Merryn Williams discovers some fine new poems in Stuart Henson’s latest collection
The Way you Know it: New and Selected Poems Stuart Henson Shoestring Press ISBN 978-1-912524-10-5 130pp £12.00
There are some very fine new poems here, as well as selections from Stuart Henson’s six previous volumes. Reading backwards, you are aware of an impressive talent, as in “Her Loneliness”, whose first line runs ‘is as big as an iceberg’, and which builds up until we realise that a woman is going to sink out of sight for good. Henson has also included some ‘versions’ – not exactly translations – of poets whose language is not English. He’s particularly fond of Rilke, but the ‘version’ which appeals to me is “After Pushkin”, a superb poem in its own right:
Caught in the clatter of a city street, or stepping through the still hush of a church, or at a gig, maybe, crushed in the mosh-pit, my mind plays God, reminding me that each of us must pass into the world of darkness when the years run down his little store of light. Among the hundreds there who push and press one may be due to stage-dive out tonight…….
‘Mosh-pit’? Well, the great realities of life and death haven’t changed between Pushkin’s time and ours, and like all of us then and now he wonders about his own end:
Each day I turn the diary’s page – another week, another month, a year – I try to guess which is my last; when will the calendar mark nothing but the blank space of my death. And sometimes, too, I stop and wonder where? Out on a lake, caught by a freakish wave? Maybe the innocent victim of a war I didn’t make, flung in a hasty grave?
New poems include “After the Dance”, a lovely evocative piece where a girl is waiting for her lover to pick her up but sees only a darkening landscape:
He will come when the grasses have given up their lights and hogweeds darken against the sky.
No, he probably won’t.
“A Cosy Crime” is a very funny take on all those old green-backed Penguins which sanitise murder. Henson is also good at sonnets, one of the best of which is “On taking my father’s Keats to Rome”:
Not passport sized, and bound in worn green hide: a Kingsgate Pocket Poets at half-a-crown. ‘To My Dearest Brother’ from his sister Joan inscribed for his birthday, 1945 – when he was Keats’s age but glad to be alive entrained in France and headed for Cologne. In ’44 he didn’t get to Rome, shipped back through Naples lucky to survive. Now this frail keepsake leads me to the grave of one for whom the Italian sun was meant to warm the blood, to seal his lungs’ dark scars. What heals the mind? (Poor Severn couldn’t save his friend). Time’s distances? A book’s small print? Mute patience grieving like that last late star?
“Going Home” also appears to be about his father, returning from the war zone some seventy years ago. There is more family history in “The Lost Boys”, inspired by a black and white studio photograph of three young brothers taken in 1898. We’ve all, I suppose, looked at pictures of our ancestors in their youth knowing what happened later, and in this case we know that the boys are going to be caught up in the First World War:
Well, fate’s wave, duly, as you knew it would, crashed and went sprawling up the beach of time and left the image of the moment there when you were posed together in the frame knowing somehow that this was serious ….
The poem is too long to quote in full but seems to me far better than some better-known poets have written in the centenary year. Stuart Henson has a memorable and commanding voice.