Saturday, January 11, 2014



darkacre by Greg Hewett
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2010)

Few books open with lines like these:
to assert the alienable right
to use and abuse the corporeal
common law offers owner a faggot under condition
one stick be given away
for the incorporeal
hereditaments such as
easement (e.g. widening freeway, extension of easy street)…

This is the start of "real property rights"— the first poem in the book. How many times have your eyes glazed over trying to read the small print of documents with words like these? In this case, however, I would urge you to read on. You will not be disappointed. This suite of poems picks up on the theme of property rights and takes you through a set of different landscapes some of which, such as the brownfield site (brownacre) and the greenfield site (greenacre) are more easily recognisable than others. Despite the jargon these pieces are spiced with biblical, classical and literary references and also, here and there, a dash of humour. One of these poems, "whiteacre," ends with an arresting image that breaks through the official jargonese:

darkacre conveys deed to whiteacre
as the boundary where snow falls
(or is it petals? ash?) slowly down
to mix with sand drifting   sifting
in wind   in perpetual
glare   the only clear feature
a vast flock of translucent
shopping bags   each tethered
to a dried stalk of chicory

These poems are, of course, much more than mere description—they are a rich metaphor for the passing on of rights and privileges, the forging of one’s identity, the genetic imprint that one generation leaves on another. (The cleverly constructed book cover depicts the meeting-point of darkacre with greenacre through the medium of a window frame).

In the next suite of poems, "Under Auspices," Hewett examines the tension between order and chaos. It is a theme that he returns to at various stages throughout the book. "Tornado Edifice" sets the scene:

It’s the order of things.
Steel cables fray then snap,
Concrete caves in and I-beams collapse.

Wreckage literal as cable news.
In the storm shelters of our hearts
(we sometimes see as catacombs)

Even greater chaos echoes.
Anxiety has become proforma.

All three poems in this suite begin with the same line as if starting out from a point of order before disintegrating into chaos.

In the section headed The Structures of Crisis, Hewett places his mental landscapes in a series of intriguing settings—a sports stadium, a type of Sodom and Gomorrah landscape, the setting for the Higgs Boson experiment 175 meters beneath the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva and a hydroelectric dam. In places, Hewett makes use of scientific terminology to enliven his vocabulary. This is especially apparent in the poem entitled "Particle Accelerator Metaphysics"—the poem relating to the Higgs Boson experiment:

To hunt for God you have to go underground.
Where once features were found
in the face of a mountain
you now tunnel deep
below thrust fault and crystalline
basement rock, schist and molasse,
to capture the possibility
of a particle less
than a billionth of a millimeter
with a twenty-seven kilometer snare.

In the poems that make up The Yam Complex (Between Time and History), Hewett effectively revisits his past. The spaced out lines make the reader pause for thought. It gives the memory time to recollect a life already lived where everything has changed except the view:

That has remained

Unchanged, as if I had not

Crossed its improbable span

Without destination then.

It is the yam that connects all the poems together. It is a demonstration of how a particular smell or scent can effectively bring back a memory with vivid consequences:

Millenia pass and then

The elevator simply opens

To aroma of steaming yams,

Sweet thread of memory

Of a country far from here

of a country no longer there.

In the second half of the book, the poems are more abstruse.

The suite of poems called Cameos appears on the surface to summarize the plots of specific Italian operas seen from the standpoint of the lead role. Key words in faint print on one page leave a bold imprint on the opposite page as if the book had been closed too quickly before the ink had dried. It is as if these key words were the shell the poet chose to work from in order to construct each poem.

Very often in this collection there is a key word or idea that links the poems together in each of the suites. This gives us a fascinating insight into Hewett’s method of composition. I have already alluded to this in my account of "The Yam Complex" but it is also seen in other pieces as well. In "Island," for example, it is the skull of a dolphin and in Lapidary it is the capitulation of cities. In "Five Appearances" a slightly different system is employed: five short poems spin off the different meanings that emanate from a single word; the precise meaning being explained in the last line of each poem in the sequence.

This is a fascinating book by a poet who clearly revels in the exploration of human experience. He is not afraid to experiment with interesting methods of composition, unusual vocabulary and visual layouts to enhance and intrigue the general reader in a way that is at once refreshing and different. Recommended.


Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, essays, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna published by White Adder Press, Scotland (2011) and The Worcester Fragments published by Original Plus, England (2013).

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