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“Yellow Bliss and Death a Flower.
A review of Kris Hemensley’s Your Scratch Entourage

Cordite Publishing Inc., Carlton South, Victoria, 2016, 96pp.
ISBN 978-0-9752492-5-3, P $32.

Perhaps we begin with Ted Hughes and “The Thought Fox”; and then take that starless night, the steady assured tread of “something … alive” and “more near/ …/ the loneliness” – a foxes paws across snow, the “neat” but inevitably sooty footprints left behind “now/ and again now, and now, and now” – to read again, the brilliance of the darkness that is poetry. Kris Hemensley’s Your Scratch Entourage has this fox as its captive, its emblem of the aliveness of thoughts that come from a landscape kept resplendently dewy and dark by that one candle of selfhood, the past, present and future. Toying with what Lucas Weschke describes (in the Introduction) as the notion of “incomplete thoughts”, Hemensley’s own thought fox thinks of everything, from the night it was Hughes genius to the time it was passively watching “the talented young men & women kicking through the leaves/ pile upon pile”. This is the place of the poem, the study of “heath or street” that readers, writers, ghosted and living share as “common property” and in doing so, hunt the fox.

Hemensley’s words are small, nothing capitalised except a poem’s title, yet they are so expertly gilded by punctuation this is a musical littleness, a quietly voiced note made large by the act of recording. The poems here are for their reader and Hemensley disowns his words by lowering their case. He lives with his fox (“the private wildness”) outside the book though, these being his chosen words, he gives them to us like a room, a woodland or a rose of love “that leads us on”. And these gifts are ideas, recollections, perspectives, viewpoints of a poet who was born in 1946 in the Isle of Wight, UK, spent his early childhood in Alexandria, Egypt and emigrated to Melbourne, Australia in 1966. Compellingly, this geographical mosaic of the place Hemensley calls home gives one the sense that bent neck to the page which completes the poetic act, left behind the light of his soul in a moment (“eyes being the window of the soul” Shakespeare).

To visit Your Scratch Entourage is to visit a hub of poets, artists, friends and family members woven and intertwined by their associations with Hemensley. Even the sections which distinguish the poems as related by theme seem more like visits to communities which together become so multinational one has the impression the poet does indeed like walking: “Ten thousand miles out of town – in either direction the paradox – neither’s quite a home from home”. Yet wherever Hemensley travels the journeys and stays are earnest and exacting in engaging with a human being. Thoughts feed thought in these enduring and intimate conversations, “the Dorset green singing an English history”, “trees bend [ing] toward an implied point” or posthumously reliving the darkness “the etched light/of what the poem calls/ remembrance’s crescent/ since breaking daylight/ is all of that shape which is also the shape/ of Charles’s [Buckmaster] face”.

For over 35 years the name Kris Hemensley was synonymous with the specialist poetry bookstore Collected Works now permanently closed. For this reason, I asked him recently what he considers to be his professional title, that is, would it not be accurate given his new home hobby shop of books to call him a poet/ bookseller/ archivist. But he insisted “bookseller” was sufficient enough. I can see this attitude reflected in YSE as despite the high romanticism of “Puck’s dust”, “the dark wood at the top of the stairs” or “the quilt of English shades of green” the poetic gesture gives rather than contains these images. The poet is as awestruck of beauty as might be the reader of such images “en route to Heathrow”, for example:

“Blake’s lambs like sprigging flora from serendipitous scatter
upon the undulating green
not unlike the gravestones before Dorchester South”

Yet whatever allusions to Blake the view stirred in Hemensley, the new ‘insert’ of its poetic scene is real and thereby stung with a type of practical anguish. The stanza concluding:

“crimson sun descending like Saturn upon his hideous realm
This blood this blob this

The “hideous realm” being Blake’s own world of hell drawn into the radiance of heaven. As Hemensley reminds us later, “i am a country man” so that, one supposes the light is the light and the dark the dark excepting the language which writes of it is in this case poetry and “the rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain”. Meaning evocation and phonetics, that strange musicality of the poetic line, belies the ordinary in phrasing.

YSE looks and reads like a manuscript you might buy at an expensive art auction. It is a rich, stimulating collection not just of verse but of viewpoints and conversations that are as original as they are very ‘Hemensley’ – just as others might be very Shakespearean or very, very English.

Rebecca Law has a PhD in Humanities and Communications from UWS, a Masters Degree in English Literature from Melbourne University and a Bachelor Degree in Fine Art, RMIT. With amateur studies in violin, she adores contemporary and romantic classical music and hopes to reflect this in her own poems. Widely published, her books include Offset, Lilies and Stars, The Arrow & The Lyre and Earthly Darling Came. Forthcoming (from 5th September 2020) is Rebecca's new collection Pan's Dance, available on Amazon. She lives and works in Sydney, and maintains a web presence at Rebecca Kylie Law.