Alexis Lateef Reviews Paul Hetherington

By | 5 September 2016

‘Spider: prose poems’ explores childhood and its special yearning and curiosity. It is full of the magic of the mundane, the environmental features that stand out so sharply to children when most adults have stopped noticing. In the first, a spider is a major incident: the boy in the poem, possibly a younger Hetherington, relates how ‘his father flicked it from his bare foot and carried him to the car’. ‘Jars’ is a wonderful ode to childhood curiosity, reminiscent of Seamus Heaney’s early verse on boyish rites. The excited clamour of a young boy’s thoughts as he collects interesting specimens for various jars and containers comes across vividly; and there are dark lessons too, such as when his fish die in dirty water, a rite for some: ‘sometimes he imagined the fish still there, making good in clear water – if only he’d known how to keep them; if knowledge had been enough.’ The lady in the green surfaces again in ‘Memory gardens’ and the frequent shifts in tense seem to indicate a battle between vulnerability and enigma. It creates an atmosphere of distance in some lines, and sudden openness in others, and the effect can be disconcerting. The last poem in the sequence, like the first, is about his father. Hetherington recalls handling a jar containing a deadly blue-ringed octopus as a child and his father’s firm voice instructing him to let go. The jar becomes a metaphor for death, and with painful clarity, is linked to his father’s final moments. He highlights the paradox of wanting to hold his sick father, and yet not to hold onto death. It is only brief, but it is hard not to feel the swift, abrupt pain conveyed in such an immediate, imagistic manner.

The end of the collection comes full circle. The last sequence is another succession of ekphrastic poems, where Hetherington accepts the weight of memory and language, and its ultimate limitations when held against interacting with the present. He asks blatantly of the depicted assassination of saints, ‘is this a mirror for an indelicate life, / a narrative of wasteful memory and clotted desire’? Perhaps indulging in memory too frequently is a wish for martyrdom to the gods of one’s past. ‘Painting 12: Language’, is a reiteration of the idea that occasionally it is good to loosen one’s hold on words, and communicate in more primal ways. Hetherington admits, ‘“Mountain,” the painting says bluntly, “stone”, “stream”. I miss the way / images gushed and frothed’. The next sees him muse, ‘light’s an excursion / into what might be real’. There is a clarity and insight in this final sequence that is muffled in the schizophrenic intensity of the first. The last poem is easily the finest ekphrastic poem in the collection, reminding us of the form’s potential for devastating beauty. It is a homage to Hetherington’s father, and both language and memory come together healthily in a potent and fitting union. The title allows for little confusion: ‘Portrait of a count’. It opens simply, ‘Italians might say / this painting’s an aristocrat / surveying his world’. A reflection on the count appearing to gaze into his own demise evokes the poet’s father and his march towards his premature death. As he muses on the resilience of the painting, ‘how those pigments have shone / through centuries”, it is clear Hetherington is addressing the resilience of his father’s memory. The final lines are a bittersweet and poignant resolution; Hetherington’s reminder that, despite how language fails us, and memory overwhelms us, art and poetry help to preserve, regain, and connect with what has been lost to us.

This collection’s most stark and sharply beautiful poem, ‘Fox’, is about loss, as expressed through the metaphor of the animal’s capacity for destruction. This poem recognises that there is always loss – ‘two of them smiling / at camera and tripod, / a fox behind them / crossing cleared ground’ – but in the telling and retelling of it, there is a space for language and memory to come together in healing.

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