The Human Condition Is A Terminal Illness is a collection of poetry written by Bristol-based Matthew J. Hall and published by Bareback Press, an indie publisher based in Hamilton, a town in southern Ontario (the Canadian state that has Toronto in it). Despite this Canadian influence (and the fact that the book was printed in South Carolina, USA), it is very much an English book. English as in the nation, not the language. For in Hall’s collected works are recurring themes, recurring images and recurring experiences, all of which are rooted in a deep Englishness, that repressed type of living where emotional problems, addiction problems, health problems and money problems are ignored, avoided, kept-calm-and-carried-on, until problems have become so serious that they are unfixable.
This is a collection of pieces about unglamorous life in middle England: shit relationships, bleak intoxication, poor pay, dirty streets and conversations that leave more unsaid than not. It was familiar, to me, its worlds, its people; and this collection of loosely linked and – according to Hall’s website – autobiographical poems conjure up a realistic, though bleak, portrait of life at the bottom of England’s class-obsessed landscapes.
Many of the poems have been published elsewhere, though there are no dates given of either prior publication or composition, so these 100ish pieces are a little unrooted. There isn’t much about contemporary technology (your social medias, your smartphones), though television is mentioned. The images and ideas that recur are perhaps unexpected: fingernails, grapefruit, factories, grime (as in dirt) and disintegrating relationships. In these portraits of break-ups (or the same one reconsidered many times), the female partner rings a little hollow. This seeming lack is discussed in ‘it’s all lies’: “she’s all you / you made her up / she’s a man’s idea / of a woman / she’s no kind of / woman at all”, which clarifies Hall’s intent. The poems about “heartbreak” are not about love or relationships, they are about loneliness, they are about disconnect. By leaving characters knowingly undeveloped, we see the lack in the male voice, which is an important idea to the collection, as outside of romantic relationships Hall is better at presenting external characters (both male and female).
The voice that links almost all these poems is the internal voice of a – probably seriously depressed – English man. The voice is male and unhappy, observant in regards to his own negative emotions and the events that happen to him, but it does not connect with others more than occasionally.
There is more sex than love; there is more regret than pleasure; there is more smoking than eating. These are not happy lives.
The ten-page opener, ‘Petrol Station’, is the longest poem in the collection: most are between a few lines and a couple of pages. It stands out, also, for its focus on another character, Cathy, and for its presentation of a personal, (seemingly) non-sexual, friendship. This piece sets the tone for the book, with its conspicuously English poverty, its discussion of mental health issues and its inability to resolve happily. Cathy disappears, Cathy is gone, and the narrator – her friend – does nothing to find her. Loss – and the ease with which loss happens – echoes through the poems. There is much loneliness, especially loneliness when not alone, which is surely one of the most English of feelings.
Another highlight was ‘when we were kids’, a piece where the voice reminisces on childhood. It remembers looking in the bins at the back of an abattoir and the suicide of a teacher: dark experiences that hold importance deep into adulthood, but which were ignored, laughed about, at the time.
Hall has captured the tragedy of the English male: that inability to emote properly, that inability to connect, and when the voice’s (or voices’?) lovers are described impersonally, when peripheral characters feel like they’re being viewed in the edge of a faded mirror, this feels deliberate, this feels accurate. For aren’t all those fucked-up English men you know like that, don’t they (I mean “we”) care too much about ourselves and our own pain, a focus that feeds into a powerlessness to change, our self-hatred and regret, our stasis, our repetition, the behaviours that try the same, botched, solutions to the same chronic problems. I suppose what was most striking for me in The Human Condition is a Terminal Illness was the ease with which I could recognise the voice’s life.
The language is uncomplex, it bears similarities to the dirty realism of people like Bukowski, y’know, but an English translation of this quintessentially American style. There are bad foods and drug addicts in merrie England, too, and these are the people Hall fills his book with: men and women who have not necessarily “fallen through the cracks” of society, but have never climbed corporate ladders, have never secured mortgages or careers, y’know. This is an England of the unpossessed rather than the dispossessed: how can you lose anything when you had nothing to begin with, innit?
The Human Condition is a Terminal Illness offers a stark, direct, insight into the landscapes, the routines and the lifestyles of those who are unhappy. In some ways it is didactic, reminding me that I need to focus on human connections more, reminding me that I need to relearn how to socialise, how to connect, how to express myself in a satisfying way to people other than the readers of my blog or my therapist.
There is an importance given to honesty, to self-knowledge, in Hall’s poems, and that is something I connect with, too. I’m going to end with his poem, ‘Goodnight’, which perhaps evokes the reason why so many people feel alone: how many of us struggle with an unwillingness to compromise, and an unwillingness to live dishonestly for the sake of temporary comfort?