Hush: A Fugue by Dominique Hecq
UWA Publishing, 2017
To some readers, like me, Dominique Hecq’s Hush: A Fugue may be daunting at first appearance. This starts with the cover, which has the sort of self-assured, intellectual air I find a little intimidating. A wary look inside reveals unstable text formatting – blocks of dense prose broken by verse, haiku, couplets, one-liners. And whether you do your page-flicking right or left-handed, you surely cannot avoid noticing a list of references at the back, containing some imposing names: Barthes, Freud, the dreaded Derrida, Lacan. Hesitating on ‘Heaney, S.’, and ‘Rimbaud, A.’, I found myself hoping for reassurance. Some readers will undoubtedly have put the book down by this point, but others love a challenge and they will certainly find Hecq’s book stimulating. It is rich and satisfying on many levels, whether or not you enjoy Derrida’s games.
As a story, read in a simple readerly way, Hecq’s poetic narrative is moving and beautiful. A child dies and the voice of the poet is the voice of its mother, travelling through the surreal world of grief. Motifs of affluent, inner-city life appear throughout, but become strangely unfettered; splashes of colourful hedonism in an otherwise colourless, mist-like free-fall through pallor and darkness:
I read to the child and helped him draw his own story of loss [. . .]. I cooked.
There were pancakes and French toast and brioche. Lemon pudding and orange cake and rhubarb pie and apple crumble. Poppyseed cake. [. . .]
I longed for food. [. . .] I felt so greedy. [. . .] I would not eat. There was no room for me. I rose and fell. Flailed around me in a sea of black. Lack. Living and wanting to die. I fell into the waterfall of my mind.
Hecq’s juxtaposition of an external life of food, music and flowers against an inner world marred by lack, opens a tense space. It is a space weighted in one direction by absence (of the child and of language/meaning) and in the other, by the continuance of life; life which must be negotiated and travelled. To heed the call of life, meaning is needed, but normal language fails. Hush’s complex formal structure flows, like Orpheus’s music, into the void it leaves:
Eurydice, Eurydice, Eurydice.
Hush is both poetry and prose; and in its poetry it pushes the written language away from denotative meaning, into sound and back again. Form changes and responds to content, even becoming content itself. And Hecq’s writing is double-layered: she writes her protagonist writing; the grieving mother’s struggle to understand what she experiences through the construction of language. This strategy enables Hecq to reveal the spaces before and after an act of writing, and the other ‘languages’ that inhabit these spaces – music, song, performance, the words of other tongues. Actions, impressions and sensations whirl chaotically, or coalesce on the body of the narrator.
Let us start with the language of Orpheus:
Chalk, rice, zinc . . . Phosphorous Lightless body Alabaster
In music, ‘fugue’ denotes a short phrase that hangs and is taken up successively by one part after another, like the above lines. As the phrase is repeated and embroidered, it attains the texture of a song. Hush is a fugue in this sense. It is scattered with lines that echo, repeat, and drift quietly like a refrain, the sort that gets stuck in your mind yet returns reassuringly, rather than annoyingly. Hecq’s style is at times reminiscent of T S Eliot, in the way she sets stubborn gleanings from commonplace life into her poetry, like in the lines above. In doing so she elevates them from the ordinary, revealing them as wondrous and gem-like.
Music is an important motif in Hush and it would be accurate, I think, to surmise that Hecq’s intention is (after Barthes) to allow her writing to ‘sing’ by freeing its spoken qualities from a weight of written meaning. She allows the sounds, rhythm and allusive qualities of words to ‘speak’. Hence her use of repetitions like refrains, and also her liberation of the sounds of French, the ‘mother tongue’, to which she returns, seeking a means of expression and understanding:
Une mise en abîme to write of desire, of water and fire.
Music is allowed to express itself without the intercession of words and their symbolic meanings; as a complete signifying system in its own right. By contrast:
I tried writing. Words came in bursts and spurts. Made no sense.
But Hecq demonstrates that writing and its failure can be overcome by using language in ways more akin to music. She uses structural motifs throughout the text: akin to epigraphs, haiku-like tercets or couplets separate passages. These also evoke ‘fugue’ in another sense: that of a vagueness or loss of identity that sometimes arises in response to trauma. In Hecq’s hands, these passages seem like instances of clarity, setting a tone for what is to come, yet they are deceptive:
Dark then light Uno makes rainbows doubling the sky
Fugue, in the psychological sense, often involves wandering. And here lies the heart of Hush: A Fugue. Hecq charts the impact of trauma, the shattering and slow reassembly of self as a person drifts through a netherworld that is neither Hades nor sunlit. Like music, action itself provides another language that expresses, reflects, and perhaps draws both reader and protagonist towards understanding:
The fear was so strong I bolted for the door and into the street. I ran to the park as fast as thoughts ran through my mind. I ran oblivious to the traffic. Oblivious to time. Oblivious of the cold. I ran to the pond. And stood. When the shadows merged with the waters in the cold, when the wind moaned in the branches of the gum trees, when the last rays of sunshine gilded with mystery the white snowdrops and camellias, I turned back home.
Wandering through a seemingly ‘nonsensical’ yet concrete world in a state of fugue, Hecq’s protagonist finds a kind of meaning that nudges her back, inexorably, towards the written word. Words offer reassurance, even if their meaning is obscure:
… I needed to write for the sheer satisfaction of keeping fear at bay, of experiencing the vanity of meaning, even if words did not make sense.