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Susan Hampton COSTUMES – P76 Magazine Issue 1 1983

1 Dec

Susan Hampton COSTUMES Transit Poetry 1981

Over a number of years now Susan Hampton’s reputation as a poet of a consistently high standard has been steadily increasing, largely as a result of the considerable body of her work which has appeared in various literary magazines and journals. It comes as a surprise, then, to realise that Costumes, her first complete volume, has been greeted with almost two years of critical neglect.

If we turn to the book itself in an attempt to find reasons for this neglect, we quickly find ourselves disappointed for Costumes is, in many ways, a virtuoso debut, as Hampton shows herself to be in control of many different  styles and techniques. One has only to compare the surrealist prose piece ‘Catalogue of Five Words at an Exhibition’ with the apparent autobiographical detail of ‘In the Kitchens’, to be aware of the range and scope of her work.

Throughout the volume, Hampton is always conscious of being a poet, both in the way she observes what is happening around her, and how she relates it to her own emotions. We become aware of the importance she attaches to individual words in a ‘Catalogue of Five Words at an Exhibition’; here Hampton describes a method of memorising single words which she has taken into the country:

We begin at the Angel Islington in a pub, looking at ourselves in the mirror. As we looked, she told me the first word. We walked from then pub to a phone-box, to the supermarket then to the tube station, the flowerseller with his red blooms, past a hoarding, then along Upper Street to the doorknocker on her house. At each of these stops she gave me a new word, and I was to recall them by walking this journey until I could do it in my mind, associating each word with an object on the way. It proved successful, and I wondered whether this was how Mandelstam’s wife memorised his poems to bring them out.

Words are obviously important here, and a close relationship exists between the individual words and the associated objects. It is no co-incidence that ‘Catalogue of Five Words at an Exhibition’ opens Costumes, for through it we are introduced to the poetry that will follow. The idea of a “Museum of Words” recalls the various museums in Murry Bail’s Homesickness, but Hampton sees little point in museums themselves:

The Museum of Words. I think this is a bad idea. Leave

these in the gallery for a while, and then give them

to people walking by.

The poems that follow are definitely not intended to hang in a gallery. Although our first reaction may be that Costumes consists of a number of very good, but also very different poems, as we progress further we become aware of a number of subtle but important ways in which poems of opposing techniques and styles are, in fact, related to each other. This can perhaps be best seen if we look at the way a number of Hampton’s best poems grow directly from everyday incidents. Early in the title poem ‘Costumes’, for example, we read:

Waiting for a bus, I rock gently on the edge

of the footpath, all manner of people coming past me

the ones in green dresses  the ones with very short hair

In ‘Costumes’, and other poems such as ‘Jubilate Sydney’, ‘Ode to the Car Radio’ and ‘Waiting for Rain’, we see emerging a particular way of looking at the city, and, more importantly, the poet’s relationship to that city. The concluding lines of ‘Jubilate Sydney’ reflects one manifestation of that relationship:

For tenthly there’s a cloud accompanying me

my windscreen is better than the latest Italian movie

The same sentiment appears in ‘Waiting for rain’:

& yes, life’s an Australian movie just now, no plot

but some very taking shots

Although part of the attraction of these poems lies in the way the actual incidents are described, their real strength  is Hampton’s ability to suggest an inter-relationship between many apparently trival observations. In a comparatively simple poem, such as ‘Waiting for rain’, this is achieved by the way the richness of the first section, where the poet is riding a bike across the campus of Sydney University, is contrasted with the sterile second section, when she has arrived at work. The poem works towards its final statement in the same way that a skillful scientist might support her/his theory, for when the poem concludes:

I want to go out into the rain.

there seems to be no other possible conclusion.

‘Costumes’ can be seen as an extension of ‘Waiting for Rain’. It is a far more ambitious poem, and structurally more complex, but again it relies upon the poet’s observation of her surroundings. This time, however, she is still and watches the city move around her. Her passiveness, though, is only physical, for the way people “narcissistically half-watch” themselves in the numerous mirrors of the MLC Centre becomes a metaphor for the shallow nature of the glamorous image they seek to buy:

And the mirors say, you have bought something from us,

look at us and see how you shine as you move, buy more

look more, shine more, buy yourself from us  we have

a big range of styles.

The poem becomes increasingly ironical so that when the people leave the mirrors and walk into the street past

                                                                         cripples with badges

fat girls from out of town, warehouse clerks with sore legs

and white noses, past all the losers.

the glamour and shine has all disappeared.

The five poems grouped together in ‘In the Kitchen’ also appear to be largely autobiographical, describing the poet’s childhood in Inverall and Newcastle. There is a gentle feeling of progression about the sequence. Each poem seems immediate and important, perhaps because with the exception of ‘Invererell’, they are all written in the present tense. They reflect a child’s growth, from early memories of an insurance sales and amateur magician, to bars in Newcastle and writing poetry imitating Eliot. The sequence appears almost crafted, for while it has at its centre, the memories of different kitchens, each poem expresses a mood unique to a particular period of growing up.

On e feature, then which runs through an unites Costumes is the way in which the majority of the poems have, as their centre, the poet herself. The best poems in the collection, however, use this as a starting point to make statements which transcend the personal. This is true not only of those poems which deal with the external world, but also those which concentrate on the personal or physical subjects. ‘It’, for example, begins by describing the feelings, both physical and emotional, associated with menstruation:

                                                                It grabs from behind &

whomp! you’ve gone mad again tonight, despite Vitamin B

& the gynaecologist’s plan for sanity.

As the description continues, the poet’s anger grows until, in the final lines, it overflows into violence:

                                                       Now the world’s

a different place, malign for sure, & we’re crying

(big girls do) about nothing, we know its nothing,

but we really want to kick the shit out of something

tonight, we’re violent, & we’re tired of making

little parcels & putting them in the cupboard.

In the final instance Costumes is true to the criteria that Hampton herself stated at the beginning of the collection in ‘Catalogue of Five Words at an Exhibition’. The majority of the poems refuse to be “hung” for an length of time on the gallery wall. Rather we find ourselves recalling the way we have felt in a particular situation,or perhaps see elements of ourselves in the poetry, so that seemingly personal statements suddenly take on a much wider significance. Costumes confirms Hampton’s standing as a poet of exceptional ability, and establishes he position as one of the best writers to emerge over the last few years. The fact that this collection has passed almost unnoticed by the majority of critics (there have been a few exceptions) is a sad comment on the quality of contemporary  criticism.

Mark Roberts


Photograph of Susan Hampton in 1981 by John Tranter.  Thanks to