Going to bed with the moon: Jenny Hockey, Oversteps
In my copy of Going to bed with the moon Jenny Hockey has written: “Hope you enjoy some of these – a few new faces of death included.” Hockey is a retired sociology professor from Sheffield. Her specialisms were, are, death and gender. I met her at a death studies conference. In 2013 she was given a New Poets award by New Writing North. This is her first collection of poems and it is, roughly speaking, autobiographical. There is not much in it about her job, but its concerns are here – most obviously in a set of poems which come out of her study of ‘loss of family in war’, a sub-specialism. Looking in her poems for mentions of death is instructive because it points up the subtleties, of which references to death are by no means the only ones. You begin to see what typifies her style. A poem as straightforwardly sweet as ‘Look up. They’re back’, about the return of birds in spring, has a hint of mortality at the end:
One leaves me a single feather,
Hockey made it into the national press when she was arrested for protesting against the felling of trees and a couple of poems address that issue directly. Nature – birds, trees, water – is always connected in her poems with human life.
I have read two papers Hockey wrote about shoes: shoes as signifiers of a person’s feelings about their identity. I mention this because it gives some idea of the kind of writer she is: Going to bed with the moon is a semi-narrative meditation on her life and is full of objects, clothes, bodily sensations of an ordinary kind (“an elbow crooked, my fingers/feeling for yours”; “my one silk shirt/swaddles me through Times Square”) and shrewd observations about ordinary life.
It is witty, unpretentious, deliberately unspectacular. A lot of it takes place in Sheffield, with a scattering of foreign trips: holidays in France with her husband, a trip to New York. Other sites, more analogical, metaphorical ones, are old photos, (notably of the dead in war) and museums. Every poem is set in a specific place. None are long, none go over the page.
Death appears in several guises but is addressed with a lightness of touch. This is not to say the poems are not serious, and what in the end comes through the everyday observations and often humorous descriptions of people and events is the deep seriousness of her approach.
In ‘The Circulation of Relics’ the poet appeals to the reader – “imagine your bones ...” We are to identify with the body of a girl who is exhibited as a holy relic.
cannot scent her roses. Their petals
confetti the chapel floor
(Incidentally, this image. “confetti”, is typical of Hockey’s understated metaphorical style.)
Why don’t they put her away?
Haven’t her young bones had enough,
laid too long under gilded wood ...
Love and death are sometimes put together, and specifically so here. The stanza at the end is personal, about her and her husband, but it is not introspective:
... I get the drift
of roses among these sheets.
‘Child You Half Know’ is about a photograph. We know the girl in it was German or Austrian because she has an Opa and an Oma. We know she died:
He’s told her to show
how she’s learning to write
to hold up the pen she won’t use
to trace the short story
of her death,
It is simple and terrible.
You want to know more but
beg her to lower her eyes, please
not to hope or trust overmuch.
Shifts from present to past and back again are characteristic. Quite a few poems move from one time to another, and this becomes their structure. Hockey makes no attempt to produce the flashy metaphor, to hit the nail on the head with a brilliant one-liner. In fact there is not very much in the way of metaphor at all. The herring she cuts up has “dinosaur crests”. Elsewhere there is a “three-piece fattened on sleep”. And her attitude in poetry as in life, it seems, is always to focus on the concrete before straying into the abstract. ‘Yellow Liqueur’ contains what sounds like the memory of a real conversation. Nature in this poem seems in cahoots with people: “the black lace roadside trees” and a moonlit sky of “pink marbling into lilac” accord with the “cheap chic vintage,/White Musk. And all the yellow liqueur” of the sublunary world. It is not so much metaphor as a kind of symbolism. Here as elsewhere things are used to suggest other things. What metaphorical elements there are tend to be in the form of stretched out descriptions or in the significant story or event. ‘The Party’s Over’ functions as an extended metaphor for the end of life. It describes a real party but the implications are clear, and it ends the volume with the poet snuffing out three candles:
I spit on my finger and thumb
and draw down the darkness.
Nevertheless the death metaphor is not laboured. Earlier in this poem she touches on mortality with:
and I’m drink-dazed for sleep,
drained with the weight
of my unspoken words.
The way of looking at the world in the war-dead poems is similar to the way she looks at her own life. But if that becomes a subject of sociological study, there is no hint of detachment. If the collection is autobiographical, it is about how someone becomes a person through her relations to others, some of them dead.
The poems are warm and the poet’s voice reassuringly sane. Two or three poems attempt to capture thought processes. (‘To change time zones’; ‘A Meditation’). ‘Shade and Light’ is a kind of mortality poem ("... all we might have been") and connects with the poems that deal with thought and meditation. It turns into a poem about her sliding into a lake. The lake is personified:
... into your deepest olive waters
I slide, pale, down to where silted mud
can taste me again, down into the reed bed
where the chance blessing of sunlight
may throw bright patterns about my skin
I like very much the archeological and the museological poems. ‘Primary Tangible Evidence’ suggests that every home is a museum, its junk an archive. The poem starts out in the poet’s childhood, when,
My family ...
took me to the bone and musket museum,
its shrunken head I’d plead to see,
But it quickly brings in
... the Museum of Broken
Relationships, a halfway house for stuff
that knows too much –
And then returns to the museum proper:
... chattels and bones
rescued from gutters and swamps,
brought to be labelled in rooms
“I was born dwarfed by the dead”, she writes here, which perhaps hints at how she came to her specialism, death. But it is the poignant awareness of a peculiar connection between death and the failures of life that give this poem its – rather Gothic – life. And it is all done with such uncomplicated strokes of the pen. This seems to be achieved through observation of everyday life. She is a sociologist, after all. But all five senses are brought into play.
David Lillington is a freelance writer and curator. He is a member of AICA (International Association of Art Critics) and ASDS (Association for the Study of Death and Society).