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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Book Review: Matthew J. Hall The Human Condition Is A Terminal Illness (BareBackPress, Hamilton, 2017) 105 pages.

This is the second book of poetry published by the Bristol based writer, Matthew J. Hall. The free verse writing is exceedingly clear and largely focuses on human vulnerabilities and defects and on the fleeting and sometimes nasty side to relationships. You will also discover a variety of reflective pieces, portrait poems, poems about growing up and meta-poems about the process of writing. The language is typically simple, fresh and authentic.

The poems tap into Hall’s evolving literary spine and represent a significant step-up from his first collection Pigeons and Peace Doves (Blood Pudding Press, 2015).

The quirky plastic farm yard menagerie on the front and back covers was designed by BareBackPress publisher Peter Jelen. In a recent email, he explained his representation, “Well, I guess after talking with Matthew, getting to know him through correspondence and his work, I gathered the impression he doesn’t look upon humanity with fondness and admiration. After reading the manuscript as many times as I did I came up with this image of a really fucked up plastic world filled with mutant and hybrid animals with humanity at the low end of the food chain. The teeth are mine, I asked my dentist for it when I needed a bridge made, painted it, and added it to the forefront to enhance the sense of devouring going on in scene. That’s basically it.”

The title The Human Condition is a Terminal Illness derives from the opening poem “petrol station”, a mammoth 51 stanza epic poem in which the poet describes some of his rare memorable encounters in an otherwise mindless dead-end job. A frequent visitor to the station was “Cathy”, a fucked-up addict who offered a ray of light in a sea of misery:

Cathy was the only line of poetry
in that box of artificial light
built on a foundation of greed and illegal practice
there was nothing else to say

working at the petrol station
suicide was often on my mind
I was often bored
more often depressed
and more often than not,
disabled by a raging sense of anxiety

I realised early on
that the general public’s common stupidity
was symptomatic of lots and lots of
individual selfishness
and their anxiety was contagious;
the human condition is a terminal illness

In the interview which follows, Matthew J. Hall says of this sad, harrowing period of his life, “In hindsight I realise that my hatred for that job was largely due to a long-lasting and severe bout of anxiety. Having said that, I do believe the extremity of my anxiety was triggered by working in a petrol station. It was miserable. The poem is an honest account. The people I mention in the poem were all real people. The only one mentioned by name is Cathy. And of course, that isn't her real name. She was one of the most remarkable people I have ever met. Just a mess of contradictions. Hopelessly addicted to drugs yet so pure of personality. Physically speaking, she was fucked; malnourished, broken teeth, offensive scent, caked in grime. But she was so kind. She was known locally as an addict, an arsonist and a prostitute. I don't think she was a prostitute, but she was an addict and she did have a fascination with fire. Of all the thousands of interactions in that job, Cathy's were the only ones I would care to repeat.”

In a later email, Hall says of the title, “In the poem I'm trying to make comment on how prone to selfishness so many people are. I think there is a widespread loneliness and sadness, particularly in built up areas, which is rooted in this obsessive need to be first. Selfishness is a sickness, and in a very honest way, I believe it is deadly. Of course I am also making the obvious comment about life and death. As soon as we're born we have started on a journey toward death. I felt like it captured the tone of the collection fairly well.”

Most of the poems in the collection are about Hall’s relationship with woman, in particular his partner Esther May, one of the women he dedicates his book to. In a series of poems scattered throughout the collection he explores the vicissitudes of a fragile relationship- the cruelty, the fights, the temptations, the guilt, the pleasures and the constant need to be reassured that love still exists.

The most memorable poems are often confessional in form, sometimes third person narrative poems, in other instances second person narratives directly addressed to Hall’s partner or his former lovers. “Play the sad violin”, “my mannequin and I” and “moths dressed as butterflies” are particularly vicious in sinking the boot into the hearts & minds of former or perhaps present “loved ones.”

“Play the sad violin” is a bitter personal lament which propels insult into an art form. The middle section of the poem has echoes of Robert Browning’s macabre “Prophyria’s Lover” but the poem stumbles towards a tearful, melodramatic resolution:

play the sad violin

there is a stranger inside
who refuses analysis
a sickness, an undefined nausea
who over the years
has formed her own personality

she is dying down there
the scent of death on her breath
is overpowering

I can hear her playing
the sad violin
the notes are in my chest
and in her eyes
she plays in A minor
a song I can’t quite hear

her salty tears
coat the back of my throat
and strangle my laugh

she resents my peaceful surroundings
detests those who love me
insists I punish them
as she has been punished

she calls for me quietly
with a sad and steady bow
longs for me to join her
invites me insistently
from somewhere deep in the intestines

