Solace, Selected Poems 1978-2017 by Graham Henderson, The Lover’s Press, 2021
Solace is a small collection given it has been winnowed from close to forty years of work. This either implies that Graham Henderson has not written many poems or that the selection has been extremely judicious.
However, Henderson’s biography states that he has been writing full-time since 1978 and during those years has published a novel, The Mountain, which was shortlisted for the Age Book of the Year award, two collections of short stories, novellas and numerous plays, only nine of which he has considered worth keeping. There is also apparently a large amount of work that is yet to be published.
It his hard not to respect someone who has had the courage to devote themselves full-time to writing in Australia given the hand to mouth existence that this kind of life often ensures. And judging by much of Henderson’s poetry, his life has not been an easy one. Indeed, it appears to have been a constant search for a light at the end of the tunnel. The first line of the first poem in the book, ‘Song of the Heart’, states, “No wisdom but the avoidance of pain.”
When I read these poems, it strikes me that they need to be heard out aloud by the voice of the person who wrote them. The voice in my head cannot do justice to the experiences described because they express a beauty, hardship, sadness, injustice and pain that feels to be uniquely his.
Henderson seems to be constantly sending missives like messages in bottles to unnamed people – possibly lost or unrequited loves – that will be effaced by time before they are read. Consider this stanza from the poem, ‘One last letter from Nowhere’,
Sometimes I arrived at places
in the middle of the night
And I had nothing with me
Nothing to write on
But I still wrote you letters
Traced out those endless letters
Traced them out with my finger:
On the walls/On the misty windows
On the dust of floorboards
On cold white pillows
And locked doors…
These lines, like the lines of many of Henderson’s poetry, are almost biblical, incantatory.
Henderson is reminiscent of South American poets such as Pablo Neruda with his heightened, surrealistic and passionate imagery. Take these lines from the next stanza for example,
There was a place where the rain never stopped
And I used to stand in the doorway of the hut
And write you letters on the falling rain
Long begging letters on the rain as it fell
In long, grey sheets. Then when the sun came out,
I’d kneel in the mud and try to read them
In the pools of rainwater…”
There is great deal of sad and beautiful hopelessness in those last two lines. But like Neruda, the caveat is that reading a lot of this kind of poetry could feel self-indulgent: like listening to Joni Mitchell’s entire Blue album alone in one sitting.
The spare, prosy, enigmatic aspects of Henderson’s poetry are what I enjoy most. It’s “tip of the iceberg” qualities. His poem, ‘The Denunciation’, is a case in point. Below I have reproduced it in its entirety and as it appears on the page:
Pavel – if that is his name – has been denounced.
I remember nothing else of the dream
Just a desperate recollection of squandered names
Names no-one has ever possessed this side of sleep.
Somehow Pavel’s guilt is carried in these syllables
But Arvi was the name he went under in that other life
Convalescing by the sea in the city of…
In the seaside city of…
His inquisitors are weary of his explanations.
He tries to remember the woman he loved
In the city by the sea
But he is lost now in the harrowing mystery of names.
This poem is a psychoanalyst’s dream. But as it turns out it is actually based on a dream. Firstly, we are introduced to a character called Pavel and then quickly informed that Pavel may not be his name. We then learn that Pavel has been denounced but we never find out why and also that, “…Arvi was the name that he went under in that other life/Convalescing by the sea…” in an unnamed city. Again, Henderson uses another strategy that he repeats throughout the book: the strategy of repetition. Somehow he is always trying to reinforce or recover information that has somehow been lost but that he wants either the reader or an anonymous loved one to remember.
The Denunciation is a lovely, understated parable that quietly evokes.
There is much to enjoy about this collection both at the level of the sentence but also entire poems. I have never read any of Henderson’s prose or seen his plays but his poetry makes me want too. That, to my mind, is a positive endorsement.
– Mark Mahemoff
Mark Mahemoff is an Australian poet, critic and psychotherapist. He has published four books of poetry and his work is represented internationally in a variety of journals and anthologies. His most recent book is Urban Gleanings (Ginniderra Press, 2017). His next book will be published by Puncher & Wattmann in November.