Poems of Quiet Devastation: Kate Hendry’s ‘The Lost Original’

Kate Hendry, The Lost Original (HappenStance, 2016)

Review by Kylie Grant

Speaking at Wigtown Book Festival recently, Michel Faber was asked why he had chosen poetry over fiction to explore his wife’s death from cancer. His answer was both striking and beautiful: poetry was the frankest, most direct form of communication that we have. This is never truer than in Kate Hendry’s The Lost Original, a debut collection which uses such directness to create deeply affecting poems that take the familiar and the everyday, and turn them into something new, something profound, and often something unsettling.

The opening poem, ‘Baked Beans’, introduces us to the way Hendry uses straightforward language and the juxtaposition of familiar and unfamiliar to both unsettle and provoke the reader, pushing them to listen to the words not said as much as the ones that are.

He’d already gone, when Mum told me-9781910131275
to a room in the Alveston House Hotel.
Still a chance he’d come back home.

It was baked beans on toast, in the garden;
The green baize card table (brought out
for good weather) unfolded just for me.

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.

There is a beautiful simplicity in Hendry’s poetry. The plainness of the language and the use of detailed asides like “brought out for good weather” are used skilfully to set out an immediate connection with the reader as she revisits the dissolution of her parents’ marriage and the eventual breaking up of her childhood home. The idea of home and how it changes after a parents’ divorce is explored in many of the poems, tracking the changing meaning of once shared objects as in ‘The Botanical Illustration’, to the development of different identities that form within and in between the different houses and lives of the now separated family in ‘Before A and B’:

Let alone yourself, and you almost feel grateful for the gaps,
the blanks, page after page of emptiness.

One of the most effective is ‘After the Divorce’, a quiet poem that laments not only the pain of always leaving one parent behind, but also the loneliness of always waiting for one or the other.

All my delayed trains-lost hours
between homes. Reading Women in Love
Watching the night unfold

In this poem and others in the collection, Hendry plays with the boundaries between fiction and poetry. She has a prose writer’s ability for building character, utilising memory and speech to urge you to search for unspoken words rather than only focusing on the words on the page. One example in ‘An Appointment at the National Library in Scotland’ tells us about her taking her father to the library where they read notebook drafts of Sorely MacLean’s poems together and he whispers first lines to her while she “stares through crossings out to the words beneath.”

Hendry is a poet of detail and exactness but also of humour. For instance there is an echo of Lydia Davis in the restraint and humour found at the end of ‘The Art of Reading’:

My father thought it was dross.
He took his Acme Mangle
With him when he left.

The shifting boundaries and the exacting language pull the reader along and allows them to follow as the poems evolve from detailing of divorce and loneliness as a child, to a depiction of aging parents and then to reflections on the narrator becoming a mother herself. However, there is a subtle change in the middle poems of the collection, which become more direct, not towards the reader, but instead, to a previously unseen husband and children. There is also urgency to these, as if Hendry questions both herself and her desire to linger over these moments and whether she wants to share them with us. Take for instance the end of ‘Valentine’:

I keep the stove going.
I sit your slippers by the hearth
Is that it?
Remembering to leave a little love
Where it can be seen?

Interestingly it is in the poems where the husband and children talk that the pace slows again, as if Hendry is now ready to let their voices in. ‘Discussing My Death’ brilliantly depicts a conversation between mother and child:

‘We’re discussing what happens when you fall…
Did you die? You ask. Oh, to not know’

It is lines like these, lines that are full of humour and pathos, which makes Hendry’s poetry so quietly devastating. Hendry is a disarming poet, a poet who often catches you unawares like someone who turns the corner just before you do and stands, very politely, in your way. It is often the endings of her poems where the emotional line is delivered. The last poem of the collection, ‘Counting’, details a conversation again between mother and child and ends:

You bite the first marshmallow.
‘You had all the evens,’ you explain
as if I should have known
it was always my task
to be in charge of endings.

It is a compelling way to end the collection, and stays true to the feelings evoked throughout the poems. Although Hendry may be in control, she is always interested in that person who might appear in her way and compel her to write those endings differently.

 


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