Some readers will leave a book looking pristine after handling. With all the underlining and scribbling in the margins I indulge in while reading, I am not one of them. There is a certain correlation between the frenzy of my note-taking and my enjoyment of a given title. The more pencil marks on the page, the more I loved it. My copy of Kerry Hammerton’s third poetry collection, Secret keeper, can only be shared with the most tolerant of friends who will not mind all the signs of my appreciation the book had to endure.
One of the early poems of the volume, “Divers”, ends with the following two lines: “I can’t see anyone else breath sharp and ragged, the light/ in the water/ threatens to close above my head.” Other elements and circumstances obscure visibility in the preceding poems. There is a sense of threat, something looming in the dark after the lights go off, or in the “half lit room” at night, or in one’s mind, or in a blurred, snowy landscape. The poems seem to prepare the reader for the heaviness of “Days like these”, where the lyrical “I” is haunted by images of “twenty-nine stab wounds/ blood in the car”, and “the clogged thickness/ of everything/ weighs me down” in the last stanza of the piece.
Secret keeper is divided into four parts. The first culminates in poems about the split self, the one in front of a mirror and the one in the reflection: “I search along the seams of our life/ to find the tear, the tearing/ apart, maybe I didn’t love her enough,/ maybe I’ll never love her enough” (“Her”). The poem “Exhibit” expresses a similar sentiment: if a life were to be displayed “in the museum of life/ my body and I// would be in different rooms –/ between us// hooks of anger and hurt/ pulled tight through the skin and heart”. There is always the self of the poems and the poet, and the ultimate question which needs to be confronted – how to write “after losing everything” (“A conversation with Nina Cassian”).
The poems in the second section of the collection are inspired by Rafael Alberti’s Concerning the angels (1928). In deceptively simple words, Hammerton draws vivid portraits of different angels, ranging from the angel of sleeplessness to the angel of death. Anyone suffering from insomnia will recognise the “nicotined fingers,/ the oily grime/ under his nails” of the creature that haunts the small hours, trailing feathers “across my face” and smelling of “fearful sweat” (“The sleepless angel”).
The third part of Secret keeper is suffused with memories from the time of being “forever almost grown-up”, and then having to deal with the before and after of a relationship breaking down. The opaqueness of the initial poems returns in “We walked anyway”: “That morning/ The mist/ The mountains/ and sea invisible. The streets/ flooded with overnight rain.” Separation was clearly inevitable, and when there was nothing else left but silence, one still had to figure out “how I could do this without you”.
Hammerton conveys the poignancy of life’s seminal moments in plain images that strike one with the force of their familiarity. “To love” ends with these beautiful lines: “and I have become the place to which/ you’ve lost your way”. “You again” includes a terrifying wish: “I want to/ take an axe to my head,/ cleave my skull,/ gouge out that part of my brain/ that holds onto you/ and spits out these memories.” And, of course, there is the passage of time and ageing, and “the storm of winter; a lessening of desire; a burrowing in; days shortening/ to night” (“Days shortening”).
The keeper of the titular poem tends to secrets as others tend to bees. Like the insects, the secrets always return, “hairy bodies crammed into my mouth” wanting to escape (“The secret keeper”).
The last part of this captivating book, not unlike life itself, consists of poems of loss and grief. Here, too, there is a before and after, and once again it is impossible to imagine how “to get to the other side” (“This year”) when a loved one, the father, dies. The mourning child states: “I am better at my other life,/ where no-one is dead,/ where sadness doesn’t press/ its cold weight into my sternum/ creep along my clavicle, breathe into my spine” (“My other life”).
In Secret keeper, Hammerton manages to capture the essentials of most adult lives – love, loss, loneliness, anxiety, ageing and death – and leaves us pondering our own mortality, and that deep longing not to feel our insignificance “at night” when we are all alone under the “black sky, stars,/ the milky way”.
There are three ticks of heartfelt approval on the last page of my copy of this exquisite poetry volume.