Several things strike me in rereading Kris Hemensley’s earlier poetry—all that was published in book form from 1964 up to and including Domestications (subtitled a selection of poems 1968-72). There’s the sense of total commitment to poetry, including an immersive familiarity with world poetry, available in English and other languages with which he is familiar. His poetry has also testified to a gift for friendship and love, alongside a sense of modesty concerning accomplishments that many poets might emulate. Readers of his later collections and the poetry blog that he conducts from his Collected Works bookshop would be quick to endorse my comments on his modesty and generosity or spirit.
I needn’t elaborate much on the latter, except to say that his bookshop is a place of pilgrimage by readers and writers who live even beyond Australia. It’s the must-visit for poetry published or translated into in English, and it has a near legendary status as a site for poetry launches and readings, drop-in conversations, meetings with writers, and for the hospitable charm of the poet and his wife Retta.
In 1966, Kris Hemensley emigrated from England where, in 1968, he began the La Mama writers’ workshop in Carlton. By 1976, he had published thirteen collections of his own poetry and prose. A list of his subsequent publications indicates at least another nine, including My Life in Theatre (CD & text: River Road Press 2009), Exile Triptych (Vagabond, 2011), and the latest Your Scratch Entourage (Cordite, 2016). Which causes me to ponder why Hemensley was omitted from the recent Puncher & Wattmann Contemporary Australian Poetry anthology surveying Australian poetry between 1990 and 2016. If the rationale of that anthology was contribution to Australian poetry over the past twenty years, I can think of no poet more deserving of inclusion.
The poems of Hemensley’s previous collection, My Life in Theatre (Mosman: River Road, 2010) were revelatory of a continuing commitment to the craft, and they bear the hallmarks of Hemensley’s characteristic concerns. The poems present distinctive topics and subjects, though their preoccupations are blended throughout the collection. Foremost are friendship (‘The Badger’) and a naturalist’s wonder at the workings of the natural world and the individual beings and forces in it (‘In the Heart of the Country’, ‘to come away with Hesiod’). Then there is the sweetness of recollection of ancestors, ancestral places, and alertness to the world’s immensity (‘Tangley Lodge’, ‘Four Haiku’). While it shows itself aware of all that makes life less than a dream (Dantesque rather than a bucolic fantasy), Hemensley’s poetry expresses delight at the gentleness that still manifests itself in people’s demeanour and speech (for example, in the title poem, and ‘My Mission’, which recapitulates his dedication to the craft).
As well as these features, there’s the fine precision in language in both descriptive and dialogic passages that will remind long-term readers of his earlier relationship with theatre and playwriting. The language is sparing, often alluding to painting or musician by way of inferring a tone or mood, when balancing earlier and later impressions of scenes revisited in fact or in memory. Hemensley’s writing drew then and still draws on a kaleidoscopic range of occupations (scallop boat fisherman, teacher, postman, booking clerk, fruit picker, railway labourer, teacher, postman, bookseller).
It also draws from a family history conducive to fascination with language: Hemensley’s maternal grandparents were Syrian and Lebanese, domiciled in Egypt. His mother along with her sisters was educated at the Lycee Francais in Alexandria, and she escaped to England with an English Royal Air Force husband. Kris was born on the Isle of Wight (off Southampton), grew up in Thornhill, a village outside Southampton. His paternal grandmother was from South Africa, from Huguenot roots, and spoke Dutch. Kris’s father was conceived in South Africa and born in Southsea, near Portsmouth.
From the beginning, Hemensley’s poetry has conveyed the appeal of English and European sites, the adventures in reading ancient and modern texts, the joyful embrace of a life in poetry, and the enthusiasm for Australia’s natural environment, its ancient history, and the strange new world of its post-invasion arrivals. In a 1976 interview with Ken Taylor for the ABC (‘Kris Hemensley’s Melbourne’, Melbourne on My Mind, Sydney: ABC, 1976), Hemensley’s delight in the city is a tonic against the dour imagery of older poetic effusions relating to the city. Furnley Maurice’s 1934 collection Melbourne Odes characteristically reflected love of old ways and chagrin at those of a machine-age city. Bursts of exuberance endorsing aspects of the new were fairly infrequent. Ode III is representative of such instants, with Slessor-like lines like the following: ‘A chemist’s sign is rolling eternally over; / “I wonder,” a flapper squeals, “what’s on tonight.” In Hemensley’s Melbourne, wonder is the keynote, along with warm acceptance of variety and profusion of produce, goods, and citizens, and ‘the camaraderie / rejoining the clans / ancestor worship’ (‘Market Poem, 1968’).
