Kate Hendry — The Lost Original
HappenStance, 2016 £5.00
The Passage of Time
The thing I’d like to pick up on in this collection is the use of the passage of time. Whether it’s waiting for time to go by or wishing that it didn’t, Kate Hendry shows our funny ways of looking back, or ahead, rather than living in the present.
One example is in ‘After the Divorce’: ‘Friday evenings… Sunday afternoons… lost hours’. We see the weekly routine but how actually it feels as if the family members are just wasting time rather than making the most of it.
‘The Art of Reading’ shows a child finishing a book in a day and reading ‘till the sheets were folded’. For me, this suggests time passing but the child still reading on the landing through the change going on around them.
From the perspective of an adult she writes about wishing time didn’t pass as quickly (‘Your Voice’, ‘Discussing My Death’ and ‘Counting’). The poet seems to wish that maybe we didn’t grow up or that we didn’t have to die.
My final thoughts come from the end of Heart Failure:
The next day, he heads home. He texts me:
There’s fresh snow on the hills. It’s lambing
season. In the front lawn the firs
bluebell shoots are coming through.
The idea of new beginnings and hope in the future comes at the end of a poem which is really about losing a loved one. The fact that time comes back round again to life and happiness contrasts interestingly with time-associated anxiety in other poems.
Heavy topics, light touch
There was a lot I liked about this collection, but as I can only pick one point here, I think the thing that jumps out to me is how subtly and elegantly it addresses all the issues it touches on.
The central subject matter is emotionally complex and heavy – love and loss – but at no point is the poet heavy-handed.
The first half of the collection addresses divorce and the fracturing of a family (‘Yellow stamens, pale pink petals / just like those my father grew for my mother / in our north-facing garden, / the petals too thin to hang on through autumn’). Then there are poems about death and illness (‘His death is with him like the small / white stones he lines up by his front door / to help him find his way home in the dark’). There are poems about motherhood (‘I collect your words – / first shoes then cot and book’). And there are poems that ask existential questions (‘To talk about death as if it’s a game / To gun people dead and bring them back to life’). But through all these varied themes the poetry seemed to me graceful and curiously calming to read.
It’s the sort of writing that makes you feel bleak and sad, but makes you smile at the same time – ‘bittersweet’ is maybe the right word. If I were to pick the individual pieces that most affected me in this way, I would go for ‘Botanical Illustration’, ‘Catching Up with My Little Brother’, and ‘Discussing My Death’.
Tell me something I don't know
I do like a poem that tells me something I don’t know, and Kate Hendry's ‘Before A and B’* in her debut pamphlet collection does just that. I’d never met up with the fact that there are two versions of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus.
And I do like a poem that makes me think about something I’ve not properly thought about (parked it up under Denial, actually). Kate’s poem is also (very much) about being a child of divorced parents, and it’s clever enough to shake me into looking at myself as a divorced parent, giving me one of those ouchy ‘Ah-Ha’ moments beloved of early Gestalt therapists.
Basically there are two discussions here, one about the Marlowe texts and one about the poet’s ‘A and B homes’, the houses of the divorced parents. A parallel process is going on – the third and fourth stanzas introduce the notion that somewhere the play’s ‘lost original’ is waiting to be discovered – together with ‘the letter which explains / who wanted him dead’. This parallels the child’s perspective of separating parents and their often inadequate (and differing) explanations, ‘Mummy and Daddy both love you, But’. How useful it would be to have an honest explanation, acknowledgement that that ‘love’ won’t stretch to consideration of the child’s needs.
Nobody divorced in the street I grew up in. But in the seventies many of us did so, believing it was better for children to have two ‘happy’ parents than to suffer from the rage and frustrations of parents ‘staying together for the sake of the children’.
Thank you Kate Hendry for your intelligent and tender poem. I love the way you tie it all together in the last line with ‘page after page of emptiness’, a wake-up celebration of the children’s trying-to-understand-and-not-think-it’s-their-fault faces.
In case you think this all a bit literary, remember Marlowe died in a knife fight in a pub in Deptford (instantly, the blade going in just above his eye) and Kate’s writing is clear and accessible. Great poem for the GCE syllabus I think.
*This poem first appeared in The Rialto Number 83
The power of what is unsaid
For a child brought up juggling between two homes, there can be a profound sense of disconnection. The ‘I’ in Kate Hendry’s poems isn’t necessarily the poet, although autobiographical details suggest it is. Her predicament (bewilderment and confusion) is never fully addressed, though constantly implied – not in what she and others say, but what they do.
The clarity of The Lost Original is impeccable. The writing has touches of humour, the vocabulary is natural. ‘Gaps’, ‘blanks’, and ‘emptiness’ tend to recur, as Hendry details, with chilling attention, the journeys between her parental homes. Which day of the week it is, what the child ate, where she was sitting, and what she wore: such details acquire larger-than-life significance. After her parents' divorce, all the child’s relationships change. It’s the way things are. Life, of course, carries on, with its run of the everyday: there is education and, for this particular individual, voracious reading. People do ordinary things; sometimes a novel or a play supplies the undercurrent. While proceeding as if things were normal, the poems do uncomfortable things.
Because this is not continuity. Thanks to the parental split, things have become deeply different, and repercussions are lifelong, especially the protagonist’s relationship with her father. An idiosyncratic intellectual evoked throughout the pamphlet, he evidently shares many interests with his daughter. A poem near the end of the sequence describes him visiting her in Edinburgh (‘An Appointment at the National Library of Scotland’). His previous visit to the library, was, we learn, barred by offialdom. However, the poet is at home there. She is aware of every facility and, knowing his familiarity with Sorley Maclean’s poems, she anticipates showing her father some early drafts of the poet’s work. It is to these drafts the final line of the poem refers:
[. . . ] I stare through crossings out to the words beneath
The line plays out beautifully the pamphlet’s quiet devastations.
Clear surface, deep waters
Kate Hendry writes with such exactness. There’s not an extraneous word or thought in her work. Her simplicity of speech is wonderful. She distills what she wishes to say – then says it.
The result is a collection of beautiful poems which bridge various subjects but all explore love and, at times, our difficulties with it. This clear surface just allows us to see the depth of thought and understanding below.
In the early poems there is an almost childlike simplicity to the language, in perfect keeping with their subject. The first poem is called, brilliantly, ‘Baked Beans’. A father leaves. The poem ends:
After I’d been told, I ate up my food
and I took my empty plate, knife and fork
back inside and washed them up myself
The next poem, ‘After the Divorce’ – and, again, look at the straightforwardness of that title – closes:
All my delayed trains – lost hours
between homes. Reading Women in Love.
Watching the night unfold.
There are poems within the group that seem on the surface much more complicated – ‘Before A and B’, for instance – but the turbulence is always there for a reason: in this case, I think, the fruitlessness of marital rowing, especially from a child’s perspective.
“Did you die?’ you ask. Oh, to not know.’ Here, in ‘Discussing My Death’, in one single line, she captures utterly – and with poise and humour – the mother-child (in the kitchen) relationship: the parent’s role.
Sometimes you cry ‘I’ll miss you when you’re dead,’
no notion of your grown-up, stronger self
or that you might not even like me much by then.
Kate Hendry knows exactly what she’s doing. To my mind, her skill is in balancing the literal – the few details so carefully, instinctively, selected – and the deeper wisdom.