Paul Hetherington, Burnt Umber, UWA Publishing, 2016. RRP $22.99, 132pp., ISBN 978-174258-806-3
Sometimes it’s difficult for poets to resist the busyness of language. An excess of words cancelling the whiteness of the page can feel like the literary equivalent of filling awkward silences in a conversation. But as Glyn Maxwell notes, when you’re writing high-stakes poetry, ‘intelligent use of the whiteness is all you’ve got’ (Maxwell, 11).
Paul Hetherington’s latest collection Burnt Umber demonstrates how profoundly satisfying good poetry can be when pyrotechnics with language are resisted in preference to the quiet assertion of the mot juste.
This is an intriguing collection, which at first glance almost shouldn’t work, so diverse is its scope of form and subject matter. It contains poems responding to such varied stimuli as visual art, World War II, and Greek mythology. There are sections containing examples of that textual enigma, the prose poem. But Hetherington’s assuredness of voice, married to a deft pacing, and his sensitive arrangement and control of his content soon puts paid to any concerns. Rather like a piece of music in eight movements, Burnt Umber offers a wonderfully modulated, symmetrical and resonant experience.
The collection starts and finishes with ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’: sections containing ekphrastic poems. The first (and title) poem ‘Burnt Umber’ (3) suggests that though we often feel external to what we survey, the lines of sight are in fact blurred and we are fully part of the action:
The clock blanks, and blanks again.
Paintings step from walls,
moving into the room
…I’m part of a scene
where a man in a bowler hat
pats a green dog (3)
Frameworks for conversations with self and with others (including the paintings), these poems invite the reader to step into the gallery of the mind, and look at things from unexpected angles. Sometimes, the tables are turned and it is the canvas that scrutinises the speaker. In ‘Painting 20: Robes’ (114) it finds him wanting:
He’d been too passionate,
full of his own grief—
the painting thought that indelicate (114)
If paintings can be “read” like text, then Hetherington’s fusion of word and image bring to mind Howard Nemerov’s suggestion that ‘both poet and painter want to reach the silence behind the language, the silence within the language’ (Nemerov, 95). Hetherington’s poems are tender, sometimes playful, sometimes self-deprecating, and in the case of ‘Painting 22: Portrait of a Count’ (117), which appears in tribute to the poet’s father, achingly poignant.
At its most effective, ekphrasis is not only a mechanism for one art form to be reflected upon by another, but also a conduit for self-reflection—within both reader and writer—a space for one’s own preoccupations to rise to the surface:
as if, after all,
the place was just paint,
as if in departure
you stepped into pigments
the painter forgot (5)
The definition of prose poetry can lead to endless debate. As Rhian Williams suggests, ‘the double title suggests as much confusion as definition’ (Williams, 128). Though ‘conventional’ poetry is mercurial (and contrarily often quite ‘unconventional’), it is usually possible to identify the genre owing to how it actually looks on the page. Prose poems, however, are dense and deliberate. Bricks of text, they demand a refocus of eyes and brain. But that is part of their appeal. Hetherington is a prose poet of some note, and his exquisite slices of text, whether sequential or stand-alone, capture moments of intensity that demonstrate the exquisite paradox of volatility and stasis at the heart of this form.
‘Rooftop’ (15–19) is a seventeen-part sequence. It traces a baroque narrative of an encounter or encounters between a man and a woman, doomed to failure and perceived one-sidedness in a way reminiscent of Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (Eliot, 13). ‘Language is almost all for me,’ (18) says the speaker’s female companion in Hetherington’s poem, adding: ‘But how does one know what one means?’ (18).
Another sequence, ‘Jars’ (92-3), illustrates how perfectly the prose poem is suited to the wistful backward glance, the forensic adjustment of the lens needed for the buffing-up of memories: ‘He kept insects in them, wings glinting in summer light like a kind of fabric—wingcloth, dressing the backs of elves’ (92). The effect of such heightened language in prose format is centripetal: it draws the reader into an intimate and visceral space: ‘Time’ (100) begins thus: ‘If this room were made of skin; if the structure was bones and blood; we would hear a heartbeat rattling our ears’ (100).
Three other groups of (non-prose) poems, ‘Angels at Nedlands Primary School’, ‘Viscera: poems from WWII’ and ‘Mythologies’ contain fine and moving work, the latter two sections having originally appeared as parts of exhibitions. The thirteen ‘Viscera’ poems take the reader into a radically different, and brutal territory: precious books reduced to ‘blackening smoulder’ (61) through deliberate burning; young boys, executed in the woods: ‘One had run / and two had stood quietly’ before being ‘thrown like bags of grain’ (60) into a ditch; detonations like ‘improbable sea creatures’ which sucked victims away ‘in a single moment’ (58). Hetherington understands that true horror does not need hyperbole but restraint, and these poems are all the more searing for that.
The section entitled ‘Mythologies’ contains six poems. Hetherington manages to redraw well-known mythical figures in fresh ways—no mean feat with the likes of Icarus and Prometheus—but it is the pieces featuring Ariadne and the Minotaur that are truly remarkable. These poems speak of the dark and passionate love between two beings, a love that, despite otherness and an inability to converse in the same tongue, is ablaze with erotic expression:
She let him carry fingers
across her torso
until caress dropped
her ground away
taking her, lurching,
to places she couldn’t name
like the darkest words—
a gathering like syllables
cramming her mouth
and the pleasure of incoherence
(‘Ariadne and the Minotaur’, 81)
Though he is a beast, the Minotaur is graceful, he has ‘fragments of dance /welling in his body’ (81), and Ariadne, in thrall to his magnetism, can see beyond the ‘spittle’ of his ‘murmuring babble’ (81):
When he idled with her
she believed in his proper name—
because he brought from her
the sea’s lustrous pallor (82)
Asterion knows that not only is he destined to give Ariadne up, but it will be he who leads her to salvation: the magic thread out of the labyrinth. The Minotaur will pay—in blood—for the audacity of his love:
A red line to show
what he had relinquished (84)
However, it is the poem ‘Minotaur’ (85) delivered in the ‘clot-tongued’ (85) voice of the beast himself that resonates longest. In this moving monologue, Asterion delivers his effortful yet lyrical apologia. Though he is unable to charm with speech, he knows there is value in other things he has learned to do:
But my body was grace. I,
with tangl’d tongue could entwine-
lose in dance (85)
They me, I them,
Hetherington’s word-play shapes and exalts into language the anguish and pride of the monster. Asterion’s laboured diction intensifies the tragedy of his inevitable fate at the edge of Theseus’ ‘quick-switching sword’ (87), an ultimate dance partner dressed ‘in soft gath’r glitt’r’ (87).
Nemerov suggests that ‘Poetry is a way of getting something right in language, poetry is language doing itself right’ (Nemerov, 57). Paul Hetherington’s Burnt Umber is a fine example of language—and poetry—‘doing itself right.’
Eliot, T. S. Collected Poems 1909–1962. London: Faber and Faber, 1974.
Maxwell, G. On Poetry. London: Oberon Books, 2012.
Nemerov, H. Figures of Thought: Speculations on the Meaning of Poetry and Other Essays. Boston, Mass: David R. Godine, 1978.
Williams, R. The Poetry Toolkit: the essential guide to studying poetry. London: Continuum, 2009.
Mags Webster is a PhD candidate at Murdoch University. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing (poetry) from City University of Hong Kong, a BA with First Class Honours in English & Creative Writing from Murdoch University, and BA (Hons) in English & Drama from the University of Kent. Her book, The Weather of Tongues (Sunline Press), won the 2011 Anne Elder Award for best debut poetry collection.