The sixteen poems of My Life in Theatre deserve a longer review than my remarks here, which serve chiefly to underscore continuities in Hemensley’s work leading up to Your Scratch Entourage. One undertone of the poems of My Life in Theatre is abiding sorrow for the death of a child, which underpins even such a landmark ‘Melbourne’ lyric as the 1995 poem ‘“as tho’ a grey bell’s blue singing”’, which concludes
a brown-eyed boy had been issued
the bell-ringer’s commission
ahead of every other candidate
and no one under Heaven would ever think to demur
a grey bell’s blue singing describes it
every second resonation soft as the first ringing’s echo
urging early morning lamentation
beneath the white cloud overall.
Another, from My Life in Theatre, observes that
is the life of the mind
visited upon the
what an overseer
its necessary complications
upon simple breaths
into the agonising
Love & Regret
(“what doesn’t go away”)
The plotting of the poem’s statements, single phrase or sometimes just a word per line, brings to mind Hemensley’s early question and answer conducted by letter with Alan Loney, where Loney remarked of his own technique (subsequently evident in a 2015 Cordite publication, Crankhandle: Notebooks November 2010-June 2012):
I have a particular problem in that I am an inconscionably slow reader. Literally, word by word. In fact, from my diary:
that’s it, I read
at the pace of
That pleases me
I never did like
the idea of
Like Loney, Hemensley is meticulous, as the poems of My Life in Theatre attest. The second to final sections of the poem in that collection, “after boy dies”, written in August 2003, conclude with:
after boy dies rain scours yard
of the battle-scene
he was centre of—
oregano resumes shape—
trampled earth perks up—
next day bag windfall
of paramedics’ discards–
keep watch where boy died—
speak to him at night
as though angel in a cloud—
leave or stay I say—
no anger or shame—
fly as only the dead fly—
die never again.
This poem, outside its heartbreaking significance for those who have experienced similar loss, is one of the most acutely sustained and controlled expressions of grief in recent times. Hemensley’s penultimate poem (“our dead are forgotten in the heart of us”) belies its first line:
Our dead are forgotten in the heart of us—
to be recovered anywhen.
Aside of time I suppose
nothing else so constant or
secure. For them I mean.
(Mother Hen I’ll always be!)
and so on to a magnificent conclusion, which you’ll need to consult in the text that accompanies the superb recording of Hemensley’s reading of the entire collection. If you wonder where to get the CD and text, go to www.riverroadpress.net It’s a bargain.
And so to the most recent Hemensley collection, Your Scratch Entourage, a book of superb appearance and feel, like all the Cordite series. As with the River Road publication, Hemensley has been blessed in the attention his publishers have lavished on his work, as indeed they should be. Cordite’s Alisa Dinallo has reproduced as front-cover design an illustration by Lily Mae Martin, of a curious fox gazing back at the reader, while a line from Hemensley’s opening poem (‘Frank & Me’, first scheduled for publication in 1975 but withheld till the present) sets the mood of welcoming hospitality: ‘there’s food on the table and books which may interest you?’ Everything about Hemensley, his friends and his family, should be and is of interest, for the manner in which he pays tribute to their reciprocal gifts of friendship and love to him.
Elegy and celebration keep fellowship throughout the book. The title poem celebrates the Tyneside poet Barry MacSweeney (1948-200), whose poetry shares, I think, Hemensley’s sense of exaltation of the natural world (of which more, anon) and chagrin at its destruction, and at the diminution of community. Nicholas Johnson described MacSweeney as a ‘lone wolf’, and ‘boy wonder’, and MacSweeney’s often brilliant turns of phrase underline the intensity of his vision and sense of belonging to the English poetic tradition, as in the following lines:
There is so much land in Northumberland. The sea
Taught me to sing
the river to hold my nose. When
it rains it rains glue.
Chatterton’s eyes were stuck to mountains.
He saw fires where other men saw firewood.
