I can remember, creeping down the stairs, after midnight, my parents sleeping, my heart trying to break out of my ribcage, turning on the tv as the sound of my breath rose beyond control, turning down the volume and clicking on to Channel 4 to watch Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane as nerves stuck like knives in my belly and skin shivered like I’d been dropped in the middle of Antarctica, naked. But all this means I can completely relate to the line in David Hanlon’s debut collection that reads ‘the film held my hand like a parent holds the small child’s at the seaside as they take their first steps into vast unknown waters.’
And that water returns, throughout this collection, ‘I was the slow drip of a leaky sink faucet’ but its flow is not that of a steady stream, for nothing is that easy for anyone that ‘only came out in the dark.’ There are cacophonous waves, both visual and visceral here, that almost drown and others that you hoped would drag you under. Again, I recall those days, after school, after the pushes and shoves and teases and spit-covered jackets on the way home when my run was equally too ‘like a girl’ and then building myself a cage where I was also ‘drowning in the decorated whirlpool of my bedroom’, all the while knowing my ignorant bullies had ‘less words’ than I and less understanding of what it took to survive.
The honesty expressed here rests on a nerve of ‘jagged mountain tops’ but never begs for sympathy. At times there is the question of doubt- ‘did I rattle for decades in this flesh prison of my own making’, questioning who made the cage and who held the key. And then comes ‘the rope I couldn’t climb in PE’ and the wonder of what would happen if they saw you hanging there one day. I can recall myself, sitting in my caged room, on the floor, already lost to prayer, and wondering what would be the reaction if I stopped it all, there and then. When I woke up the following day, a part of me had already learned that there was not going to be a simple way out except for up and over and through. And that is what this collection is, a climb along the edge of a cliff as you hold the edge of each page, as if that will give some form of support to the boy trying to find his way to becoming a man, while not fully fitting in or wanting to accept the pre-formed and outdated mould of masculine.
Sometimes there is a time to shout and roar and scream and cry and wish and hope and yell and other times there is a need for space and stillness and silence and this is what Hanlon achieves so beautifully in Spectrum of Flight; in the layout of every page there is so much said in the open spaces between these words and phrases and confessions and beatings, as if each blank space is a moment to think, recall, breathe, relax, release. At other times, while reading and rereading, I recognised this as a map of complicated footprints that a child whose identity had been bullied, beaten and broken needs to make to get across the cavern, that cliff face, the end of innocence, the journey into the world that is cruel. What David both painfully and poignantly creates here, amid these lines, is a roadmap to a place called freedom and sometimes, like the journey, it will tear you apart, unexpectedly, in the middle of the page and you turn to the next quickly, not sure of what you will find waiting.
We cannot shed all our skin, we are not snakes, even if there are serpents among us, but what we can hope for is that time will take the bruises and turn them into tools, tools that can become strengths giving us the courage to open the cage we closed in around ourselves for protection and find our way to the ocean.
David Hanlon has learned to be a great swimmer. Not by choice. He has also become, possibly also not by choice, but by need, an exceptional poet, a documentary maker with the pen as his camera and a raw, broken, battered, but partially intact vulnerability that raises this collection to a mind-blowing lesson in survival that every school should be lucky to teach to their students who are still trembling and drowning and dying in those often too cold corridors. Vivid, visceral and a voice that has found its victory.
Spectrum of Flight is published by Animal Heart Press…