REVIEW by Ellie Rees

NWR Issue 104

Openings: A European Journal

by Jeremy Hooker

Having read Openings over several days, I am looking forward to placing it on my bedside table, along with Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne, so that I can be more selective and give myself time. Time, that is, to speculate on the nature of poetry perhaps, or decide whether English poets are ‘afflicted with a sense of history’ as Seamus Heaney is quoted as saying, or maybe time to explore parts of Israel, Greece and Holland. Mainly it is the sensuous descriptions of his beloved south of England that I look forward to rereading. This is a book for poetry lovers to savour slowly.

Openings covers five years of Jeremy Hooker’s life from 1983 to 1988 and is neatly framed by his taking early retirement from teaching at Aberystwyth to his appointment at Bath College of Higher Education to teach creative writing. In the intervening years he lives for some time in Holland, travelling restlessly back and forth to Britain, as well as other parts of Europe.

When preparing previous entries for his Welsh Journal, Hooker writes that he does not want to publish a poet’s journal ‘focused narrowly on the self and the work… I envisage not a confession, but rather a “place”: a world for other minds to enter, which is mine but also more than mine.’ It is sense of place, both literal and metaphorical, which he evokes so vividly. His travels, whether in Greece, Holland or Israel are captured in deft brush strokes. These sections read like a personal notebook where the poet quickly records his observations of light, colour and landscape. They are impressionistic, yet full of closely observed and original detail.

The development of his ideas about a poetry of place are also intriguing: ‘I have an idea forming of poetry as an inner map of sacred ground; of place as an imaginative field, but known with the bodily knowledge of growth, work, sensual experience, love and through family and communal experience….’ These more philosophical moments are frequently balanced by wry comments on his sense of inadequacy: ‘Depressed by another critical dismissal – for my “empty descriptive” poems.’

Much of his description of landscape is devoted to his childhood home in Dorset and occurs when visiting his elderly parents. His love of this place, and his overwhelming desire to return, form the main narrative thread in the journal and spark his most detailed thoughts on the nature of his poetry. In many ways this journal is a love story, the love of this ‘place’. ‘I don’t think I have any illusions about England. But still the fact remains that I’m drawn back, not in grief and almost in panic as I was sometimes in Wales, but in the certainty that my place is there. The need to be there is part of me.’

Writers are expected to keep journals, notebooks or diaries but they would seem to be written, as Virginia Woolf implied, for their eyes only. She referred to hers as being like a desk where ‘one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through.’

Openings is obviously written for future publication. Though using the shorthand of a diary entry, the opening pages read like a novel, with his dramatic meeting and falling in love with Mieke, who later becomes his wife. However this is not typical of the rest of the journal, which soon settles into a vivid record of his travels, thinking and reading during these five years. There’s very little sense of the 1980s being so long ago. There are brief references to the miners’ strike, Chernobyl and Cold War fears, plus a reference to posting an essay to his publisher, which now seems quaint, but the writer’s concerns and focus on the nature of his poetry, his family and his ambitions are timeless.

Ellie Rees’ account of her son’s life after paralysis is in New Welsh Review’s autumn edition, published on 1 September.


previous review: The Third Tower: Journeys in Italy
next review: Boom!


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