Review by Robyn Cadwallader
Paul Hetherington’s eighth and latest collection of poetry, Six Different Windows, offers the reader the assurance of being in the hands of a thoughtful, intelligent poet. But these are not, thankfully, always ‘safe’ hands; the writing is at once simple and complex, beautiful and disturbing. These are poems to sink into, poems that are carefully crafted, born through experience and observation/intelligence, poems that deserve rereading and contemplation.
As its title suggests, the collection offers six different frames of exploration through six different sections:
Being stretched across landscapes
You find sensations are yet to arrive
From earlier destinations —
The slant of sun through six different windows …
(‘Six Different Windows’)
The image itself suggests unity and variation, perception and enlightenment. There are poems of time, memory and place; they look back — to places visited, to artistic endeavour, to childhood, and even further back again to mythology and ancient history. In the process of reading through the collection, poems touch gently upon one another, rebound and echo quietly so that past, future, and cultural difference are gathered into the common experience of being human.
This sense of a common humanity is made startling apparent in the section, ‘The Vanished Villages’, poems of the ancient past that Hetherington describes as his ‘archaeological poems’. Some evoke that eerie sense of time folding over on itself, of people from the past made present to us, such as when we look closely at a small, single item in a museum:
Inside the wood
is a trickling stain
like a remnant of breath,
or a song half-played.
(‘Flute in a Museum’)
In other poems about ancient ritual, the writing is stark, vivid, to the point, so that we cannot miss the horror, for example, of a child sacrifice; the physicality of detail brings the person, and the experience, present before us:
her wrist pink-banded under flaxen ties
a clump of reeds in her mouth.
Women pushed a long knife
close to her scalp.
Given such evocations of harshness, a simple phrase like ‘her small waist exposed’ is heartbreaking, and the telling of her small store of childish memories, her life rerun as she dies, becomes so much more poignant.
In an interview with Verity La, Hetherington says these poems are ‘to a considerable extent a way of trying to find analogues for the present; of trying to sift aspects of the present through the perspectives of people who would not recognise many of the ways in which we live but who were, nevertheless, like us’ (10 August 2013).
And, I suggest, the process also works in reverse. The child sacrifice stands starkly real before us, and the horror of her loss, whose ‘vision of self was foreshortened’, is intensified in the slant of light from the poems of the first section, ‘Corrugations’, stories of more recent childhood.
These poems are mostly narratives, apparently-simple stories, their strength formed in the degree to which Hetherington crafts the telling so that the story remains the single most important element, its implications bound into the narrative itself. Anger, ambition, death, discovery, the mysteries of sexuality and the unfolding of adulthood are embedded in the words Hetherington chooses. In ‘Abstraction’, parents ‘counted timely, ticking words’, unaware that their children were swinging on a rope hung across a gorge and ‘flirted / with visceral crying space / that didn’t know itself’, countering the threat of both death and language, as yet only glimpsed. These stories of bodies, growth, the fierce determination of childhood are remembrances, all told in past tense and thus pervaded by the narrator’s awareness of what is to come; the energy and insistence of growth and experimentation are, at times counterbalanced, almost pulled back, by the imminent sense of what this will become in the future.
Past and present are caught in a continual dance, the flickering light of the ‘slant of the sun’, where each informs the other. But the past seen only for itself — stories, places, artefacts, memories — threatens to overwhelm. In ‘Medieval Monastery’ there is a danger that ‘if one knelt down for too long / flesh might begin to decant / into old stone’ (42). The woman in ‘The Archivist’ ‘trawls’ and ‘wades’ through the piles of paper in the office of someone now dead, and though she knows that ‘even a lonely life sweetens the air’, she must still brush the dust from her sleeve even as she plans to ‘dispossess this stale fecundity’.
In the section ‘Afterlight’, stories from the past touch the present in retellings of myth. The grim humour of ‘The Muse Drafts her Business Card’ will ring too true for many of us as the Muse outlines the rigours of her application form, and concludes tartly: ‘A fee applies. / Nothing by email. No tears, please’. The beautiful retelling of the Ariadne story shifts from the evocation of the energy of her body and her wisdom, where the writing presses on, almost breathless, then slows, saddens in the knowledge that ‘he’ (Theseus is never named) will leave her:
you will have me only
in recollection’s dismaying gauze
that throws the past across the present
until there’s no clear seeing.
Again, time and memory give a ‘slant’ of light.
There is, then, threaded through the collection, a sense of loss, or of a process of losing, which is part of life. But the loss is slowed, or mitigated, by the physical world. Relationships, abstractions, spirituality become grounded in the individual and the physical. An artist discovers his god in ‘hammering / and soldering metal’ (‘The God He Found’), and a writer learns from pigs ‘splashing in mud’ to ‘suck at meaning’s underbelly’, to bring back ‘a piece of the wild’ (‘Forage’). A woman on a train leaving behind domesticity and traveling towards her lover, realises that what she wants is ‘not-knowing, the animal life … / She wanted to stay strange to herself’ (‘Through a Window, Looking Back’).
These comments offer only a glimpse of the richness of this collection, and with each new reading more emerges. Nigel Featherstone’s interview with Paul Hetherington in Verity La makes a great companion to the book, giving insights on how the poems were formed. I suggest, though, that the poems be read first, and then reread, to allow them space to sing.
Six Different Windows
University of Western Australia Publishing, 2013
112 pages, $24.99
Robyn Cadwallader lives among vineyards in the countryside outside Canberra. She has written poetry, short stories and a non-fiction book. Her first novel, The Anchoress, was published in Australia, the UK, the United States and France.