Charting disorder = mapping recovery “Hensol” by Kerry-Lee Powell, from Inheritance. Biblioasis, 2014
Shane Neilson has written a truly intriguing analysis of my poem “Hensol” in the latest issue of The Fiddlehead. He writes very well on the subject of mental illness, I’m looking forward to reading more. Here’s an excerpt:
“Hensol’s structure is described in classic gothic terms: it possesses: “scrolling trees”, a “boarded-up, castellated hall, “rusting gates”, and “brambles.” The poet and her lover move closer to the sanatorium, on their way noticing a nearby (and incongruous) spa that signals the encroaching, base world. Poet and lover “craned to look/through the slats and barricades into the gloomy lower rooms, strewn with metal chairs and falling plaster.”
Rather than the construction of a new, ironically-presented domestic palace or heaven that is the condo, Powell presents us with a curious counter-hell, imagining instead
the men with minds of children, moving in slow groups
from the dining hall to the outer villas, unearthing rows of onions.
Basking on warm benches, wrapped in hospital blankets,
marveling from barred windows….
Her description is beautiful and tender, a literally “warmer” take than the current and future fate of the winter-bound condo at the start of the poem. The imagined encounter with the innocent dead, the “men with minds of children” provides the poet with a strange rest that benignly haunts her for the rest of her life:
into semi-darkness, and in all the years that have followed since
I thought it was a miracle that such a place existed, that we had fallen
by chance into a rare state of grace, and learned nothing.
The problem with the past is that it is less lesson and more a present past, recourse to experience, not knowledge and not understanding. The poet remembers what was, once; an institution that was a landmark she never was admitted to, but which housed abandoned men; a literal ghost haunts the piece, Martin John, who in life was killed near the grounds of Hensol.
But what lesson is there in that death, or in any other? The men of the institutions Powell imagines are, too, dead. The deaths that spread through the poem constitute a fertile elegiac beauty that contrasts with the antiseptic living hells of spas and condominiums. The institution is compellingly portrayed in terms of its inhabitants, and the rendering of them demonstrates their grace. Grace is achieved by poem’s end for the poet herself- no matter how fleeting or little understood- because the institution cares for the poet outside its grounds. Hensol served not as a kind of text for Powell to read but as a process she needed to look into and leave in order to be changed. At La Louche, I realized that poet and speaker in this poem are the same person. The institution is an interpretive tool of her past, but only in terms of affect. The memory of this place, contrasted with other places both present and past, inhabits her dreams and waking life, and, it seems, finally rests with the memory of her ex-husband. The grace we know is provided by love. Where to go from grace, from the institution? Onward, to mutual recoveries.”
“Words ‘dreadful as the abortions of angels’, War in Literature: the work of Walter Owen, Edward Field, and Kerry-Lee Powell.
Anthony Howell wrote about my work in an essay on war poetry. I’ve included an excerpt here but the entire essay, especially the writing on Field, is wonderful and can be read in full at the Fortnightly Review.
“But war does not end with an armistice. Kerry-Lee Powell, the Anglo/Canadian poet, considers the impact her father’s war had on her in an essay entitled “Negotiating the Past in Poetry.”
“As a war veteran and longtime sufferer of post-traumatic stress disorder, my father was a tragic example of how a past event can resurface to disturb, borrowing a phrase from Eugenio Montale, ‘the usual illusion of one’s immediate surroundings. Living between two worlds and belonging fully to neither, the resulting liminality left him in a state of almost constant unease. His struggle against disintegration impressed upon me how much of what we perceive as being real is mediated by the potent but often irrational collection of myths, beliefs and past experiences circulating in our minds..”
Her poem “The Lifeboat” very effectively captures the odyssey that continued beyond 1945:
All night in his lifeboat my father sang
To keep the voices of the other men
Who cried in the wreckage from reaching him.
He sang what he knew of the requiem,
Of the hit parade and the bits of hymns,
He sang until he would never sing again,
Scalding his raw throat with sea-water
Until his ribs heaved, until the salt
Wept from his eyes on dry land,
Flecked at his lips in his squalling rages,
Streaked the sheets in his night sweats
As night after night the reassembled ship
Scattered its parts on the shore of his bed
And the lifeboat eased him out again
To drown each night among singing men.
From Inheritance, Poems by Kerry-Lee Powell (Biblioasis 2014)
The almost compulsive repetition of ‘night’ underscores the repetitive nature of traumatic nightmare, yet her work presents us with a third way of dealing with the pain of war, since she utilizes lyricism and formal stanzas to create a poem which is a verse object of great beauty. The doubling of ‘again’ and its rhyming with ‘men’, which is also repeated, as well as the use of ‘Requiem’ and ‘hymns’ all contribute to turning this poem into a litany, a species of mourning, as in a sense all poems may be.”
The Jeweller’s Eye
After picking up a copy of my chapbook “The Wreckage”, poet and critic Jefferey Donaldson at the Jeweller’s Eye did a wonderful close reading and critique of my poem “The Lifeboat”. I’m posting an excerpt below. Donaldson has some brilliant thoughts on elegiac poetry in general in this podcast that make it a worthwhile listen. I’m so grateful to him.
“It is the simplest lines that are sometimes the most beautiful, lines that in their mastery find themselves on the other side of simplicity. Somehow it’s the matter-of-fact directness of the lines, time, place and action, that disguises the depths in every sense of the experience. There’s almost an Anglo-Saxon quality to this verse, you come just short of hearing definite caesura- a pause in the middle of these lines, a sense of the poem’s rhythms made up of so many lengths of lumber.”