Moonlight on Oleander: Prose Poems by Paul Hetherington, University of Western Australia Press 2018, was launched by Cassandra Atherton at the National Library, Canberra in 6 September 2018.
I should say at the outset, I am prose poet and a prose poetry devotee, and this book is extraordinary because it pushes the prose poem to its limit – there’s nothing timid about Paul’s use of the prose poem form. He draws on its flexibility to create new and exciting varieties and approaches – from narrative prose poems with long, looping sentences (almost like long reels of film), to stark elegies which are taut and compressed in their lamentation, and sleek prose poetry sequences that grow with a kind of slow gestation to become something bigger than the sum of their parts.
I know that some of you may be standing here wondering what a prose poem is – and that’s not an easy question. Many scholars have been tripped up trying to define it. But I think it’s safe to say that it’s usually a poem that appears like prose in its use of sentences and paragraphs – but uses the full gamut of poetic techniques. Paul is also a scholar of prose poetry and he’s famously said the prose poem is like a TARDIS. And while I’m no Whovian (and neither is he), I think it’s a really clever way of saying that prose poetry is bigger on the inside than it appears from the outside. While I won’t get into dimensional relativity, I think that prose poetry is often camouflaged in this way – to look like paragraph of prose, but when you wander into it – get inside it, it’s a poem with all its ambiguities and cadences.
I am part of the International Prose Poetry Project started by Paul as Head of the International Poetry Studies Institute at The University of Canberra, and so I had the joy of watching many of these prose poems unfold and I encouraged Paul to start putting a book of prose poems together. I thought this was important because despite prose poetry’s renaissance and more and more people including prose poems in their books of poetry –there simply aren’t very many books of poetry composed solely of prose poems – and not prose poems this beautifully crafted and memorable.
Anyway, I read the manuscript of Moonlight On Oleander many times and Paul’s incredible attention to detail – getting every word right, or as Coleridge famously said placing – ‘the best words in the best order’ – makes this book so brilliant and indelible.
I have to tell you that when Paul was finishing up the manuscript of Moonlight on Oleander, he asked me if I had any ideas for a title.
I said, “I don’t know, oleander appears a lot in the book”?
He said, ‘nah, that’s a rubbish title’.
I said, ‘ok, well, there’s a lot of poems about the moon.’
And he scoffed and said, ‘Moon! That’s way too sentimental.’
A few months later he said he had the perfect title, “Moonlight on Oleander”.
I said “Wow, I would never have thought of that!”
But, more seriously, Moonlight on Oleander is a significant book in Paul’s oeuvre, that speaks as much in its gaps and silences as it does in its beguiling lexicon. We had a glimpse of his prose poems in his book Burnt Umber with three sections of prose poems entitled, ‘Rooftop’, ‘Lung’ and ‘Spider’ –‘Rooftop’ is actually a compelling sequence of 17 prose poems with a rich quest narrative. The prose poems in Moonlight on Oleander extend on this tradition where visually, the full justification of the prose poetry works like frames of varying sizes on the page – like artwork mounted on a wall or perhaps framed photographs –and Paul is known for his ekphrastic works and his painting and art intertexts in his poetry – but in Moonlight on Oleander we have prose poems as rooms, as postcards as a cityscape, as a scene, as a photograph, as a plot, as a pillow, as a magic box – even as a massage table in perhaps the most moving prose poetry sequence in the collection – the elegy to his father, willing him back to life while simultaneously letting him go:
“Elegy” part 3, (p123)
The masseur’s hands climbed my spine as I remembered my father during his final week in hospital—his noisy breathing; the immobility of his healing hands. The masseur traced muscles in my neck and laid my head on its side. My father’s mute body was lying next to mine. He’d been eloquent but there were no names we knew for the unplaceability of death. The masseur asked me to turn but we were inert and implicated. His hands wrapped my head. My body failed to breathe.
A prose poem called ‘Frame’ self reflexively plays on the prose poem form. It contains a haunting evocation of childhood and of a kind of Blakean loss of innocence:
A stillness near a corner of the picture frame; a river jetty with boys practising bombies; an old car bobbing with two girls standing on the bonnet. They dive and surface, splashes of pale light. There’s a beach and a nearby angel. At four years old he grasps a straggling feather. His parents’ talk is the tide’s burble. He thinks of a scorpion’s beautiful tail—reaches, and someone bats his hand away—sucking an oleander leaf, its bitterness filling the mouth like nascent thought. Under another oleander he reads novels with Jane. “We’re characters,” she says, and all one summer he imagines a developing plot. The stillness is what’s unwritten; what declines to stay.