I hate the love I have for her
I should kill her
but how do you murder
an already dead flower

I could swallow poison
and silence her
but deeper down
and deeper yet
I know that is what she wants

she imagines us as dancing ghosts
far from all the others
embraced in a smokey waltz
our bare feet
light and free
on floorboards of dreams and mist

but the other woman
won’t let me go
she doesn’t hide her song from me
and you may know something of love down there
but you know nothing of her

her tears stand out in the rain
and though she is cynical of the promise
she believes in every rainbow
she washes my face and wants me to live

she tells me to look after myself
she looks at me expectantly
trusting we will reap as we sow

she does not play the sad violin
yet I hear her song clearly
as the oak
as its limbs
withstanding strong winds

she places her head on my chest
straining her ears to hear
she wants to get to know her
but I won’t let her
and neither will she
we are too jealous for that

and it is breaking all of our hearts

(reprinted with the permission of the poet)

Poems such as “the birds were yet to start sing”, “love seat”, “always fighting”, “quick and fast”, “the day’s hopeless patterns” and the meta-poem “it’s all lies” are more moderated in tone but have an underlying impatience, frustration and undefined sadness about them.

Asked about what his partner Esther thinks about including her in his work, Hall explains to me cautiously, “I think she is in two minds about this. I have been public about the private. There have been times when I have handed her a poem and asked her to check it for spelling errors. I've been in that place where I'm only concerned about the poem as a piece of writing and have moved on from the emotion of the thing. Only the poems in question are a highly, emotionally charged comment on her and my flaws and qualities; a fight, a moment, some shared tears. I stand there waiting impatiently and she's like, ‘what the hell am I supposed to do with this?’ Writing is a very selfish affair. Particularly autobiographical writing. Esther doesn't think it's all that autobiographical, though. She told me that I write from a combination of personalities. Some of it is painfully honest, some of it is fiction and some of it is bullshit. I'd say she's also accurate in her assertion.”

Hall also includes a half a dozen second person poems in which he metaphorically attempts to capture his partner through a wide variety of art forms, including sculpture “getting creative”, a pencil drawing “gutless”, acrylic paint and charcoal “incarcerated in canvas”, and paint and pastel in “trapped inside my furniture.” As Hall admits in the latter poem there is something “creepy” about this obsession. Perhaps he uses this artistic metaphor as a way to pin down and idealize an otherwise fleeting and all too emotionally sapping situation. In “trapped inside my furniture”, for example, he paints a robust portrait of his partner on the base of his drawer. He talks to his drawing and hopes one day she will learn to love him despite her confines.

Similarly, “trespassing” explores through an extended metaphor the notion of cracking “the codes”, searching “out your secrets”- to understand better her “version of me”. Interestingly, the quest appears driven by self-interest rather than empathy. The persona, presumably Hall, says matter-of-factly, “of course, the first door of interest would have my name/ inscribed above it.”

“The best I could do” is a more positive love poem. In it, the speaker discovers an innovative way to emotionally appeal to his missus:

the best I could do

I wanted to do something romantic for you
because in spite of the senseless circle
you have shown me sharp corners
where the destination and journey merge
and a single moment becomes all of life
and all of life becomes whole

I wanted to say thank you
I wanted to do something romantic for you
I wanted to give you something special
I wanted to say something of your truth
wanted to find that honest line and lay it out at your feet

but the rose petals ripped under my ball-point pen
and the thorns on the spindly stem
were too small and obstinate
the poesy wouldn’t fit no matter how tiny the words

so I pinned our poem to a homing bird’s leg
whispered words of instruction and sent him off
but he had a mind of his own
he flew around and around and around as though he were lost
then he spotted some discarded food
and with our words he stopped

I wanted to do something romantic for you
and with regret
I am afraid
this, my love
is the best I can do

(reprinted with the permission of the poet)

In asking Hall why so few blokes appear in his poetry he replied, “I'm speaking generally now, but I have found many men to be emotionally vacant and lacking in intellect. So many male conversations are nothing more than a conformation of established opinions. That's fine, but there has to be more. I've learnt more from women and I think they are more interesting than men; they have a higher pain threshold, they have faced more adversity, they are better company. I think this is true in writing. There are plenty of exceptions, but of the authors writing today, of which I've read with some regularity, I have found the men to be repetitious. Their major concern is to become prolific, they are succeeding in this goal but it's essentially the same poem or story, over and over again. The female writers tend to have a bit more originality about their work.

