Dennis Haskell, Ahead of Us. Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2015. RRP $27.99, 112pp, ISBN: 9781925163285
On the front cover of Dennis Haskell’s ominously titled, Ahead of Us, is a snapshot of a pretty young woman. This image invites the reader to view Rhonda Haskell through the eyes of the young poet. Rhonda’s pose in a first floor sunlit window is captured in such a way that she seems to rise out of the shadows below. And while this book has much light, the shadows cast by bereavement are pre-eminent. Like the cover photo, Haskell’s poetry rises out of the shadows of grief and celebrates the richness and intimacy of his long-term relationship. Although most readers will come to the subject of this collection with feelings of dread and discomfort, Haskell reminds us that consolation can be (uneasily) won.
As Haskell writes in ‘An Act of defiance’ (35-36):
Now the world is emptied
of time. Now
we must tread through the days
with heavier attachments.
Picking up the pen
is like picking up a stone.
Life is a game in which
we are all given
the role of losers
eventually. But each attempt
at meaning is an act
of defiance of death.
‘On the Eve’ (62-63) is a beautiful prose poem addressed to ‘my dearest darling Rhond[a]’ on the night before ‘yet another operation’. This poem is an expression of the ‘horrors and anxieties’ felt by a family when someone is diagnosed with a terminal disease, but the poem does not seek refuge in denial: ‘One day, we know, we will lose this battle – the body and all its absurdities always wins. Until then we struggle, and fight, and sinfully almost pray’. This is because ‘bones seem stronger / than belief, yet they also rot in earth’ (11). So, Haskell ‘struggles and fights’ in ‘defiance of death’, as he bares witness to domestic love and intimacy; but also to misery, decline and death.
In ‘That Other Country’ (52-53), Haskell remembers the day when the news of cancer was first delivered:
The skies of your life are unerringly blue
and you have no plans to rearrange
your expectations; but when the licensed official
says the word, you, and those
closest to you, immediately shift
to another country. No matter that
you do not seem to move, and others
do not recognise your departure, you
are now an exile. The word
will be a visa, in your passport
an indelible stamp, and your passport
now full of pages that you will never use.
And after the diagnosis comes the treatment. In ‘After Chemo’ (56-57), he writes:
Your hair is falling like thin rain,
like mizzle, like long, silent,
lightening snow. An invisible waterfall,
your hair cascades
or lifts away from you
like gossamer, like an inkbrush
gifting new patterns to the floors,
furring our mouths, our thickening thoughts,
our almost-said words.
The apparent simplicity of expression lends these poems a quiet dignity where nothing is over-written. And such imagery as ‘your wisps of hair / disappearing as gently as breath’, and those ‘thickening thoughts’, is unforgettable. There are many times when the emotional impact of this writing ambushes me with tears, bringing to the surface my own experiences with bereavement. So in ‘Drinking’ (58), Haskell writes with heart-breaking directness and clarity as he again juxtaposes the all-consuming cancer with domestic routines and love:
I strike a match, bash
the light switch off
and, candle flickering,
drop into another century
when thought was slower:
I need its pace,
this slowing of the mind,
as another mug of tea
you’ve asked for
but been unable to drink
is swallowed by the sink
and I lean silently
over the benchtops
while the tea
gurgles and gargles
in the sink’s
The misery in that final stanza is stark, the imagery so startling, that we read in it a poetics of heart-wrenching loss. In poems such as ‘So Much Courage’, ‘Plato’s Error’ and ‘Six Years’, Haskell continues to document the medical interventions, the inevitable physical decline and the fractious emotional toll on both Rhonda and himself (as her carer). In the long narrative sequence, ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ (75-87), he lovingly describes the final forty-eight hours in Rhonda’s life and the moment of her death:
We were both out of this world,
and yet when I looked
I saw the sheets move
below your increasingly ivory face:
above the air conditioning
was breathing as if it were you.
After Rhonda’s death, the poet spends each ‘agonising exhausting’ night dreaming of her. If ‘the dead have nothing to do with us,’ Haskell asks at the start of ‘Insistence (99-100) ‘why then / do the dead determinedly / step through our sleep, / persistent zombies?’ In ‘Ashes and Hair’ (90-91) he writes:
You have gone to a better place some friends say,
there is a God, there is a Paradise, and you are there.
But nightly, as if to prove you have died,
and what it means, you walk towards me
weirdly, made of ash, cinders
falling from your breasts, your eyebrows
and I am standing there, holding
thin scrags of your hair
like a talisman, terrified.
Juxtaposed against all these deepening shadows are moments of intense light when we see Haskell praising moments of intimacy between a father and infant son; expressing the love between a husband and wife separated during times of international travel and later reunited in the shared domestic routines of marriage; and celebrating the birth of a grandchild. For it is in these relationships and memories that there is consolation and life. This ‘defiance of death’ is gloriously expressed in the poem ‘No-one Ever Found you’ (26) which ends so upliftingly:
We have shifted cities, our shift
into each other’s lives so complete
that any other we could scarcely know
Though your eyes are tired, my shoulders bony,
it matters little where we go,
how little we know
and how much our lives have passed,
our days will be filled with green
and we grow together like the grass.
In Australian poetry there are few examples of such sustained response to bereavement and the loss of a long-term partner. Craig Powell’s hauntingly beautiful chapbook from Picaro Press, Poems For A Marriage, is one. (Powell wrote his book to celebrate the life of his wife, Janet, who passed away in 2007.) Powell and Haskell both write in the shadows of unbearable pain and irredeemable loss. Neither seeks consolation in denial. And both find in the birth of children and grandchildren, domestic routines, and the forgiveness and acceptance that comes with love, enough goodness to light a life. As Haskell writes in ‘Tapping’ (20-21):
I want desperately to write you
a poem of the scrawniest simplicity
to tap and beak inside you,
flown into a language
full beyond words
from the flurry of my feelings,
from the pit of my life
where I am now,
as dumb as the animals.
Phillip Hall is a poet working as an editor with Verity La’s ‘Emerging Indigenous Writers Project’ and as a poetry reader at Overland. In 2014 he published Sweetened in Coals. In 2015 he published Diwurruwurru, a book of his collaborations with the Borroloola Poetry Club. He is currently working on a collection of place-based poetry called Fume. This project celebrates Indigenous people & culture in the Northern Territory’s Gulf of Carpentaria.