Life-savers On All Sides by Pauline Hawkesworth

-Reviewed by Matthew Hacke-

Life-savers On All Sides by Pauline Hawkesworth draws vivid, but often fragile, images of individual human existence. Characters frequently find themselves in reflection – sometimes almost somnambulant – but the collection rarely falls into opacity or malaise. Instead, the writing style is taut, and Hawkesworth’s persona are often placed within convulsive, and fluxative natural and man-made landscapes.

The personae Hawkesworth works with are a varied set; some frail and static (‘Porous,’ “Why an old man…”), others virile and active (“Not looking where you are going,” “Just our heads”). Hawkesworth makes a significant effort to build these characters, and considering the length of her poems (most around 15 lines), she achieves an impressive depth within limits that might be constrictive. Much of this is achieved by a rather conservative formal style, that avoids being tempted by stream-of-consciousness, heavily enjambed thought-form, in lieu of tight, and well-structured stanzas. As a result, Hawkesworth creates an effective minimalism – driving thematic development with each line break and making every word participant in her canvases.

Whilst Hawkesworth’s portraits are deep and captivating, her integration of landscape and space is what intensifies the work. For the most part, the relationship between human and space moves in a pivot. To use the eponymous poem as an example; which sees an elderly, hydrophobic man exist contentedly but inert in a shallow pool, surrounded by lifesavers, Hawkesworth leaves the symbolic relationship between the human and natural pleasingly ambiguous. Is the water mobilised here as an auxiliary, subservient part of a larger metaphor, with the constant watching by “lifesavers on all sides” focalising an infantile need for safety and security in the man’s psyche? Or, does the “viscous slither” of liquid suggest something more – perhaps an ominous, unpredictable, and ultimately insurmountable natural risk that cannot be truly contained by human surveillance or architecture? This ambivalence appears throughout Life-savers On All Sides, and is no bad thing. Indeed these tensions between character and space, the known and the unknown, provide an effective superstructure for the collection, fleshing out and interlinking its diverse range of narratives, characters and emotional states.

Were I to make one minor criticism of the pamphlet, it would be its selection. Whilst the majority of poems coexist effectively together, I couldn’t help feel that some pieces were stylistically and thematically dissimilar, and perhaps would be better released as standalone works, or saved for another collection. I hasten to point out that there are no bad poems in Life-savers On All Sides, but the euphoric revery of some of the shorter, more lyrical pieces, such as ‘Amber’ are not entirely consistent with the concepts covered in the vast majority of the work. Still, this is a small complaint, and it by no means detracts from the reader’s enjoyment or engagement with the pamphlet as a whole.

To conclude, Life-savers On All Sides is an immersive and enjoyable piece. The verse is engaging and firm – whilst many of the poems display a deceptive complexity and ambiguity when read against their inhuman contexts. Hawkesworth’s portraits are often captivating, and sometimes touch on something profound.