Ember Music

Don’t let the old fashioned title, Ember Music, put you off Stuart Henson’s second collection.  It deserves to be widely read.  The best of these poems are fresh reworkings of timeless themes, as finely tuned as anything in John Burnside:

… the sky’s blue is fragile,
holy and cold,
where one star lifts
like an aumbry lamp
in that vault, in that emptiness.
The horizon’s pinks go rosy, go dim,
a colour as thin as paraffin…
While the planet hangs like a crucifix
of acetylene
On the night’s brink.

He has a sharp ear for the music of mortality, hence the ‘tin-foil threnody’ of raked-out coals in the hearth—and an unusually acute perception of childhood as ‘ a grave and separate thing, /  Solemn like church, profound, soon to be gone’.


Ember Music…  ‘wields rhyme and metre and an unforced internal music to describe regret, change, decay and resurgence in a most engaging manner… From those ‘uncomplicated days our childhoods pledged’ to the embers of all of day that’s fallen through and spent’, Henson lets us see and feel his plangencies through the ‘honey-depths’ of a water butt or ‘a vast arched window on the sky / that swifts skim screaming through’—the last, read aloud, quite frighteningly mimetic.’

ADAM THORPE —The Observer

Elegy for an Old Carpet

When they began to cut them into shapes
of rooms, carpets stopped travelling.
New carpets spread unblemished over cracks
and gaps, and bland as chat-show hosts
declare: This is your future.  Start again.
The old ones coils their secrets, stains
and dark mottlings, pock-marks of chairs.
They hoard their spillages, and those
unfaded squares of time trapped under furniture;
and doggedly they still refuse to turn
to hide the paths our daily footsteps wear.
I shall be sorry when this one has gone,
the Wilton from an ancient aunt
we set our newly-wedded prospects on.
I like it when the morning sun
makes windows slowly and moves round,
and when in lamplight it becomes a ring
of ivies, blown leaves, whisperings.
Old carpets have their share in days
remembered and forgotten, cast away.
I sing their praise, their ends and beginnings:
all worn-out, baggy, threadbare things.

from Ember Music,  Peterloo Poets

The final section of his Ember Music deals with such matters as old carpets and objects on washing-lines.  Even so, there is more to them than a post-modernist taste for domestic accidentals and appearances.  The poem Rats , for instance, noses its way towards a disturbing reminiscence of  1984: ‘ In corners, dark, unconsciously, / big brothers thrive / on grievances, / and grow like debts.’  The endings of many of his poems strike home unexpectedly.  The first, and one of the best, poems in this collection, The Music of Water, has Adam discovering water and its communicative music: ’And he is risen / Now, a man. Ready to fall and be cursed.’  the equivocal function of water-music here—is it the consolation or cause of his fall?—gives the poem an unusual resonance.

Another lingeringly powerful poem is The Heron in which the finding of a starkly reduced dead heron brings together a couple whose relationship is about to disintegrate. The poem is spoken by the woman—an effective stroke of cross-gendering that recalls Larkin’s Wedding Wind.  Henson’s The Newly-Weds also carries a slight reminder of Larkin’s poem, though his ending ‘They sit by the hearth in her mother’s chairs / feeling oddly face-to-face’ strikes quite a different though not less reverberant note.

It has to be said that there are other Larkinesque echoes.  ‘As if time lost might somehow be regained (In the Museum) and ‘to take the measure of what might have been / against the kind of life you settled for’ (The Price) do sound rather familiar.  But for the most part Henson is very much his own man.  His poems are strongly muscled, nervily responsive to his environment, and individually shaped.  As already intimated, he has the confidence to let a poem take him to its own conclusion.  The words come freshly but never loosely; you might call him an earth-bound visionary.  Poems like The Bee Nativity, Ember Music and in particular The Difference, with its briefly miraculous effect of sun in a winter wood, all have this quality of illuminating the ordinary.  Such virtues were apparent in his  first Peterloo collection The Impossible Jigsaw, and their continuing presence confirms the promise, if not yet perhaps sufficiently extending the horizons, of that under-noticed book.’

GORDON SYMES—Outposts Issue 182

To order Ember Music (72pp; ISBN  1 871471 41 9  pub price.£7.95) at the discounted price of £5 inc p&p, or to order both Ember Music and The Impossible Jigsaw together for just £7.50 inc p&p, contact the author.

Comments are closed.