Jane Routh reviews The Guest Room by Diana Hendry (Worple Press, 2022)
I’ll start with a spoiler for Diana Henry’s opening poem because it exemplifies key facets in her writing so well. You know where you are with its straightforward title, ‘Skara Brae’ and maybe already have Orcadian weather and Neolithic structures in mind for her to undercut with her opening line “All it takes is an Alice moment”. “An Alice moment” – that phrase accomplishes so much: shrinks the size, takes us underground and out of this world. Yes, we do have description of “house number seven” when her “huswif’s eye takes over” – it’s a perfect touch, using the Scots word here, as she notes “the stone dresser / (not much dusting)”. The other six dwellings are a “neighbourly village” and they too are in a delightful setting before her final line “I’ll take it. Move in yesterday” clicks into place, re-casting the poem as an impossible back-in-time response estate-agent-style.
This is a short poem – only twelve lines – but it moves with such apparent ease over its ground you don’t notice the sleights of hand that get you to the place where you find yourself smiling. That’s true of many of the poems: they’re well-made and deliver on their endings, often with what those who praise her writing on the cover agree is a ‘wry’ humour. Hers is a humour both sharp and affectionate. For example, assessing all the ‘Smokers’ in her family, she ends:
Was it henna or nicotine
that turned Grandma brown?
The poems are arranged in clusters of related themes – I’m avoiding calling them sections as they are neither named or numbered (with the exception of one set from a previous pamphlet, Where I Was). Instead, they’re divided by a brief pause in the form of a blank verso. This works well: just enough of a pause before moving along to a group of poems on animals, then illnesses, childhood family life, or another for adult family life, others on the process of looking back.
Hers is a humour both sharp and affectionate
Dog lovers will love ‘The Last Dog’, “In his old age, New Age. / Indiscriminately loving”, or ‘Mulligan’, of whom she can write “Wasn’t it rather that our hearts went with him / over the garden wall and away?” And somehow Hendry manages to assure us we should have a better opinion of an octopus than Aristotle or Victor Hugo, in spite of “The slime of its skin a cross between snot and drool” – though she’s less keen on ‘Talking Toad’.
Two groups of poems on family life, one looking back to her own childhood, the other considering life for her own children sit well alongside each other. ‘Mother in the kitchen’ is cooking, carrying coals (and smoking) but suddenly Diana Hendry’s call from the present bursts into that past life with “Mother! Mother! / Let’s get out of here. Put on / your lippy and your glad rags”. I’m especially taken with ‘Hoylake 3594’, a poem about a first telephone in the house, which opens “I am the only one who understands it”, its purpose, of course, being teenage complaint to a friend.
We meet many and various neighbours who populate contemporary life: a man in a cafe, unable to bring himself to leave, an old lady needing drops in her eyes, tenants of the downstairs flat, the “bad boy of the yoga retreat”. Not all the poems are light-hearted though: Diana Hendry’s well-tempered writing can also address more serious subject matter, as in ‘Writing to the President of Tunisia’, in which stanzas alternate writing an essay with writing a protest letter about a Tunisian prisoner.
Not all the poems are light-hearted though: Diana Hendry’s well-tempered writing can also address more serious subject matter
Almost at the end of the book comes a long poem, ‘The Quest’. There’s a shift here from poems which deal in experience and seem likely to have readers nodding, to a poem with an autobiographical ring, written in the first person plural, which could be a plural for sisters or even a more generational autobiography, as it looks back over life from “trees brushing the nursery window” on to the “first hero” (and quite a few more after him), through music, libraries, religious denominations each of which in turn feels inadequate, towards longing (the italics are the poem’s):
To begin again, from scratch, as in the American dream,
unable to throw off a sense of haunted unbelonging.
Where to? Where to?
‘The Quest’ seems a little less successful than the shorter poems, or perhaps it’s simply that I’m finding it too much of a switch, in a different register from the shorts. It does, though, have wonderful passages, such as
a moment when the fingers know the music
off by heart and the heart has gone into
the fingers and the words have a life
of their own that is not yours but given by you
and also given to you and these moments,
rare and marvellous, are
[ … ]
by necessity, unsustainable.
The books ends with ‘Nearby’, a tender love poem of contentment for her life now. She (inevitably, I want to say) attends to the overlooked “comfort and delight” in a relationship: “listening in / to you laughing at a radio programme / in the kitchen”, that phrase “listening in” neatly echoing the poem’s ending:
[…] And then there’s listening out –
for your step on the stair, your key
in the door, you coming home.
These poems easily pass their RAT (Read Aloud Test). You don’t falter or lose track. I’ve not read a book like this for some time, one I could give to non-poet friends knowing they would recognise much in the down-to-earth and everyday life written here and relish the nimble wit and good cheer of the writing.
Jane Routh has published four poetry collections and a prose book, Falling into Place (about rural north Lancashire) with Smith|Doorstop. Circumnavigation (2002) was shortlisted for the Forward prize for Best First Collection, Teach Yourself Mapmaking (2006) was a Poetry Book Society recommendation and she has won the Cardiff International and the Strokestown International Poetry Competitions. Jane Routh’s latest book is Listening to the Night (2018) and a new pamphlet, After, is available from Wayleave Press (2021).