All the Way Home by Kristin Henry
UWA Publishing, 2012
Between the covers of All the Way Home is the life of a man called Jesse, up to middle age, written in clean, effective verse. The prologue explains that Jesse is looking back, his memories tangled like the roots of his plants: ‘If you don’t keep teasing out / the recollections / they get strangled’. We reflect first upon Jesse’s childhood on the road with his father, a travelling salesman, in the US. The image of his parents is striking: his mother’s hair ‘a blaze’, and his father’s the ‘colour of ordinary absence’. Later Jesse will fall for a woman whose hair is red, like the mother who died too young.
Jesse’s father is painted richly, in few words. Everything we need to know is in the colour of his car (shiny green), and what he carries: ‘a simple case, his son, / a silver hipflask under the dash / and a back seat full of ghosts’. He is popular with the ladies, a charmer, and he readies Jesse for life with a series of sayings and ‘truths’, such as ‘You won’t find God in a church’, and ‘Your mother loved you’. When his father dies, leaving him ‘the habit of moving on’, Jesse relocates to Australia, because his father had liked the idea of it (simply because it was so far away) and never got there himself.
Dialogue is differentiated from the third-person narrative through italicisation, and is often delivered with impact at the end of a poem, such as when Jesse is first getting to know his love, Flannery:
She considered him a second from the furnace of her eyes Titian, she said. Then she straddled her bike, ready again to wheel long-legged across the moral high ground. My hair’s not red. It’s titian.
Jesse gets his first guitar in 1962, when he is fourteen, and music will be a constant throughout the narrative. When Jesse firsts sees Flannery she has a ‘fiddle at her chin’ at a pub in a small Australian town. Flannery will be the love of his life.
His eyes followed her fingers, watched as her bow hooked under one of his ribs and pulled his heart out.
We cannot be sure what will happen to Jesse, but we want to know. The rhythm of the words and the punchy last lines of each poem keep us turning the pages. We’ve witnessed Jesse’s childhood and we want to know how he will turn out, given the tension already created by his inherited habit of ‘moving on’. To our surprise, Jesse settles. But it is not just due to Flannery and their coming baby girl, Maille. A dynamic figure, Leon, enters their lives: ‘The man was a razor blade. / A struck match.’ He thrills Jesse ‘beyond desire’.
Leon is an intriguing character. We cannot understand his pull (and Kristin Henry only gives us a glimpse into Leon’s past, until more is revealed towards the end) but we understand that this pull exists, because the other characters are so drawn to him. And we understand that people like this exist, and that people will give up their lives for their ideals. Jesse and Flannery, and others, will follow Leon to a new (non-religious) community called Heartsong.