There’s nothing romantic about it,
eating alone in an empty diner . . .
Happy Hour, Andrew Jamison’s crisp, appealing first collection, includes Hopper-like studies of disappointment (two brothers ‘homesick at home’) and pivots on moments in which a solitary figure (eating alone, or trudging a towpath thinking of how a girl sipped her cappuccino) takes stock of ‘time’s avalanches’ and of both the play and fade of light. They record the first impressions and the influence of memory, encompassing Belfast, London, the North of England and — following a first, astonished visit — New York City.
These award-winning poems feature rich evocations (‘the hydraulic door huffing open’), playful ironies (‘This Whole Place’), wry, demotic tones (‘on a piss of a night’, Aristotle ‘blethering on’), a trip to Ikea, the abandon of driving golf balls into Strangford Lough, his grandparents’ transformation into mythic figures, and a series — listening to Ash, Kings of Convenience and Them — in which ‘tunes take me back, track by track’.
Andrew Jamison’s debut collection, Happy Hour, is preoccupied with the towering themes of time and money, but the deceptions of “the clock on the wall” are a particular concern. Unable to buy into the world view of “The Starlings” where “a tick” is simply “a tick, a tock a tock, time time”, time and again the poet witnesses “obliterations of the commonplace”, whether in the form of optical illusion (a cinema’s “ocean / of curtained wall” recalled from childhood), “the strange behaviour of unnameable birds”, or the way that “nothing / comes but every way that nothing can”. Jamison knows that, however we spend our time, time spends us: the book’s title speaks of the fleeting nature of happiness and our clumsy pursuit of it, but also hints at the energetic, demotic, wistful yet upbeat tones the poems strike. Here is a poet with “disappointment deep / in the mayonnaise of my chicken sandwich”, but one who quickly catches himself out, exposing the artifice when
disappointment and nostalgia spray-paint themselves
onto this journey home.
Happy Hour is dominated by two types of poem: the intense vignette that takes a moment – the “after after-dinner” of a summer’s evening, or the confusion of shoppers in “Winter Clearance” – to plumb our modern lives for sense and significance; and a swiftly discursive, often longer single sentence piece that strings clauses together with half-rhymes and pulsing rhythms. The best – and indeed longest – of these, “Thinking About the Point of Things”, is a tour de force of personal, public and political dimensions, jumping from “placards of touched-up, / photoshopped, yet puffy, pasty-faced politicians”, through the redolent image of the garden’s “faded Gilbert rugby ball” and midges like “a swarm of small sun-gods” before arriving at a single robin, embodying a strange truth at the poem’s core. Elsewhere, a series of candid reflections take in a first trip to New York, in which Jamison’s eye for the telling detail and sense of humour meet head-on. A few of the book’s shortest pieces are probably too slight, indulging in nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. While Happy Hour owes some obvious debts – Louis MacNeice, Paul Muldoon, Simon Armitage – it is an entertaining, enjoyable first collection that should attract admirers.— Ben Wilkinson, Times Literary Supplement
This is the kind of poet who makes poems out of the trash-strewn streets of small and large towns on the morning after Saturday night . . . This is the kind of poet who lets all the mess in, unfiltered, ungroomed, who doesn’t sort it out and stack it up, but generously and lovingly considers each thing and person. He grinds no axe, he ticks no box. The material is left to its own devices, and the greatest surprise of all is the lavish lyricism that ensues . . .
Whether Jamison sweated years over these lines, or scribbled them in as many seconds is irrelevant; what’s important is that they look like they just happened. They have all the air of low-key description even as they strike such phonic harmonies in their progress. Like a good athlete, Jamison doesn’t seem to be trying, and this ease is integral to what he’s doing in Happy Hour as a whole: he’s giving us the world as it is, unforced, unfrogmarched into the confines of the poem. This is art’s oldest trick and it is a pleasure to see it managed so well in this début collection.
His material is a small town childhood augmented by a grant-aided excursion to New York . . . Born in County Down, Jamison will invite inspection by critics interested in a Northern Irish poetic canon, and they will find there overtones of Ciaran Carson, Alan Gillis and possibly Conor O’Callaghan–these influences extend rather than inhibit the imaginative reach of the book. Another external factor is our knowledge that we are reading a poet’s first book, as it makes us wonder what next . . .
