Feb 24 2023
Poetry review – THE GUEST ROOM: James Roderick Burns finds Diana Hendry’s collection to be even more than the sum of its excellent parts
It’s tempting, with very substantial collections such as The Guest Room, to focus a review on the grand themes developed over the course of a book – in this case, for instance, the differing pleasures (and challenges) of domesticity and the wild, or the shaping influence of cultural heritage on the everyday. But Diana Hendry’s latest collection works at the level of the word. It is studded with memorable phrases and images – music, for instance, “is structured unsteadiness, whereas/love is unsteady in the way of the sea” (‘Dr Braun’s thoughts on love’). Or ‘Mother in the kitchen’, evoking a whole compressed history of fraught living within a single, Joycean image:
Smoking a secret cigarette while cooking his breakfast – ash trembling dangerously over the rubbery kidneys, the bloody black pudding in the blackened frying pan.
Similarly, ‘Grandad’’s pipe (“all suck and puff, the mouth piece/black with spittle”) leaps off the page; ‘The Harlequin Ladybird’ turns “the garden lawn to pointillist polka dots”; and even a seemingly-unappealing ‘Octopus’ – “the slime of its skin is a cross between snot and drool” – appeals in precise intelligence, wonderfully described. As the poet notes in ‘Hoylake 3594’, “This is my voice going out into the world” – and drilling down through stanza and line to image and word, it works vividly at every level.
Yet no volume is merely a collection of excellent lines. For a book to solidify into more than its constituent parts, it must cohere around a theme or themes, underscore some aspect of experience that illuminates a larger truth, linger on like a machine whose beautifully-turned knobs and levers move seamlessly in some higher function.
It’s here that heritage and the quotidian, wild and tame, come into play. The Guest Room is a deceptively simple title. The poem of that name suggests (with a quotation from Hebrews) that we must entertain strangers as though they were angels, for so they might turn out to be. Hendry’s child voice – not a childish voice, but that voice going out into the world, a fully-inhabited sense of childhood replayed – has a field day with the idea: perhaps it will be Abraham and Isaac, “on their husky-pulled sledges/all the way from Russia/and the old testament”, perhaps another messenger with the word of God. Yet, perhaps inevitably – to this reader, at least – the poet brings in fairy tales and Goldilocks to fuse the twin themes of heritage and dichotomy between the wild and the domestic:
Or Goldilocks tired of bears? Who will slip a ring on the cut-glass finger and lift the silver-backed mirror up to the light?
Suddenly we have slipped out of the surface charm of the poem’s conceit and into the glancing, occult world of Singer’s mirrors, infested with seductive minor imps. It is a deft performance, which occurs within a few lines (each clean and purposeful), but which subtly references the greater themes of the collection.
The seduction, and the threat, of the outside world – in essence, the wilderness – runs like a stream through The Guest Room. In contrast to the many domestic settings of home, childhood, adult life, it insists on its own powers, harnessed by Hendry but still delightfully out of control. ‘The heron complains of his reputation’, for instance, bemoans the harsh shaping of natural circumstance and the dubious titles we bestow upon him. But his true, clean nature shines through:
I stalk on stately stilts out of a fastidious distaste for all the muck that lurks under the surface
Without moving into concrete poetry, the poem nonetheless suggests the high-stalking, meticulous bird’s progress through its wild setting – from which he derives great wisdom, “Reputation’s/all folly” – and through the book itself. We feel the stalk in these choppy lines; the sensibility behind each image of characteristics we like to ascribe to natural things, and their proud resistance. Elsewhere, the sentient outdoors becomes mysterious, almost threatening: a sea-fog is “thin as misery. Takes as long to lift” (‘The Haar’); a childhood dog is mourned in almost Dylan Thomas terms, “oh the flash of him,/the blag and brag of him,/the not-of-this-world wild of him”; and the two are fused in ‘Market Street’:
The street is plugged at the top by a roundabout. Beyond is city, wildness, the unknown.
The natural world weaves in and out of the urban landscape, the rural garden, memory and childhood, past and present. In other collections, it would necessarily be counterpointed with a tame, safe domesticity, one where we might find retreat and perhaps protection. That is not the case here. There are wonderful poems exploring the tiny nuances of life together as a couple, a family (‘Nearby’ hymns this “little acknowledged/comfort and delight”) as well as generations of people moving through the same family space. ‘Smokers’ typifies them, with the poet’s father smoking “heroically, suicidally,/hunched in his wicker chair over a two bit/electric fire”. But more frequent are poems which touch on the sensitive and difficult in the ‘home space’, suggesting not that we should somehow abandon it, but rather see it in subtle distinction to the external complexity of nature – not as a simple thing, a comfort, but an equally complex and nuanced sphere:
Roses are beheaded. Who cares? There’s plenty more where they came from. The realisation makes them droop, turn blowsy, dry out like drunks while their extended families bloom loudly about them. [‘The Way Flowers Die’]
The vase of flowers, eternal symbol of nature tamed, domesticated, becomes instead an image of complexity, of resisting the simple tale of either nature or the interior human world. The flowers are part of our atmosphere, and yet not; present but also absent, subject to their own insuperable laws. A similar, haunting image ends ‘The Spare Room’, and like the guest room, offers a fitting conclusion to a book both rich in meaning and resistant to easy readings.
A bird, once trapped, becomes in the child’s telling an omen of death, but in the poet’s hands something larger and more meaningful, to run through the whole collection:
Over time I forgot about him, but the memory of the trapped bird stays, beating its frantic lesson in the heart.