I don’t suppose it’s pure coincidence that MacSweeney’s posthumous collection has some kinship with Hemensley’s most in terms of presentation: published in 2003, MacSweeney’s book is titled Wolf Tongue: Selected Poems 1965-2000. Its cover has a photograph of a brightly wolf looking squarely back at the camera, and the title of the book is placed vertically to the left, so the wolf image is prominent, as is the case with Hemensley’s collection. Tribute takes visual as well as literary form. In quasi-biblical cadence (also embraced by MacSweeney), Hemensley writes in his title poem (composed a year after MacSweeney’s death),
O what a strange flower is death
It grows thick & fast beside the path
everyone walks to town on
Its bloom is like nothing else on earth.
‘Your Scratch Entourage’, p. 21.
The closely descried and described natural world surfaces also in ‘Blackberrying’, a poem dedicated to Anthony Lawrence, another poet of metaphorically, perhaps and certainly literal wild places. Hemensley recounts three brothers’ adventure of blackberrying in Lorna Doone country, an adventure that leaves ‘the echo of childhood & childhood’s fertile acquaintance’ to such a synaesthesic pitch that he concludes with ‘purple stains my fingers purple stains my quivering lip’.
There are more such moments of identification with the natural world, whether that inhabited by the Australian or English magpie. What stands out for me in the collection is the depth of attachment to both the English poetic tradition of writing in and about nature as much as the endless revelation of nature itself. Hemensley acknowledges the attraction to avant-gardism of the American and European-inflected varieties that excited him and other small-press and ‘New Australian Poetry’ practitioners of the 1960s and 70s: such poets as appeared in mimeographed and other small magazines like Our Glass, Crosscurrents, New Poetry, The Ear in the Wheatfield, The Merri Creek or Nero—and the early anthologies Applestealers (edited by Robert Kenny, Outback Press, 1974) through to The New Australian Poetry (edited by John Tranter, Makar, 1979). There’s little nostalgia for such ancient thraldom to some communal influences of the period (Zukovsky, Jabès, Olson, Creeley and so on), in Hemensley’s poetry then or now. Rather, there is what he called, in a memorable book title in 1975, ‘the Poem of the Clear Eye’, a wider ranging, more fascinated scanning of the entire field of possibility. So when Hemensley revisits his earlier English towns, villages and fields, it’s not surprising that he carries with him to the grave of T.E. Lawrence (he of ‘Arabia’), a copy of Charles Buckmaster’s poems, thereby commemorating two loved poets. The long commemorative sequence ‘Buckmaster’ reinforces Hemensley’s claim in the poem ‘these times in England’, that ‘i am a country man / as I never knew growing up’ (p. 49).
The Buckmaster series recollects country scenes in Victoria associated with Buckmaster, together with scenes recollected in earlier walking tours in England. Sometimes Australian and English scenes and impressions are syncopated in the same poems. Elsewhere, whole poems are given over to contemplation of one landscape experienced earlier and again more recently so the poet seems to experience a different country to that he recalls from childhood or youth. The two ‘southern ocean’ poems that occur early in the sequence juxtapose the indifference of nature to humans, and the human effort to comprehend reality; in the first (p. 34),
again & again
the Southern Ocean
oblivious to the approaching storm
again the Southern Ocean
that human witness
may as a well not be
and I the absentee
upon the limestone.
In the second poem (p. 35), Hemensley writes,
even if the cliff face dropped clean away
looking wouldn’t bring anyone closer
’s nothing to be seen
though most of our lives
looking for it.
Hemensley reflects on Buckmaster’s death from several angles — translating a German poem ‘Spuren’ (‘tracks’, p. 36) to suggest ‘tracks along the shore / disappear almost as fast as they’re formed’, while an ensuing poem (p. 37) reflects on Buckmaster and Lawrence at once:
not to know his death
was the hero’s way
that he died in such a way
inspires the devotee’s death
to know his death
was the devotee’s way
has he lost the way
who knows his death?
the hero in his life & death
inspired the devotee’s way
though it isn’t the devotee’s way
to make of life a living death.
Both the foregoing poems are dated 1990; while others in the series bear more recent dates, one, ‘It is not as I remembered’ bearing signs of revision: 1976, 1978, 2015. Taken together, these sections of the ‘Buckmaster’ sequence evidence an ongoing fascination with the young Australian poet who took his own life in 1972 and who wrote a poem ‘To TEL (a tribute)’, that ends with the end ‘I have reached / out in touch, for you, your passion; / and I shall know less / the pain’. Hemensley’s poem is one of the more interestingly structured elegies of recent times, and I hope to see it given due acknowledgment in more tangible form than a review.
