Hélène’s debut collection, ‘The Plumb Line’ was joint winner of the Hedgehog Press Full Fat Poetry Collection Competition 2020. This review was first published in The High Window.
£10.99 Hedgehog Press ISBN 978-1913499334. Also signed copies available from the author www.helenedemetriadespoetry.co.uk
Hélène Demetriades chose the perfect title for her award-winning, first collection: its cover shows a simple plumb line that drops vertically into the depths of her life in every poem. Divided into three parts, the poems explore her childhood before she was sent to boarding school and afterwards, motherhood and then the last years of her parents’ lives. The biographical narrative drives this collection, fuelled by suspense and deep compassion. The divisions have the effect of adding weight to the plumb line, each poem being a small accretion.
Her choice of language is direct and simple, her fearless voice speaks from heart and soul:
‘On a pebble beach draining into grey sea
a place so desolate I feel my life has died
I long for the mountains
the green belly of my village.’
In a poem tellingly entitled ‘Appeasement’she gives three examples in short stanzas where she manages to dodge being assaulted. Her final No, I won’t do that setting a boundary in a perilous situation. Tellingly these are the only words the child speaks.
The events in these poems start innocuously enough but tension accumulates as the fragile vulnerability of this lonely child, navigating the world from the background of what proves to be such an insecure home, is revealed. Even the reserved mother recognises this in ‘Letter from Home’ where she states, ‘not having Daddy around would be a relief’ while she herself is trapped alone at home with him. It’s ironic that a child needs a secure home background to survive well at boarding school. Furthermore, we read in ‘The Aluminium Grater’:
‘Mum is the star I revolve around.
She leans into the grater daily
Bolstering herself, I spin away.’
The tone is set from the outset where the poet’s thumb (the speaker in this poem) provides no comfort because ‘she skinned me / with her teeth’ so it is ‘sheathed in a black leather / thumbstall / tied to her wrist’. This poem illustrates from the very start how her line endings often feel like little gasps or sharp inhalations. They are as precise and effective as the deftly placed word chimes.
There’s menace in each poem, rendered more powerful by its understatement. In ‘Playing Dead’ we read about the tortures perpetrated by boarding school companions who ‘squeeze toothpaste into my nostrils’ compared to a memory from home when
‘….. I fell out of bed
too afraid to cry out to my mother
who slept next to an ogre.
I lay on the floor
squeezing my anus
tight as a rosebud.’
Is it because of the father’s frequent rages are to be avoided at all costs? The extent of his abuse is never revealed but remains a looming presence throughout. His outbursts are cruel and he stones a blackbird caught in the raspberry cage so seems capable of anything.
Along with suspense and trepidation the reader experiences a dark wit and often a self-deprecating humour. The effect is often surprising as in ‘My Sister Takes a Happy Family Photo’ where she describes herself:
‘My eyes are half-closed
in a plump face,
bright bag and shaggy coat
spilling over my arm
head jerked back
like a horse refusing to jump.’
or in this poem entitled ‘Whitegates (1)’ about the family home:
‘The playroom houses the dog and black and white TV,
the kitchen a chequered floor
where I cower, a small pawn, arm across my face.’
Demetriades’ courage shines in every poem. Clear-eyed and lucid she documents in this first section her father’s unfatherly utterances and her mother’s lonely helplessness except for the (one) ‘time Mum has intervened’ in ‘On Being Sent Away to Boarding School’. The last poem in this section captures how her father seems unable to express affection without it being sexual in ‘My Funny Valentine’:
‘… you send me a Valentine
of a man baby holding a heart
over his genitals and he’s blushing
and the card is saying,
IF YOU CAN’T BE GOOD
BE MINE. ‘
Later in life he quips that bees may pollinate her and the taxi driver ‘will think I’m your beau, (although excuse me, you’re 80), you are my father.’
A vein of menace and unease runs through the second section, ‘Gravity’, too, from the difficult childbirth and a dash to hospital in ‘28 Hours’:
‘Clutching the back seat of the car
I stare out at the world tuning without me.’
to ‘Keeping You Close’ where,
‘That night on the ward dark figures loom
in spectral succession at the end of my bed
admonishing me for keeping you
tucked to my chest.’
Although I feel there’s more to explore here in a later collection, I admire the poet’s choice of irregular stanzas. It gives the feel of words tumbling out in a rush, that there is no order, that everything find its own level. And yet these are short poems that are packed with nuance. Another skill is her dexterous use of ordinary things which carry significance beyond themselves. Nothing seems extraneous in these spare, compressed poems where the words have been wisely chosen. For example, in ‘Goodies’ her daughter comes home with doughnuts and broccoli from her Sunday morning job which reminds the poet of her father returning home with walnuts, pistachios and Swiss cheese. The last two lines strike deep:
‘Every evening the kitchen was filled
with his bounty and tyranny.’
The final section, ‘Departure’, the poet and her aging mother have reached a quiet trustfulness in the first poem entitled, ‘In Solitude Together’:
You at the river’s edge, your walking stick
and painful hip, me wading to the spot
where the rivers join, turning my head,
catching your eye. This is our church –
the quietness of the river’s gush and pour,
the sullen rocks, a mother’s longing
for her daughter beyond the hailstone chatter.
The eye is introduced here and remains a repeating image throughout this section when the father’s eyes are hooded like a hawk’s; do not close in sleep and then ‘break the surface’ and later pulse with light; then become ‘polyhedrons’ after death. The language of the body and its basic needs creates tenderness.
Ultimately there is sympathy and compassion for her dying father. In the title poem the plumb line’s weight or gravity, its conscious work, provides the compassion needed to become the ‘safe-keeper’. Every breath becomes important, a counterpoint with the echo of death. In ‘Final Call’ she receives his kiss and’ feels the us of everything’. In ‘Daddykins’ she writes,
‘I stroke your cheeks,
whisper you sweet nothings,
sing you broken bits of nursery rhyme.
Conjure you into a loving daddy
with my breath.’
And in the very next poem, ‘Familial Intimacy’ his rage surfaces again:
‘We are chugging to your death
on the panting rhythm of your breath…
… you’re hopeless! you hiss
You are the death adder, Acanthopis
I flee your bedside. You slip back
into your body’s fevered decoupling.’
While he lies on the ‘frontline of death’ she sings Buddhist mantras for him, watching him leave as he breathes ‘in and out, in and out’ until his last inhalation from which he ‘take(s) wing’. These elegies are sharpened in the final poem by the ambivalence of the poet’s feelings where spaces between the words accept wordlessness in the face of this man’s life and death and the face that she’s been concentrating on throughout these last poems finally crystallises itself: ‘I’m gazing at the mask of a Greek monster’.