Hartmann Wallis, Who said what, exactly (#BookReview)

Hartmann Wallis, Who said what exactlyNever mind Hartmann Wallis’ question Who said what, exactly, I want to know who Hartmann Wallis is, exactly! You would think the author bio at the front of the book might tell you, now wouldn’t you? But, no. Well, not exactly. There is an author bio, and it does tell you stuff – truthful stuff such as the titles of two previous books he had written – but at the end of it I was none the wiser. I was starting to think that it was all part of a big joke …

And, in a way it is, but more on that anon. First, I can tell you that I did suss out who Hartmann Wallis is – it’s Robin Wallace-Crabbe who has also written under another pseudonym, Robert Wallace. You can read all about him – them – in Wikipedia which describes him “as a curator of exhibitions, literary reviewer, cartoonist, illustrator, book designer, publisher and a commenter on art”. That “cv” goes someway towards explaining Who said what, exactly. 

Now, when Finlay Lloyd sent me this book, a year ago – I’m so embarrassed – publisher Julian Davies wrote “not sure if this strange little book will engage you, but here it is for you to take a look”. Well, it did engage me – from the beginning. However, I am (almost) lost for words on how to write about it, but will give it my best shot.

Davies opens his letter by describing the book as containing “playful, punchy, iconoclastic poetry”. It is that, but I would also add “clever” and “erudite”, although those words could put people off giving it a go. That would be a shame, because you don’t have to understand all the allusions, all the references, to enjoy or even understand the poems. They are best read as playfully as they have been presented – and if you do that, you get the gist, and sometimes get deeper meanings too!

The poems start on the book’s cover, with one called “Left side of the temple of sorrow”. It opens:

‘Think about it God is dead and has left
The intellectual property rights relating to
Just about everything to a bunch of American
Corporations. Way to go He reckoned they said.

The poem then turns to “real” property, and has digs at religious organisations and banks. The opening poem in the book itself mocks – well – poetry (or readers of poetry, or both):

They don’t make poems like they used to anymore,
I’m thinking about poems with stories, the sort of thing
To excite teenagers, to make men languishing in jail
Feel better about their potential …
(from “At the end of the rainbow there’s a pot of gold”)

It then goes on to suggest the sort of “heroic” story that would appeal to “People out here in ‘don’t-give-us-any-more-poetry-land'”, a story, perhaps, about a man who steals from an old man who has fallen over in the street. Are you getting the drift now?

The poems tackle all sorts of subjects, from the dullness of suburbia to the pretensions of art (in its widest meaning); from the smugness of modern life, its sense of entitlement, its concern for doing things the approved way, to the ills (and cruelties) of our world. Take this, for example:

Kids barricaded among, haha, educational toys
With buttons to press, lead free etc., and books
Encoded, decoded to colour in; why not to burn?
(from “Of birds and these”)

And this, on reading

… an anthology
Of 1971 and earlier poetry;
Couldn’t believe the classical references,
The ‘I’m going to grant you
A look into my mind’.
In the anthology no reference to war raging in Vietnam.
(from “Anthology”)

There is joy in wordplay; there are strange segues; there’s dialogue, characters, and narratives; there are allusions to history, religion, art; there’s pathos, even. These poems keep you on your toes, but they also make you laugh (or grimace).

The poems are supported by illustrations by Phil Day, whom you’ve met before in this blog in my review of Crow mellow. The drawings are black and white, sometimes child-like, sometimes not, sometimes representational, sometimes not, sometimes complete, but mostly more unfinished-looking. In other words, they are a bit wild, and thus support the poetry beautifully, whether or not the link between text and image is clear.

Is this “good” poetry? I’m not sure I’m qualified to tell – and anyhow it’s not really even the point – but I did enjoy the poems. I liked their irreverence, and the heart (and intellect) behind it all.

Hartmann Wallis
(with drawings by Phil Day)
Who said what, exactly
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd, 2016
??pp. [no pagination provided and I’m not going to count them!]
ISBN: 9780994516510

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd)

11 thoughts on “Hartmann Wallis, Who said what, exactly (#BookReview)

  1. This does sound delightful. When I was a child there was a book in our house called ‘Who Said What’. It was completely different from the poems, but it was a great source of interest and amusement.

    • You know Carmel, I thought of you as I was reading it. Something about its humour, the way it segues from idea to idea, reminded me of you.

      I wonder if that book inspired the title?

  2. I’m so glad you reviewed this. It’s a fascinating book, isn’t it? And I so admire Finlay Lloyd for these beautiful, quirky books that clearly won’t sell a million but really add so much to the literary world.

  3. Thanks so much for this – found the book (Abbeys, Sydney) and am smiling away. Particularly liked the intro from RC Brace and the sepia photos of the poet and his brooding wife Juanita. Congrats also to the publisher – there should be more of it.

    • Oh, Peter Frankis, this is the BEST response. It is always a thrill when a post encourages someone to read a book, particularly a book like this that just doesn’t get read enough. The RC Brace intro is a hoot. I also loved his comment that Wallis looked younger than he expected when he met him. He reports Wallis as having been born in 1928 but Wallace-Crabbe, according to Wikipedia, was born in 1938!! (It also reminded me of Carmel Bird, whose epigraphs are written by a character she has created herself.)

  4. Just wanted to thank you for the review of Who Said What, Exactly. It was generous and fun to read. That Hartmann Wallis guy, tell you what from what I have heard he’s a piece of work. Work? Maybe that’s it, maybe he ought to get a proper job like, say… hell can’t think of one to suit a supposed to be dead pretentious poet. Wait a minute, I’ve got it… how about grave digging? Or digging gravely. Whatever. Anyway, once again thank you

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