Here Paul effortlessly explores what Einstein called the ‘persistent illusion that there is a distinction between past, present and future’. He is so intrepid as a poet, he takes on the past– runs at it, dives into it and brings it into the present timespace asking us to consider its future implications. The tropes of our childhood are the obsessions of our adulthood.
But I love Paul’s lyrical prose poems the most – lyrical prose poems are often difficult to find as lyrical poems by definition are bound up with the lyric or lineated poems. Here we see a different side to the prose poem, a softer poem cast in a hazy light where time floats. Both a luminous and haunting aubade, the prose poem is a room into which the reader peeks on intimacy:
They held each other at slow arms’ length in the morning’s indistinct light. So many words; a year of feeling their way. Histories no longer kept known arrangements; their hands were charged with intricacies of absence. Her breath caught for a moment, as if on a ragged edge of air. His breathing was a restless metronome. Time was a clock face seeming to stoop; or a tide of unbecoming, as if words were shaking themselves loose and resuming ancient forms. When he placed his hand on her she lifted a little before settling down.
One of the features of this book are the prose poetry sequences which are in the tradition of Allen Upward’s long prose poem sequence, “Scented Leaves –from a Chinese Jar”. Paul has two brilliant books that are prose poetry narratives or sequences – the first is The Gallery of Antique Art and more recently, Ikaros both published by Recent Work Press. His prose poem sequences in Moonlight on Oleander are deeply affecting. In one extraordinary sequence, “Insomnia”, there is a recasting of history, both personal and public as dawn breaks and the interminable night defies the sleeper. Time slows to the ticking of a clock and as it feels as if the rest of the world sleeps while – along with the narrator – we are locked out of this repose. Perhaps there is the fear of mortality here, the mind looking for a poem and not counterfeit sleep. The focus on tomorrow is Macbethian its stuttering repetition. I can’t read all of it here but I’ll read the first and last prose poems in the sequence:
“Insomnia” (first and last) p96.
It’s not so much about sleeplessness as about the ticking heart, reminding you time and again of mortality, bothering the night. You hear yourself breathing, which sounds like a form of surprise—or a punchline you ceaselessly expect. One day it won’t come and you won’t get the joke. In the meantime, night’s a poorly written narrative—if only you were a more active protagonist in your own bed. Plants at the window abrade; there must be a breeze. You hear them nudge the window; you remember everything will cease. But not yet, as the cat miaows and complains. Tomorrow the poem that’s been nagging you softly like guilt may arrive. Tomorrow there’ll be rags left of tonight. And sleep might still accost you. The world stutters through its customary unease.
If music and neat gin won’t invite sleep in, then it’s hours staring at the twisted blades of the ceiling fan. Recalcitrance floats in depletion’s drift. Eventually the world turns to light, and unconsciousness sidles in. An hour later the coffee is bitter, a sliced banana is unripe. Thoughts are pricked balloons; and feelings like ribbons tear the mind.
I want finish by reading the title poem, “Moonlight on Oleander”, which, is incidentally in a section of the book called Moonlight on Oleander which is of course in the book Moonlight on Oleander – Because when you come up with a great title – you should totally roll with it!!:
Moonlight on Oleander (p103)
He wants her poems. Not those in her book, or those that came by email, but words elicited by touch—abstractions declining to concrete nouns; sensuous adverbs clinging to backs of sentences; possum-climbs of feeling; sharp skews of observation. He wants her heartbeat to refresh old cadences, adjectives and verbs lifting from her tongue—and to be conjured as a sculptor shapes new clay. He lies at night under an oleander in memory’s wordy scattering.
I encourage you to feast on this book Moonlight on Oleander, which is now launched!
Cassandra Atherton is an award winning prose poet and Associate Professor in Writing and Literature. She was a Harvard Visiting Scholar in English in 2016 and is the current poetry editor of Westerly magazine. She can be found at http://cassandra-atherton.com/
Moonlight on Oleander is available from https://uwap.uwa.edu.au/products/moonlight-on-oleander