The following review of The Night My Sister Went To Hollywood, by Hilda Sheehan, appeared in Acumen 77 (September 2013) pp. 100-101 and is reproduced here with their kind permission.
“What kind of a mother writes poems / anyway, and why?” Hilda Sheehan asks herself in ‘You Said That I Could Write to You,’ and in her debut collection The Night My Sister Went to Hollywood she offers a glorious joyride of a reply. A mother of five and editor of Domestic Cherry, she has occupied so many feminist roles that her work is like a firework set off in the heart of the culture’s kitchen.
In the first part, ordinary life is given extraordinary colouring. “I was never a Vivien Leigh” she says in ‘Not in the Stars,’ comprehending the hysteria which could be Leigh’s or Blanche DuBois’s, but remaining on “the empty streetcar / to throb with exciting life”. It is a life almost overwhelmed by domesticity, “fights over / Persil and Bold 3” in ‘Kitchen Drama’ where a harassed Martha “wonders when the floors will get done”, and gender stress in the prose poem ‘Jemima World’ where a misogynist lover loses his patience: ‘”You talk too much,’ he shouted, and shut her away in a cupboard, naked, then called for help.”‘ A dysfunctional family falls apart in ‘A Tragedy from a Bathtub,’ Sheehan hilariously and painfully showing a father reciting Shakespeare “from his bathtub”, while a mother dreams her Juliet dreams, finally leaving “through a door / I could never find in the cellar”, her departing gift “a crockery mountain” of washing up.
What makes this bearable is Sheehan’s generosity and surreal humour. A seal arrives in a narrator’s bathtub, to provoke this dry response: “I don’t know why he comes, it’s not as if we’re lovers: / he’s a seal, and l just live here.” A piece of ice is licked into life in ‘The Woman who Licked Ice,’ to send her off into ecstasies: “’A man!’ / she declared. ‘How Magical! How lovely! // Oh Ginnungagap!’” A nice nod there to Norse myth. Even the tyranny of supermarket shopping in ‘Oh Asda!’ makes its dark points with black humour: “a gaunt neglected child / buying vodka”; an infant screaming “in Smarties colour vomit”; the vegetables “putrid ghosts / a mother used to buy, I cook to death”. The sense of lives being crowded out by their own futility is brilliant, but Sheehan’s imagination is too vibrant and feisty to be daunted. In ‘The Golden Lampstand’ she is the mother-poet of her own question, and when men arrive to remove the light by which she works – “God wants it now.” – she fights back:
God will have to wait.
I am writing a poem and I need the light
of that particular lamp.
The poems in the second part remain in the home but are keen to show the tension between romantic love and reality. “He wanted to take me away, to Leicester, / Grimsby, Preston; take my pick, decide later” the woman tells us in ‘The Long Walk Home,’ but instead she “got off home, did the kids’ tea, // the shopping, made the beds, polished the TV, / washed up, hoovered, fed the cat.” In ‘Sundance,’ a lovers’ trip to Manchester ends with the man telling the woman “‘I never loved anybody Before’” and the woman puncturing his self-esteem with “‘One hell of a time to tell me’”. I wish I could go on quoting, but ‘Various Things’ says it all, the fem ale narrator driven to distraction by the demands of love and laundry: “I love you, I do. It’s just that, / time is running out, it’s Sunday. Asda will shut soon”, and though “I love the red bits in your hair” there are still things to do: “Shall we dust? / If you move next door, we could pretend to be lovers. / When you get back, we could put up a shelf.” How many of us have felt those distractions?
More details of the book and how to order it are here.