The Stone Age by Jen Hadfield

Reviewed by Hayley Anderton

It’s seven years since Jen Hadfield’s last collection, Byssus, came out. This was the point when I really became aware of her work although it was her third collection and came out after her T. S. Eliot prize winning Nigh-No-Place. I’ve returned to Byssus a few times over the years and read through it again whilst thinking about The Stone Age. The voice in both is unmistakably Hadfield, but the playful references to other poets which are a feature of Byssus are gone in The Stone Age, and the way it experiments feel significantly different.

One thing that has really stuck with me now that I’ve spent quite a bit of time with this book is the opening piece, an image made of letters. Others like (Lighthouse) use different shades and sizes of type which make me see as well as read the words – (Lighthouse) would still work if I simply quoted it, but something vital would be lost. 

The interplay between word and image is really interesting here. I’m used to seeing things where the image is primary as in Susie Leiper’s Nan Shepherd series, and used to words being arranged on a page in ways other than the traditional left to right lines but this book does something different to both of those things and I particularly like the way it makes me feel about this book and these words. 

I also managed to get a bit hung up on the conversation about neurodiversity that the blurb on the back of this edition invites. Did it need to be something I was actively considering whilst reading? The answer for me turned out to be no in this instance, although it might be an element I want to think about more in the future. It is signposted though and how her own place on a neurodiverse spectrum informs how she experiences the world is clearly something that Hadfield is really interested in right now. There’s an interview on the Guillemot Press site that might be of interest to other readers wanting more information about this.

As for the poems themselves – they’re the hardest thing of all to write about. Some easily yield up arresting images as in (Sound travels so far) when the sound of flying swans wings is described as “something like the creaking of oars”; they become “a longboat rowed from the sky’s shore” which just feels utterly perfect. Others like Strimmer have a sneaking humour about them, I’m not sure that Hadfield expected to find herself writing about garden tools yet it’s this example of panpsychism (I learnt that word from the blurb) that I particularly like. Maybe it’s easier to imagine human made things having a human sort of consciousness and to share something of the poet’s outrage that they do. Then there are the poems that deny easy understanding and will take time to tease out and gather meanings from.

Altogether it’s a rich, varied, sometimes disconcerting, frequently beautiful collection that wants to be spoken aloud, looked at, and shared in all sorts of ways. It’s also a Poetry Book Society Choice as a further bit of endorsement. I think Hadfield is a remarkable poet, thinker, and writer – she occasionally turns up in nature writing anthologies where she’s also really worth reading. 

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Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader.

Jen Hadfield, The Stone Age (Picador Poetry, 2021) 978-1529037340, 64pp., paperback.

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