Ric Hool

Poetry | A Way of Falling Upwards by Ric Hool

62 pages, Cinnamon Press, £7.99

Ric HoolBorn in Malaya, and raised in Tyneside, Ric Hool spent five years travelling around Spain before settling in Wales in 1990. Since then he has published a steady stream of small press poetry books and pamphlets. His new book A Way of Falling Upwards is Hool’s first since last year’s Selected Poems (published by Red Squirrel Press) and his first for Cinnamon.

The craft on display in these poems is well-honed, and Hool has a very fine ear – his free, often open field, verse is almost invariably infused with a subtle and well-judged music. Clues to some of the roots of Hool’s poetics can be discerned from the many dedications included in this collection. Both Chris Torrance and Lee Harwood, for example, each have two poems dedicated to them (or, more accurately, there is one poem about Harwood and another dedicated to him). What Hool shares with these poets is a taste for, and trust in, an unshowy concrete imagery, as well as a persistent interest in how subjective experience is impacted on by a particular geographical terrain.

The geographies traversed in this new collection include those of Wales, Spain, and Japan. Examples of Hool’s trust in the strength of bare images can be found early in the book with his description of a rural Japanese family as they make an arduous journey to sell pheasants at ‘the 7 a.m. market’:

Ponies lumped with barter tap tap onward
necks hobbled low by bridle and rope
heads reined in to slow stabbing steps

And again in his description of reed cutters in the Suruga Province, where

Men chatter and call and hack
tracks into the six feet tall beds
towering above their stooped backs
and waded legs

Praising this poem, Ian Brinton compared it to the early work of Gary Snyder. The comparison is apt and helpful; Snyder’s work and thought appear obvious touchstones for Hool. However, the poems in this collection are, by and large, warmer (some might say more sentimental) than those of the young Snyder. Compare the ending of Snyder’s famous ‘Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout’ –

I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.

– with the ending of Hool’s ‘The Perfection of Effort’:

… up the opposing valley side by a wet muddy trail again
to look down upon lights of villages and market towns
Glangrwyney Llangenny Crickhowell
I think of nearby friends Graham John Tim
The last mile walked in darkness lit by them

If walking is one constant of these poems, then water is another. Having grown up in the coastal village of Cullercoats, water, as those familiar with his previous work will know, has long been a central preoccupation of Hool’s poetry. ‘Water defines access – like language,’ he said recently in an interview. ‘In many ways water determines geography and my expressive language grew out of that negotiation.’ It is appropriate then that being in water is the starting point for his short ars poetica – ‘Heather’:

Bathing or was it
swimming something says
it was felt
The moment lives in itself
by accident of being and
breathing hillside-honeyed-air
So it is taken
to my writing chair to
fingers searching for
that moment once more

Even away from the rivers and oceans, water is frequently present, albeit solidified into snow or ice, on the many mountains that are scaled in these poems. For instance, in ‘The United States of Time’, we find the speaker walking the Hills above Llanfairfechan in

Ice-block winds
and my head’s in
the step of a shoe
towards a stone circle
And on the next page we find him:
On this mountain
thoughts think quickly
escape like prisoners
ravens splitting wings
cracked by cold blasts

On such high altitude, harsh weather treks Hool’s speaker, like many before him, seems in pursuit of some version of the Romantic sublime – that experience defined by Burke as a mixture of wonder and terror. Yet one of the most moving and affirmative poems in this collection is ‘By a Single Leaf’. The speaker in this poem is ‘coming down’ from some unspecified place or experience (‘last night’s heaven’) when he is captivated by a leaf slowly falling. The poem ends:

Let hells not be the measure of being
however hard they press and press and bear down
running us scared into corners
Let the wild be wild
and godless of missionaries
Now to stand large
find and lose language
to be open to be
laid low by a single leaf

‘Laid low’ is usually a negative term – as in to be laid low by a severe illness. But here it takes on the same inversion to a positive that occurs in the vernacular when we say we were ‘knocked out’ or ‘bowled over’ by something. But ‘laid low’, both through its soft alliterative sound and through the multiplicity of meanings that are attached to the words themselves, is both a gentler and more complex phrase. An injured dog is laid on its cushion. But the balloon is also laid low by the hurricane. Somewhere between these poles, perhaps, lies the experience Hool is trying to point towards. An experience of being grounded, humbled, tenderised. Last night’s heaven – whatever it was – has allowed the speaker to be ‘open’ to this experience, open to the bewildering mystery of life unfolding. An experience the radical Buddhist thinker Stephen Batchelor has referred to as the everyday sublime.

That wonder can be encountered in the most commonplace procedures of the natural world might not be news. But it is perhaps a truth that must be relearned, daily, against the stream of our habitual perceptions, if one is to profit at all from such knowledge. Many of the poems in Hool’s new collection provide us with useful tools for just such a task.