Years ago he visited my eldest son’s primary school and got him hooked on poetry: now he’s a poet, editor, translator and advocate for writing and I’m sure it’s in part at least due to that enthusiastic encounter.

New & Selected Potatoes is full of delights and offers us the scenic route around Hegley’s world, from 1984 to his most recent work. Some of it is laugh-out-loud and he is a magician of titles (referring to the much-maligned “brother-in-law”, as in ‘His Heart’s In The Wrong Place, It Should Be In The Dustbin’) but there’s also a quiet, wry sadness which lingers in the mind after reading: the effect of going through this volume at one sitting is of sucking sherbert lemon with its contradictory pleasures of shock and sweetness.

There’s also a sense of sharing real time with Hegley’s voice in its conversational, seemingly random unfoldings, as if you were sitting together over a coffee. Yet that guilelessness is underpinned with an acute and astute feel for language and a razor-sharp intelligence.

I found the poems about his grandparents’ marriage very affecting: she the “blancmange”, he the “potato”, their split reverberating through the generations after them. Hegley’s English identity – retro, suburban, of Scouts huts, glasses, dogs, bungalows, the Beatles – is crossed with a fault-line of his part French inheritance, something he grapples with in his relationship with his father and also as an artist. ‘The Sound of Paint Drying’ is a prose poem describing his trip to Nice to paint the same scene his father did in 1931 and ‘Zen Dad’ begins:

When I asked my father why he’d stopped painting,
He told me, ‘You are my paintings now.’

The weight of being his father’s work of art, and at the same time being expected to carry on the artist role himself (one Christmas he’s presented with his father’s palette wrapped up as a gift) threads through the poems and adds a darker tinge to the theme of human failings and specifically his own. Yet there are lots of bright colours, too. I loved poems about glimpses and snippets of life with illuminating consequences (‘Glasgow Window’ for example, where a man seems to be waving to the poet as if they are old friends but on closer inspection proves to be window cleaning, a lovely sideways nod to Stevie Smith) and pleasures taken simply in language, as in ‘The Difference Between Dogs And Sheds’, quoted here entire:

It’s not a very good idea to give a dog
a coat
of creosote

Michael Horovitz, on the back of the book, calls John Hegley “metaphysical, mordant, mellifluous”: he is all of these and more. Having read it dutifully from the beginning I then enjoyed reading this selection backwards, too, in a chronological fashion.

Pippa Little

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