England, My Dandelion Heart by Barry Fentiman-Hall

A review of the poetry collection England, My Dandelion Heart by Barry Fentiman-Hall.

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In the 1999 film Wonderland, the camera swoops and pans over the daily lives of ordinary people. It peeps through their windows and follows them down the street, watching them go to work, drink, wash up, argue, shop, look after their children—all to a sweeping, swelling soundtrack, giving their daily routines a certain nobility. It seeks to show you the mundane in a way that highlights how much of life is necessarily mundane, and what beauty that may possess. While living with Barry Fentiman-Hall’s insanely good collection England, My Dandelion Heart, I was reminded repeatedly of this technique. He, too, is greatly concerned to make a claim for the ordinary. There’s a poetry to people’s most humdrum workday moments, and happily on occasion, Fentiman-Hall is there to capture them.

He’s “mapping the future for meanderthals,” and as the pun suggests, he counts himself among their number. He loves a good pun and is a confident poet with language who refuses to take it seriously. Deft wordplay makes the collection joyous and playful, as well as profound.

When he observes and records crass or idiotic behaviour—which he does fairly frequently—there’s no sense he exempts himself from the possibility of being idiotic. The plaintive tone of the title, the regret at England’s decisions on its future direction, are all recorded by a man looking around him, not down. He’s one of us, not snootily logging our quirks from some imagined intellectual vantage point.

Take ‘Sittingbourne Identity’—the title itself is brilliantly telling, and every word that follows it is flawless. It describes a man filling his flash car.

He shakes off
The last drops
And holsters
His weapon
A gunslinger
With his position
In front
Of us

At the pen of a lesser poet the moment might seem crudely offensive, a sly, sarky dig at a stereotypical figure of fun. However, Fentiman-Hall lets us inside the man’s psyche, and helps us understand his pride, in a perfectly painted scene of only 55 well-placed words.

As you might expect, this is very much a collection about England and its people. Fentiman-Hall shines his empathy like a spotlight into doorways, kitchens and alleys, his own and others. Even at his most censorious there is still a fondness, a nostalgia at the heart, of recognition of self, of sadness at the growing divide between remembered past and the “Prescription Cockaigne” of the present.

The collection is in three sections: City, Elsewhere and Uncity. Although every one of them is superb, it’s in city that the real dope lies. Woozy vignettes of people we’re sure we recognise; lyrical, aching hymns to an England that blurs between the country he remembers in the imagination of his heart, and the current version to which he struggles to be reconciled. The rage and regret that sizzles through this section makes it jaw-droppingly good, immediate in its appeal—every piece has a moment to make you gasp. The other two contain more musings at nature, likelier to be discovered in time; gentler language and rhythms to be lived with, murmured, gradually and unravelled. As he promises, “cotton days will come and the berries get heavy,” in ‘On Wouldham Common,’ written partly in lament at the paucity of language to capture nature. Or is he secretly thrilled to be so “undone by this beauty / I cannot voice it”? There’s a note of pathos in this paean—“life’s only certainty / I may mock the river / but it will have its truth / Said in the spaces that I leave.” It seems the poet’s responsibilities end in the face of such relentless, indifferent beauty. If only he could simply enjoy it rather than worry about it.

In regards to the musical references with which this collection is littered, I guess Barry Fentiman-Hall must be nearing 50. But one is struck throughout this work by his easy familiarity with his ten-year-old self. He flashes back and forth between memory and observation, framing commonplace scenes beautifully, lovingly. Each observation is glazed with the imaginative musings of a child, wide-eyed with wonder at the most hopeless, helpless scenario. He can describe a tree’s beauty with the best of pastoral poets. But there’s also a sense he’s eyeing his tree with a view to shining up the trunk, hoping to collect conkers for a match or lob them at passers-by.

The titular poem tells of his dismay at the path England has taken.

Oh England, my dandelion heart
What have you done
With that cross that you carved?

The beautifully placed Oh that begins his lament gives it a sense of regret rather than proclamation. Which he continues to explore in ‘Old White People,’ a piece as close to overt anger as Fentiman-Hall veers:

That means nothing to me
I will be getting real
I cannot live in fictional England
I shall cross a line
Watch it burn

Ultimately, there are too many words I want to quote at you, and talking about them can’t begin to do them justice. Just buy the book and take the time to wallow in every single syllable yourself.

Melissa Todd completed an MA in creative writing at Canterbury Christchurch in 2009, and writes novels, short stories and opinion pieces.

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