Perhaps this is all bullshit; a weird kind of projectile self-loathing. Maybe. Maybe not. Either way I think that the essence of poetry is emotional and I have experienced a wider spectrum of emotion with women than I have with men.”

Apart from his penetrating and sometimes acerbic observations about relationships, Hall also creates a diverse range of credible character portraits. Notable in the collection are “sometimes you meet someone”, “dead hope”, “portrait”, “crueler than kids”, “an old song” and “in her letters.” Characteristically, the portrait poems feature people who have done it tough and who have struggled to meet the unreachable expectations and demands of society.

Perhaps the best portrait is of the unnamed girl in “patti’s still got it.” The writing is unjudgmental and creates a clear and evocative sense of setting. It is an outstanding whimsical distillation of atmosphere and character:

patti’s still got it

the water under pero’s bridge
was still, as was the city
during its best hour on a sunday morning

she was playing a tin whistle
you couldn’t get away with calling it music
but the sounds were far from unpleasant

from my side of the river
I could see the market traders
setting up their fare, on their side

the crisp air tasted fresh
as it will when so few of us
are sucking it in and blowing it out

soon enough the crowds would arrive
and the air would become heavy
and the tongue would become numbed
by a mouthful of death

from my bench, a metal affair
cold and reassuring
I could see she’d been eying up my cigarette

she slid the whistle into her breast pocket
stood and walked with purpose

can I have a cigarette, she said
sure, I said, offering her the pouch and papers
can you roll it for me, she said
sure, I said
can you roll me five, she said
sure, I said and took to rolling

she retrieved her whistle and played
covering and uncovering the holes with her fingers
watching me roll with her eyes

her hair was the colour of wet straw
she was pale and very thin
but she carried a heavy weight
like someone who’s held the truth about people

at the fifth cigarette’s completion
she showed me the soft side of her hand
I lined them up on there
and she counted them out loud


instead of thanking me, she said
I saw patti smith in concert
oh yeah, I said, has she still got it?

she tucked her whistle and cigarettes away
put her hand all the way down the front of her jeans
held herself like that
gyrated and confirmed
patti’s still got it

with that said
she returned to her original position
on pero’s bridge
where she played her whistle

across the harbor
the market traders were chatting up
their first customers
I could hear a siren from somewhere distant

I stood from my bench
waved a quiet goodbye to the whistler
she lit one of her five cigarettes
and waved back

(reprinted with the permission of the poet)

Matthew J. Hall’s book The Human Condition is a Terminal Illness is largely a confessional representation of his foibles, written in a direct, searing-belly style. He provides numerous reflections and anecdotes but provides us with few clues as to how we can be better people or how we can treat each other more decently. According to Hall, relationships are emotionally and mentally messy and there are no neatly packaged happy endings. As he notes in the blurb on the back of the book, “More often than not, in the midst of a confused, selfish, self-hating populace, THE ANSWERS ARE WANTING.”

Bio: Matthew J. Hall is a UK writer based in the city of Bristol. His poetry and short fiction has been published online and in print. His poetry chapbook, Pigeons and Peace Doves is available through Blood Pudding Press. His poetry collection, The Human Condition is a Terminal Illness is available through Bareback Press. 

Find more about BareBackPress:


Where do your poems come from? Do you write every day? Do you have a set routine?

I used to write every day and I wrote a lot of shit. I go through phases now. Sometimes I'll write every day for a week, other times I might go a week without writing, but rarely do my quiet periods go on much longer than that. I try not to romanticize output. I don't have a routine. I've learned I'm most productive in the morning. The best lines I've written have been in drunkenness, but they don't work on their own, it takes sobriety to bring a piece to completion. My best poems have come from conversation and the exchange of ideas.

When did you first develop an interest in poetry and whom have been some of your more recent influences?

I wrote a poem for a girl. I'm married to her now, so make of that what you will. Other than that, I wrote a few poems to fill in the time spent waiting to hear back from my first batch of short story submissions. One of the poems was accepted, while all the shorts were rejected. I carried on with poetry after that. I still write fiction from time to time, but poetry is what comes naturally.

In terms of recent influence, Karina Bush is the poet of note. I'm never going to be able to write like her, I would be a fool to try; she is a phenomenal poet. I reviewed her debut collection of poetry, Maiden; I wish I could write like that. Seriously, fuck this interview, go and check out Karina Bush.

As you know, I reviewed her book as well. Getting back you your shit, how long was the book in the making?

The oldest poem is about five years old, the youngest is a matter of months.

Did you actually work in a gas station for four years? Was it as bad as you make out in ’petrol station’?

