Wild Court

An international poetry journal based in the English Department of King’s College London

On ‘Glut’ by Ramona Herdman

Matthew Stewart

It might initially seem snide or negative to suggest that a poet’s work is best represented by their idiosyncratic use of one specific punctuation mark, as if the reviewer were hinting at a tic, the reoccurrence of which has failed to be spotted and excised during the editorial process. However, in the case of Ramona Herdman’s new collection, Glut (Nine Arches Press, 2022), such misconceptions and prejudices are turned on their head. Via her wielding of the hyphen, this little dash, which appears in 44 out of 52 poems, is – rather than a mere device or technique – consciously transformed into the encapsulation of a whole poetic aesthetic.


In Herdman’s poems, hyphens assume a crucial role because they reflect a view of the world in which everything – not just language – is interlinked, often in surprising ways. She employs her hyphens to make those unexpected connections via startling turns of phrase such as ‘mud-naïve’ or ‘tulip-glossy’. These expressions challenge the roles of adjectives and nouns, while also questioning their connections. And then these questions feed into the uncertainties of human relationships. The lines below from ‘Just a small slice’ provide a perfect illustration of her technique:


…There’s a grain of poison
in her generosity; I could eat
five cakes, three desserts, a jeroboam
of champagne sorbets
and she’d still sad-eye me
were I to pass on the stilton...


In the above lines, the hyphen consists of an adjective-noun combination which is converted into an inventive verb. And it’s not affectation. This hyphenated surprise is packed with connotations that would have been beyond the reach of any other pre-existing option from the dictionary or thesaurus. Throughout this collection, be it via a noun and an adjective, a noun and a verb, two nouns, etc, etc, each of Herdman’s hyphens provides her with a fresh image, generating something new by drawing together a pair of seemingly disparate elements.


What’s more, many of the poems in Glut portray couples who interact with a hyphen between them. In other words, they show us a pair of individuals who have been brought together by the poet, just like two hyphenated words. Via these juxtapositions, Herdman invites her reader to compare and contrast both members of the human and linguistic couple in question, to linger over how and why they connect.


And in technical terms, Herdman’s invocation of hyphens tends to enable her to group strong syllables around them, usually spondees, consequently making the reader pause and take note, as in these two examples from the opening lines of ‘He sits slightly too close and we don’t look at each other’:


I thought it had gone – my sex-sense,
the skin-thrum awareness when you feel
though your clothes sex’s presence.


Moreover, in the first instance, Herdman adds a spot of assonance and alliteration to her already-potent blend, heightening even more the connection between the two words. Of course, many stories of human relationships often revolve around the coexistence of two elements in tension, and Herdman’s awareness of these potential contradictions is keen. This is one of the main reasons why she yokes them to those hyphens. One such instance occurs in the following extract from ‘Shame’:


…It loves with a throb, with its whole hot heart’s wet-breath
someone on TV it doesn’t know. It speaketh not…


Here, once more, is assonance in the hyphenated expression, alongside and part of another series of stressed syllables. The effect is to reinforce and amplify a chafing between shame and the heart, between the everyday and fantasy.


There’s so much to relish in Glut (and so much to learn for poetic magpies!): the stories and moments that are delicately portrayed; the characters that are drawn via hints; the partial narratives that invite their readers to fill in their gaps and make them new and different. However, what make this collection stand out from the crowd is undoubtedly Herdman’s use of language as represented by the hyphen.


Many poets in the past have identified the hyphen as a useful device, but few have delved so deeply into its powers, the hyphen as hinge to a door between two previously separate words that leads into a highly personal aesthetic. What’s more, in even fewer poets is their choice of syntax so inextricably joined with the worldview that they portray and communicate in their poems. And even fewer still achieve Herman’s idiosyncratic cadences and musicality, which is again tied in to those hyphens.

In other words, this review makes no excuses for homing in on what might seem little more than a punctuation mark. Rather than a poetic resource, it’s the point of departure for us to understand Ramona Herdman’s unique, tensioned, deeply human poems. Glut is different.