I don’t want to give the impression that elegy, though a strong suit, in the Buckmaster and Gurney poems (another tribute sequence, in memory of the World War I poet Ivor Gurney, again provoked in large measure by refamiliarisation with Gurney’s English countryside) is Hemensley’s predominant mode. Other long sections that make up Your Scratch Entourage, such as the initial ‘Frank & Me’, or the ‘Millennium Poems’ that tread on its heels, and the terrific theatrical sonnet series ‘More Midsummer Night’s Dream than Dante’, which riffs on several variations on dreams, waking up (and waking up to oneself), and which kisses off ‘Death’s surrogates /… to cheers from floor & / gallery in an English none understands / although each one extracts their own capital’ (p. 60). The sequence is witty, amusingly self-dramatising and self-deprecatory if not self-mocking. Some of the poems’ final lines end with brief injunctions: ‘Escape! Now!’ and ‘Good larf then cark’; ‘Got off Scot-free’ and ‘Groan & grin’. It’s a race through Shakespearean comedy’s edgy dance away from tragedy.
Sonnets take another theatrical turn in the second-to-last section, ‘Harbour’, six brisk sonnets that ring changes on aspects of maritime settings as portrayed by British and other artists. The first, a vignette of fishing trawler crews’ tribalism, invokes Stanley Spencer’s paintings, and especially his wartime studies (a English exhibition of which, ‘Heaven in a Hell of War’, was shown in 2013). Sussex painter John Craxton, New Zealand expatriate artist Frances Hodgkins and her friend Elsie Barling collectively inform the fifth poem, and Hodgkins’ ‘airy-fairies’ prompt memory of the dazzling effects of Shakespearian transformations in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the final poem, Hemensley views English landscape as though through Hodgkins’ eyes in the final poem where he recalls an early walk that took in Corfe Castle (Hodgkins’ studio). The mood is ruminative, brooding on art’s verisimilitude. The poignancy includes the poet’s reflections on his own expatriate status, though the book concludes on a celebratory note in the 1991 poem ‘Fox’, again invoking Stanley Spencer’s visionary paintings. Hemensley depicts Spencer’s ‘thought of Jesus’ as ‘that wide-eyed simple man / on all fours in the grass ogling / Jerusalem lilies & Marguerite daisies’. As though to emphasise the joy of vision and art, Hemensley cites the painter John Glover, ‘reporting home after long years Down Under’, in words that also apply to himself:
‘I have been in Australia
where I migrated at the height of my power …
& I have seen … & I have seen’
On this exuberant visionary note, unifying all that has preceded it, the book concludes. Readers will, I think, share that note out of gratitude for what Hemensley has accomplished in the collection. It marks Hemensley’s fifty years of engagement with and contribution to Australian poetry, and I consider it as a further gift to his adopted country and to poetry in English. Congratulations and greater recognition are well overdue. Congratulations are also due to his publisher, Kent MacCarter at Cordite Books, for the elegant presentation of a poet of great personal modesty and generosity of spirit.
Kris Hemensley and Alan Loney, ‘Question and Response’, 3 Blind Mice, ed. Kris Hemensley, Walter Billeter & Robert Kenny, Melbourne: Rigmarole of the Hours & The Ear in the Wheatfield & The Paper Castle, 1977, p. 11.
Kris Hemensley. My Life in Theatre (CD & 24-pages text of 16 poems). Mosman: River Road Press 2009.
Kris Hemensley. Exile Triptych. Sydney: Vagabond, 2011.
Nicholas Johnson. ‘Barry MacSweeney—An Appreciation’ http://www.pores.bbk.ac.uk/1/Nicholas%20Johnson,%20%20’Barry%20MacSweeney%20-%20An%20Appreciation’.htm accessed 21 February 2017.
Alan Loney. Crankhandle: Notebooks November 2010-June 2012. Melbourne: Cordite, 2015.
Barry McSweeney. Wolf Tongue: Selected Poems 1965-2000. Hexham: Bloodaxe, 2003.
Ken Taylor (ed). ‘Kris Hemensley’s Melbourne’, Melbourne on My Mind. Sydney: ABC, 1976, pp. 49-63, esp. ‘Market Poem’ excerpt, pp. 50-52.
Michael Sharkey lives in country Victoria. His latest publication is The Poetic Eye: Occasional Writings 1982-2012, edited by Gordon Collier. Leiden & Boston: Brill/Rodopi, 2017.
Photo credit of Winifred Belmont.