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Poem of the week: In the Springtime by Geoff Hattersley
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Poem of the week: In the Springtime by Geoff Hattersley

In the Springtime

The queue outside the Aldi
spreads all round the car park,
out onto the street and round

the corner where it meets up
with the queue at the bus stop
like a couple on an awkward first date.

I count fifty more or less
socially distanced would-be shoppers
ahead of me, then lose the count.

One person leaves the store,
trolley piled high with pasta,
baked beans and biscuits,

another is waved in by a black girl
with a gap in her front teeth
like mine and Jimmy Tarbuck’s.

A Nigel Farage thinkalike
in front of me turns round
to give me his version of things,

which goes on and on
as the shopping body shuffles forward
like it’s not well, forty minutes

and I can only console myself
that it’s sunny, no rain,
and I won’t live for ever.

Finally I get there, exchanging gaps
with the black girl, finally I’m in there,
but only to find the shelves all but bare.

Some fat git on his mobile:
‘It’s absolutely mad Susan,
there’s not a single chip in t’place.’

No beer, no wine, my God, just the hard stuff,
not much of that. A bottle of dark rum
catches my eye, wins me over.

There are bog rolls across the road
in the newsagents, I overhear,
but not by the time I get there.

The South Yorkshire poet Geoff Hattersley is in lively form in his new collection, Instead of an Alibi, the first since his 2012 pamphlet, Outside the Blue Hebium. Shifting between the merriment and sadness of ordinary extraordinary things, it delivers a poetry of intensely English attitudes and voices, including a sparky sequence of pub conversations in Yorkshire dialect, In t’George. Hattersley has a gift for comedy, and the jokes, as in this week’s poem, often have political edge. In the Springtime is from the third part of the collection, a largely urban and daffodil-free selection of Covid-19 pandemic poems bearing the resolutely non-romantic title, Lonely as a Crowd.

Hattersley’s speaker is a patient, observant participant in one of those long, slow queues that resulted from the rules of social distancing for the general public when entering communal spaces. (The political elite, as we later learned, often exempted itself from such rules.)

Plain diction shows plainly how odd and unlikely the process was. But the poem includes moments of overt defamiliarisation, as in the simile closing the third tercet, where the long supermarket queue meets the bus stop queue “like a couple on an awkward first date”. Later, the term “shopping body” picks up on this idea. It’s suggestive of the apparent homogeneity of the queue, as if people had obediently handed over their individuality so as to function as a collective, if an enfeebled one.

In the Springtime is also concerned with individuals, and one of the skills of its composition is in keeping a fluid movement between general and particular observation. Hattersley’s speaker finds rough comedy in appearances, and doesn’t entirely refrain from sharper criticism. There’s the “Nigel Farage thinkalike” who “turns round / to give me his version of things” as “the shopping body shuffles forward / like it’s not well”. Greedy stockpiling is observed without comment in the case of the shopper who leaves the store with a “trolley piled high with pasta, / baked beans and biscuits”. But, after the moment of solidarity with the “black girl” whose unenviable job is controlling customer entry (verse 10), the “fat git on his mobile” inspires some fiercely mocking impersonation: “‘It’s absolutely mad Susan, / there’s not a single chip in t’place.’”

It’s not that there’s any distancing superiority from the speaker: bare shelves, when finally he gets to see them, expose his own desires and disappointment. After the consolation prize of a bottle of dark rum, the pursuit of “bog rolls” rumoured to be available at the newsagents is unsuccessful, and that’s it. The matter-of-fact register continues as the poem winds down, although the melancholy rhyme of “there” and “bare” in verse nine is echoed in the assonantal “overhear / there” of the last two lines. The sounds evoke an emptiness that goes beyond supermarket shelves.

This is one of those “pandemic” poems that seeps beyond its occasion to reveal the ways in which wealthy democracies may deceive themselves. Ambitions focus on consumption. For the poor, this may be a desperate grab for necessities but for others there are the addictions to comfort eating and stockpiling, driven by advertising and creating further social division. Obedient queueing itself suggests a “lonely crowd”, a population too willing to be simultaneously herded and isolated by political control.

Source: theguardian.com