“The Grid” is just the first half of The Grid. The second half comprises two shorter, looser sequences, “Screen Memory” and “Letters of Last Resort”. The latter is, largely, a series of beautiful translations of snippets from Ovid’s late poems, written in exile. The deadpan, dreamlike prose-poems of “Screen Memory” – surreal-ish if not surrealist – reminded me of Ian Seed, and of Kafka’s short fables.
But the same theme, the slipperiness of meaning and interpretation, runs through the entire book. “I was travelling through a particularly grim part of your country when I saw this phrase scrawled beneath an overpass,” Mandel writes in one poem in “Screen Memory”. The nonsense phrase is “GORKY SUBLIVM TIXET”, and the poet obsessively puzzles away at it, before a final sentence that arrives from nowhere: “The point is, I arrived in your town and rang your bell at the appointed time, but you did not answer, nor have I heard from you since, and all my letters have been returned sewn shut like eyelids.”
There’s the same deathly note to Mandel’s posthumous trawl through Kober’s many documents and letters. With bone-dry humour, he observes: “One of her notebooks has a page entirely blank except for the phrase: ‘Maybe due to lacunae in material.’” She was an awful typist, but he finds meaning in her typos. In a note about editing one of her papers, hoping to hide herself in her own research, she typed: “I want to oamdit the many instances of the pronoun ‘I’” – “omit” typed over “admit”. Now you see her, now you don’t.
What sort of guy would dedicate months to trawling through her papers? Well, the sort of guy who would set off on a 642-mile hike just because John Keats once did it. Footing Slow (2016), Mandel’s short book about that trek, is a mini-masterclass in self-deprecating humour. His personality leaps from the page in it, which makes the near-total suppression of his personality here rather impressive.
Kober turned herself into a kind of human computer, creating vast tables of symbols, organised by frequency. “Her thoroughness was merciless.” In her research, “she abstained to a stunning degree from favouring one fact over another. Ventris called the results ‘internal evidence dispassionately sifted’.” There’s a similar kind of sifting going on here. We’re given details, and left to join dots.
Mendel – a classical linguist himself – includes his own translations of Horace, Pindar and others. Those translations are all light as breath. “Wisdom leads us into the maze of stories / and then robs us dumb,” Mandel writes, in his version of a Pindar ode. In capitals, he translates odd bits of Linear B. One refers to “THE KEY-BEARER”: “SHE HOLDS THE LIMITS / OF ?TWO COMMUNAL PLOTS BUT SHE DOES NOT DO WHAT SHE NEEDS TO DO”. Ventris said that Kober was “purposefully stopping short” in her research: she held the key, but didn’t do what she needed to do.
Mandel, too, stops short. “The Grid” resists neat conclusions and hyperbole in a way that feels true to its subject. “Her discoveries were so few,” he writes, a painful admission. “It would be false to claim that Kober was responsible for deciphering Linear B. It would also be untrue… to assert that she has been forgotten. Her contribution was fundamental but inconspicuous. She lives on in the limbo of the half-triumphant.” TFS
The Grid is published by Carcanet at £12.99. To order your copy for £10.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk
June: Women in Comfortable Shoes by Selima Hill
It’s hard to write about Selima Hill without looking silly. Her poems resist analysis. Short, precise and startling, funny in both senses, they make everything else look like pretentious waffle. Sure, you could compare her 21st collection Women in Comfortable Shoes with its predecessor, Men Who Feed Pigeons, and conclude (as one august journal has) that “the speaker’s entire orientation to gendered relationships fluctuates” – but you would see her poems rolling their eyes.
When Hill was awarded the King’s Gold Medal for Poetry in January, Simon Armitage called her “a person and a poet who… will not conform to expectations, especially poetic ones”. This is nearly true. Her work conforms ever closer to our poetic expectations of Hill; she has become her own genre.
There’s a formula. The Hill poem is odd in unfashionable ways, usually in iambic pentameter, and in crisp sentences, its vocabulary that of ordinary speech. It’s joke-shaped, but not a joke. Mental illness and trauma hover in the background. She’s playful, and revels in a well-placed apostrophe: “Just as all my boyfriends are my girlfriends’, / the letters of ungodliest spell longitudes.”
She writes in sequences – 50 glimpses of the same character, for instance. A precis for the 30 poems of “Dolly” explains: “Dolly is a duck. The other 29 women are, in various ways, human.” Hill writes unstoppably, publishing a new pamphlet every month in 2022. “Dolly” was one; several others are included here. That profusion means she repeats herself (rabbits in one poem here “sit and smile like contented pies”; women in another “sit and smile like enormous pies”), but the miracle is that she doesn’t repeat herself more. In recent decades, the books have got longer and the poems shorter; there are more than 400 poems in this collection, many just a couple of lines long.
In different moods, Hill can sound like Edward Lear or Basho, Kafka or Stevie Smith. She’s usually called “surreal”, which is wrong. Surrealism’s food is untethered metaphor; Hill’s joined-up similes are grounded, truthful and accurate, pinning a psyche to the page in two lines. A troubled sister “stands there like an orphan with a suitcase / but without the suitcase”. Her logic may not be other peoples’ logic, but it’s intuitively right. In the first poem here, a young girl wonders about her damaged, reclusive mother: “Is she frightened? I have no idea./ Maybe she just sleeps all day like pears.”