A Life in Words: Gig Ryan launches ‘Your Scratch Entourage’ by Kris Hemensley

Gig Ryan launched Your Scratch Entourage by Kris Hemensley, Cordite Books 2016, at Collected Works Bookshop on Tuesday, December 13, 2016,

your-scratch-entourageReading  Kris’s book has been a great salutary reminder of what poetry can be, beautiful language under pressure of thought and emotion, commemorative, unpredictable, a life, in words. There is also the specific Englishness of the poems, the poet in nature, following from Wordsworth and Coleridge.  As he puts it in ‘Against Dread’ –  ‘Natural’ is all that knows itself without an artist’s contribution’. Kris could, at a stretch, be seen as part of the British Poetry Revival that occurred in the 1960s, partly as reaction against the so-called Movement poets, then seen as bleak and ‘uptight’, but much more he is a seminal figure in Australian poetry, as both poet and catalyst of the equivalent revival here. The title of this book, also the title of the elegy to Barry McSweeney who died in 2000,  reminds me a little of Jeremy Prynne, in its enticing ambiguity. Does it mean those who have gone before, one’s entourage that has since passed away, that is, those who have been scratched from the race?  Or is it scratch as adjective meaning assembled from whatever is available, a good definition of poetry, but in this case it is also rather modest, because the bits and pieces go back to Shakespeare, to Keats, and also to Olson and Creeley. Some of the poems here have been re-assembled, and revised, over a period of forty years, and yet how fresh they seem. One doesn’t read this book as a Selected Poems, tracing the poet’s development, or lack of, chronologically, yet it is also a type of selected, like an anatomical dissection where we see the layers of time and events. And although there is a looking back over time, there is more a re-inhabiting of time, a sense that all times exist at once, that all we experience is forever in us and with us, with all those colleagues who have died still being present in our poems. (Today I found, online,  a 1977 review of Hemensley, by Sydney University academic, James Tulip, and he mentions Kris’s postscript to The Poem of the Clear Eye, in which brothers in a fish and chip shop merge into the fisherman in the shop’s painting:  ‘They flow in and out of each other in Hemensley’s mind – his comedy of empathy’, Southerly, No. 2, 1977, ‘Towards an Australian Modernism: New Writings of Kris Hemensley’ https://nanojim.com/2016/12/08/towards-an-australian-modernism-new-writings-of-kris-hemensley/). There is certainly a ‘comedy of empathy’ in many poems here, and it is this moderating, and modulating, empathy that encapsulates Kris’s metaphysics.

Two long sequences pay homage to rather neglected poets F. T. Prince and Ivor Gurney, as well as to his late friend, poet Charles Buckmaster, who killed himself, aged 21, in 1972 (you can find some Buckmaster poems on John Tranter’s website, from his 1979 anthology The New Australian Poetry http://johntranter.net/as-an-editor/1979-the-new-australian-poetry/buckmaster/, see also Kris Hemensley on Charles Buckmaster https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2012/12/04/kris-hemensley-recalls-charles-buckmaster-on-the-40th-anniversary-of-his-death/) as well as to many painters, and Kris has inherited the mellifluousness that he praises in these poets, as in ‘Leaving Bridport with Ivor Gurney’, a poem with an irregular rhyming scheme that then folds into rhyming couplets at its end. Ivor Gurney died in 1937, so, that is, in the poet’s world, all is contemporaneous, and our forebears accompany us everywhere. In Kris’s poems alliteration abounds, and sound and rhythm are uppermost.

It’s plain the poet’s own name proxies this place
heralding a combination of bliss & pain
that only music can measure or contain –
since leaving Bridport no conversation
just a word half choked on between gasping gaze
& the first note of murmured disbelief
& the silence trapping beauty in its maze
in which life & death spark the self-same blaze.
……………………………….(‘Leaving Bridport with Ivor Gurney’)

The recurring place-names, the bluebells and other flowers, compose a genealogy of the poet himself – ‘They walked on air. / They’d brushed nettle and bluebell. They thanked / their lucky stars for such an English April.’ (‘In the middle of the world at war’)

As Lucas Weschke’s introduction describes, many poems are in a rough hexameter, creating a rhythm perfectly suited to the constant sense of wonder, as the poet moves forward through the world painting its beauty and surprises, both reassembling and forgiving the past. Such reconciliation is the core of the wonderful poem ‘Father’s Dark Ship’, with its tolling triplet end words ‘harbour’ / ‘darker’ / ‘failure’ resolving at its finish into ‘youth’ / ‘once’ / ‘earth’, and the final ‘again’.

One thing that Kris has continued from the late sixties is a life-affirming optimism, also apparent in his love of the patterns of words, the puns and connotations that each might have. Dark and darkness recur throughout, yet delight always glints through, delight in absurdity  – ‘what does day bring besides bad news? / why no fog to bolt up vision in its broom cupboard?’ (‘English Sweets, 2’), and ‘I travel the trains as tho’ in a stagecoach / or on the back of a recalcitrant angel / who can’t yet dispose of his love of the earth’ (‘English Sweets, 1’).

Especially significant are the last two sequences of sonnets ‘More Midsummer Night’s Dream than Dante’,  and ‘Harbour’, the first an anaphoric sequence of sonnets, with its titular first line introducing each sonnet, a sort of Stations of the Cross, describing moments of awakening into revelation (a little like Jennifer Maiden’s sequences, and it is important to remember that Kris and Robert Kenny were among the first to publish Maiden’s work)  – ‘Whether journey’s beginning or end / I couldn’t fathom it. Time’s classic double-cross. / Weirder fate’s plaything now instead of cocky host.’

The most remarkable quality of these poems is their lack of unifying irony that so many of us wear like a sort of glove-puppet, which too often disguises embarrassment at any emotion or ambition.  There is irony of course, but it doesn’t smother the poet’s intentions, doesn’t build a ring road for readers to manoeuvre through. Kris, with his harrowing honesty, doesn’t swerve from either emotion or ambition, but like Whitman, like Shakespeare, encompasses all – ‘Prince & hick. Groan and grin.’ (‘More Midsummer Night’s Dream than Dante’).

 – Gig Ryan

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Gig Ryan is a poet and freelance reviewer. She has published numerous books including New and Selected Poems (Giramondo, Australia, 2011); Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, UK, 2012); songs with Disband, Six Goodbyes (1988), Driving Past, Real Estate (1999) and Travel (2006).

Your Scratch Entourage by Kris Hemensleyis available from  http://corditebooks.org.au/products/your-scratch-entourage

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