I worked in a petrol station for four years. It was worse than I made it out to be in "petrol station." In hindsight I realise that my hatred for that job was largely due to a long-lasting and severe bout of anxiety. Having said that, I do believe the extremity of my anxiety was triggered by working in a petrol station. It was miserable. The poem is an honest account. The people I mention in the poem were all real people. The only one mentioned by name is Cathy. And of course, that isn't her real name. She was one of the most remarkable people I have ever met. Just a mess of contradictions. Hopelessly addicted to drugs yet so pure of personality. Physically speaking, she was fucked; malnourished, broken teeth, offensive scent, caked in grime. But she was so kind. She was known locally as an addict, an arsonist and a prostitute. I don't think she was a prostitute, but she was an addict and she did have a fascination with fire. Of all the thousands of interactions in that job, Cathy's were the only ones I would care to repeat.

Can you explain your association with BareBack Press from the original conception of the book to the various processes involved in eventually getting your book published?

Some time ago I was searching for places to submit poetry to and I happened upon Bareback Press. At that time they were offering a free download of Peter Jelen's flash novel, The Cure For Consciousness. I read the book, loved it and reviewed it accordingly at Now, either I write shit reviews or small press publishers don't believe in networking because most of the time, when I review a small press book - and I only review the ones I love or feel strongly about commenting on - the publishers seldom send me a review request upon publication of their next book. The exceptions are Wolfgang Carstens of Epic Rites Press and Peter Jelen of Bareback Press. And so, a relationship of sorts was established with Jelen. He started sending me review copies of the books he was publishing and Bareback very quickly became my favourite press. After The Cure For Consciousness, I reviewed Damon Marbut's Human Crutches. Marbut is an extraordinary writer and a sweet and honest man. Not long after that I reviewed Wayne F. Burke's, Words That Burn. Wayne is the best at what he does; straight forward, old-school narrative poetry. He's the best. I have reviewed three of his collections and hope to review many more.

Anyway, some books later, Pete asked me if I had any books to my name and I sent him a copy of my chapbook, Pigeons and Peace Doves, published by Blood Pudding Press. He seemed to like the book and told me to submit a manuscript if I had anything of length. I sent him a draft of what turned out to be, The Human Condition is a Terminal Illness. It was about three quarters of the length of the final draft. Pete suggested some changes to the order of poems, namely putting "petrol station" as the first poem. I thought this a ballsy move, on account of the poem's length; a fifty-one stanza poem is quite an opening statement for a collection. I didn't need much persuasion and the manuscript started to take shape from there. Pete wanted more poems and I had plenty to offer. The collection is basically an assortment of what I have written over the last five or six years.

What’s the story behind Peter Jelen’s layout and design of the front cover?

Pete will most likely cringe at this, but he is a very talented visual artist. He is responsible for the cover design and I'm happy to say that he did a really nice job. For further detail you would have to ask him, and I recommend that you do; Jelen's work, visually and literary, is conducive to Bold Monkey's tone.

I will ask Jelen about the cover. What did you learn in writing the book?

That is a hard question to break down, some of these poems were written years ago, so I have learnt loads in the making of this book. To be honest, I learn more from reading than I do from writing. Reviewing my contemporaries has been, and continues to be my education.

As you mentioned, you are the editor of the site Screaming with Brevity. Can you tell us how the site originated and its purpose? What’s the best stuff for the uninitiated to begin with?

SWB started as a home for my writing; a personal blog, but I quickly discovered a love for sharing about authors, publishers and artists I enjoyed. I found my writing improved as I spent time mulling over other people's writing and so I began writing reviews. Visitors to the site will find reviews of poetry and fiction, my own poetry and art and hopefully soon other small press authors' poetry and art as well. Truth is, I'm no editor. My online presence wouldn't even exist if it wasn't for Esther Hall, who is a talented creative in her own right. I write the content, she makes it look good, and over the years it's become a project we enjoy working on together. The purpose of SWB is to promote small press publishers and writers. The coolest books can't be found in your high street book shop; Screaming with Brevity is a signpost to the best I've read in modern literature.

What advice would you give to talented young writers of poetry?

I have only been doing this for five or six years, and as such, I'm just a boy in the writing world; I would be a fool to hand out advice.

What’s next for you?

Aside from continuing to write poetry, I'd like to develop my criticism. Maybe write some small press writer profile pieces. I don't know if I have what it takes to pull that off. This type of writing needs to be exceptionally good, otherwise it's just fluff.

I totally agree! Thanks Matthew for your time.

Thanks George!

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