The Impossible Jigsaw

Stuart Henson uses long views, too, though he moves within history rather than outside it.  There are pieces from Roman Britain, the 16th and 17th centuries, the American Indians, and China: about as far as you can get from Dooley’s strategy of garnering the here-and-now.  The stories he brings back are often affecting and the settings well evoked.  If I say that I don’t quite see what they add up to, that is only to echo the words Henson puts in the mouth of an ageing Romano-British landowner in the title poem: ‘the old mosaic still won’t piece—the world won’t fit.’
‘The danger of enlisting distant personae is that they remain simply masks.  In a five-part sequence on the last days of Katherine of Aragon, the queen seems only a peg on which to hang a plangent mood and some heady writing-up of atmosphere:

On Bygram’s Lane an owl folds dusk in its wings
Detects, attenuated, distant, as the wind dissipates, rustle of steps.

Leaf-like the lanterns spatter in the hedge:
The process of the slow cortège swayed by a latten cross is gilded thus.

More solid to the touch are two wartime poems, ‘Scarlet Fever 1941’ and ‘Going Home’.  The speaking voice is still Henson’s, but other voices, those of the subjects (parents?) seem close to breaking through.
‘Away from his historical themes, Henson can be an acute observer of details in his poems of country life.  His ‘Poacher in January’ comes close at one point to being lost in a thicket of images—’The rain has pasted down and spread the clods / And spattered up a gritty wash of starlings / That wheel and furl a hushed smoke.’— but it emerges to hit the mark with a beautiful crisp ending: ‘Blue barrel tilts; light earths along his gun.’


‘His title poem and a sequential group of poems entitled ‘World’s End’, based upon the community run by Nicholas Ferrar at Little Gidding, are superb.  Henson has a feel for narrative verse and it is in this significantly difficult form that he should concentrate his evident talents.  One feels from this, his first book, that Henson could become a major poet in this area of the art.’


(Virginia Ferrar)

Her palm coved like a spoon—
a handful of silk-seed,
four score of grains,
warming against her skin’s heat.

They will hatch soon—
and her heart budding
wise as the mulberry.
Crab apple, poplar, oak, cherry…
a green secret:
each sheathed bud
each single shoot
as it folds out its cramp
is speaking a part of it.

Wisdom—the pure silk word!
And these motes
on the arteries of leaf,
a crawling Braille.
Sleeping, eating as one
they grow through their moults
as a class might grow
through the grades of school.

Six weeks—a girl’s eyes
in the span of two moons:
the great white worms
are swaying, swaying
to find their perch.
Like a tale of elves
they will spin and spin.
For their eight more days
they will treadle skeins—
to their holocaust
in a pot of lye.

In this proficiency
she taught herself.
For the cycle’s wealth
she has kept the best
of the last cocoons.
As they tunnel out,
the flake-grey flies
are falling about the room
like ash.

On the line
of that same white palm
they stir and couple
The male she blows
aside in a quick flittering;
the female, shrouded
for pregnancy, is stowed
away in a linen womb.

When the girl looks up
from the wings of her moths,
she has heard
in the dusk of trees
the late bell
calling the house
to prayer.

Her God is reeling her into his hands
on the fine unbroken thread
of her life,
by a bidding skill
by the sleight of each turn.


Stuart Henson (from The Impossible Jigsaw, Peterloo Poets, 1985)


To buy The Impossible Jigsaw at the discounted price of £5 inc. p&p, or together with Ember Music for £7.50 please contact the author using this link.

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