— Justin Quinn, Tower Poetry
Sad and wonderful tension between what is sublime and what is commonplace — an astonishment at this world, augmented by the sardonic awareness that astonishment is nothing new – permeates themes of transience in Andrew Jamison’ first collection, Happy Hour. Critics may find some of these poems hackneyed, but I believe the poet is up to something. ‘The Bus to Belfast’ opens in the voice of a pre-transient speaker. The eponymous bus and its ‘pane’s black rubber seal… nicked to bits / by a penknife’ are as drab a welcome as any; however, in its first line, a sleight of hand evokes a dual theme of loss and scrutiny.
An unstubbed cigarette butt –
I can picture it now –
Jamison isolates the image in the midst of its disappearance. He does not witness a total burn-out ‘smouldering at the door of Toal’s’, but imagines what once was visible. Such nostalgia informs ‘The Curzon’ as well, where the speaker remembers the darkness of a cinema visit, how ‘seats are taken, lights dimmed, minds blown.’ The poem opens with the daring conjunction ‘And’ (à la Heaney’s ‘St. Kevin and the Blackbird’) to establish a tense narrative that carries the book. In fact, it would be easy to overlook how the collection is interwoven. ‘The Curzon’ with its haunting ‘And there we are:’ devolves into solitude in the following poem ‘Listening to Ash’ (‘And there I am’). These rhetorical parallels dart in and out of Happy Hour. Likewise, ‘Listening to Ash’ is only the first of a series of poems about listening to bands (Them and Kings of Convenience also get their mentions). For this speaker music is one more impetus for nostalgia, a feature of evanescent relationships. With it’s common themes connecting them, the poems fly together, reinforcing such loneliness ‘as I begrudge the moment its prerogative / to come and go, to up and leave’ (‘Summer’s Time’). Tension mounts in Jamison’s versions of Jorge Guillen, Manuel Bandeira and Pablo Neruda. This draw to Spanish and Portuguese poetry interprets the seemingly-banal features of other poems. For example, ‘Killyleagh Road at Night in Snow’ (after Neruda) targets a lack of fulfillment in terms of time.
This should be the hour of fallen leaves
but is instead the hour of fallen snow.
I ponder old predicaments:
when there are words there seldom is a pen;
when there’s a pen the words are seldom there.
Such ‘old predicaments’, as Jamison hazards, extend his scope from poetic versions to mythology. Aristotle has ‘quite a lot to say for himself ’ in ‘London’; Orpheus is asked to ‘play us out’ (though the speaker ‘can’t be sure about all this’); and ‘Baucis and Philemon’ are retold in a memorial to grandparents. Further afield, Happy Hour dips in and out of America via New York City. If Jamison is tuned to any American voices, his ear inclines somewhere between Frost and O’Hara. ‘What I’ll Say When I Get Back’ claims ‘This is the place, I’ll say, no one and nothing/ but a two-seat bench I’ll sit on by myself ’. The pastoral scene is propped up with ‘sheep shit and rocks/ and puddles and muck which will take’ the walking speaker home. However, he does not arrive home, and the poem turns on an ‘if ’. This meditative ‘if ’ is how we ‘see the path goes on and is the path’ (emphasis added). It is the crafted ambivalence of ‘is’ to which I keep returning. ‘If ’ posits indecision, and ‘is’ suggests, but does not define, some truth about that path and not taking it. Of course, a path is another symbol of transience, and indecision is reinforced (following a stoic enjambment) by the word ‘might’.
But if I’ll hold on
I’ll see the path goes on and is the path
I might yet take, leading as it does
After this pastoral episode, Jamison meditates on ‘the all-encompassing silence of ourselves’ in ‘At the End of the Day’, ‘When all the cups of tea are drunk, dinners done’ and ‘we, loud-mouthed, return/ to our respective rooms’. Separation by rooms makes home ‘where we practice solitude’, likewise, separate from ‘the constant imposition of sky and grass’. In the end, readers of Happy Hour may feel caught between the commonplace and the timeless, haunted by a growing sense that ‘There’s bound to be something in this‘ (‘Autumning’). At the same time they may feel like Jamison’s starlings in ‘The Starlings’, ‘tremendously alike, / tremendously alone’. They will be right, of course. But by my lights, these poems evoke the loneliness of an imagination caught between its rural and urban predilections. These are musings on moving forward, but often do not arrive anywhere. Still, it is easy to imagine the poet winking after all of this. These poems are also about buses.
— Andrew D. Eaton, Edinburgh Review