Dominique Hecq’s Hush: A Fugue (UWA Publishing, 2017).
Dominique Hecq’s Hush: A Fugue examines the death of a child from a mother’s perspective and the harrowing aftermath of such an inexplicable event. In this autobiographical work, Hecq finds language for a profound loss, one that almost defies articulation.
The bulk of Hush traverses a year, from the winter of the child’s death and funeral, through the literal and metaphorical seasons of grief. The work contains discrete sections each, except for the first, opening with a short epigraphical poem. ‘Morning hail/ gusts of wind/ moaning’ leads the section in which the mother discovers her baby’s ‘lightless body’. The white of his pallid skin becomes a recurrent motif. However, white is a contradiction. White has brilliance and luminescence, but ‘the price white pays for this sheer purity is that it absorbs no light into its own body – and for lead white, this means its own heart is black.’
Hush: A Fugue is a hybrid of prose and poetry, expertly entwined by Hecq. These forms are evident in Hecq’s oeuvre, including five previous collections of poetry. At times, Hush reads like a short story. In the section set some months after the funeral, the mother, haunted by ghosts, gets out of bed in the middle of the night. She takes to the highway, driving through pouring rain, heading for the country. She gets booked for speeding, such is the urgency of her quest. The reader is propelled, eager to know where this road trip will end. Across the forms, Hecq mixes the quotidian and the meditative, the latter particularly evident towards the end of the work.
The notion of the fugue goes to the heart of Hush and is both a musical and psychiatric term. In music, it is a compositional technique characterised by the introduction of successive voices playing the same theme with variations in pitch, calling out and echoing each other. This is manifested in Hecq through the repetition of passages, images and changing points of view.
Alicia Ostriker explains the meaning of a fugue state in psychiatry in a recent essay on Paul Celan’s Holocaust poem, ‘Todesfuge’, translated in English as, ‘Death Fugue’. ‘The term is not merely musical… a “fugue state” is a psychiatric condition in which identity and memory have fled the self.’ In Hush, the mother loses her ‘place in the world’, and involuntarily abandons her former self. ‘Time would not flow. Time was rock hard. Amber.’ She is ‘cold and empty’. Emotions freeze and in the fallout she is estranged from her surviving toddler son. ‘His brother’s life; his brother’s death, has made us strangers to each other.’ Thankfully there is a re-engagement, as the mother empathises with her son’s inability ‘to return to his place in his own life.’
There are other glimmers of hope, starting with the mother, father and son visiting the Grampians in Victoria. On a clifftop, in the ‘darkness before dawn’, she spreads her arms and ‘uttered a primal cry’. The appearance of the ‘glorious sunlight’ signals a shift. ‘The turning happened. I surrendered to an invisible force… I began to speak again.’
Hush highlights the power of writing to sift and sort through emotions, and potentially heal in the process. ‘Perhaps writing, especially poetry is the art of loss’, the protagonist writes. Shortly after the funeral, she says, ‘I tried writing. Words came in bursts and spurts. Made no sense. I had lost my alphabet in the night sky’, yet she ‘needed to write for the sheer satisfaction of keeping fear at bay, of experiencing the vanity of meaning, even if words did not make sense.’ Towards the end of this section writing opens her up. ‘As I wrote, compelled back to the black sea, I felt my heart expanding towards the sky and tears came to my eyes for the first time since death had been.’
‘A sentence rises up, hovers in the air, drifts…’. Writing is imperfect. Words, for all their power, can never express exactly what it is that calls and haunts. Fugue-like, the protagonist writes and re-writes passages. This is never monotonous or self-indulgent. It reflects a desire to get the words and form right, to express the changing thoughts and emotions in the most appropriate way. In a sequence set in a ‘listless garden’, the mother describes herself as ‘dizzy and slightly nauseous’ with the ‘brash sunlight’ making her ‘irritable’. She longs for ‘cooler days’. Later in a garden, now described as ‘crowded’, she feels ‘scatty and slightly nauseous’. The ‘grey light’ makes her ‘irritable’ and she longs for ‘warmer days’. The meandering continues and at the end of this section, Hecq offers the reader a poem, a succinct version of the passages which preceded it.
Hush is a courageous work in which Hecq illuminates, with clarity and grace, an intimate and difficult subject. She gives grief its voice, resurrecting it from silence; speaking its truth. The ‘hush’ of title points to the quiet after the storm. There is, in the concluding sections, evidence of a new life. The change is tangible, yet remission is not guaranteed. ‘I have put death to death, returned the night to the night. For now.’
-Malcolm St Hill
Malcolm St Hill lives in Newcastle and is a poet and independent researcher focused on the literary memory of the Great War, particularly that of Australian soldier-poets. His recent poems have appeared in the 2016 and 2015 ‘Grieve’ anthologies. He was the winner of the Morisset Show ‘Lake Macquarie Moments’ Poetry Competition in 2016.