“Hetherington’s Touch is Light and Deft”- Glenda Guest reviews ‘Burnt Umber’

Burnt Umber by Paul Hetherington. UWA Publishing (2016).


Paul Hetherington brings to poetry everything I like about good writing: intelligence, reticence, poise, and the gift of seeing the large in the details of life.

Burnt Umber is a gift to his father, who died last year. The collection is bookended by a dedication to Robert Hetherington, a line by Tom Stoppard from Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead: ‘…deep shining ochres, burnt umber and parchments of baked earth- reflecting on itself and through itself, filtering the light’. The final poem is ‘Painting 22: Portrait of a Count. For my father’.

This is a large and varied collection consisting of eight sections. Even in its apparent disparity the collection moves gracefully from one poem to the next and is held together by the themes of loss and memory. Hetherington’s touch is light- there is no didacticism here- and deft, and the apparently simple language hides a torrent of knowledge of the human condition. ‘This is how it was’ he says, ‘now understand’.

Hetherington writes as someone who knows the country and its moodiness: the way fire is always hovering at the edge of summer, the slow rhythms of a river. There is surrealism in ‘Angels at Nedlands Primary School, 1968’; fire is always somewhere nearby as are letters found, kept or thrown away unread.

Hetherington has a painterly eye that interrogates a number of paintings in the two segments ‘Pictures at an exhibition’ (1 and 2). This also shows in his light touch that sketches in studies of the whole in ‘Rooftop’ (one of my favourite pieces) until the whole story is there in its entirety.

There is much I liked in this collection but I am drawn back to the longish poem, ‘Savasana’. Old places and memory, overlap and interlock for the protagonist and his/her ‘six-months friend’, until the penultimate verse when savasana allows the dropping away of the old and gives room for renewal. Only then, are they able to return to ‘our rented house…our skins no longer holding our bodies in their usual postures’.

Savasana is a yoga pose that usually ends a routine. It seems simple in its execution where the practitioner lies on the floor relaxing after a workout, but the intention is to let go of tension, memories and thoughts and to just be in the present moment. It is a very suitable understanding of Paul Hetherington’s Burnt Umber.

                                                                                                                       -Glenda Guest


Glenda Guest is the acclaimed author of Siddon Rock which won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Novel and was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2010. Siddon Rock was originally Glenda Guest’s creative component of her PHD at Griffith University, Gold Coast and later published by Random House.

To purchase Burnt Umber from UWAP: http://uwap.uwa.edu.au/products/burnt-umber

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