The Seed-box Lantern Diana Hendry, Mariscat Press, £10
reviewed by Emma Lee
Diana Hendry wants to invite readers in to listen. Her tone is conversational and she wears her reading and knowledge of poetic devices lightly. The enjambment in ‘Artemis, Still Hunting’, gives the poem a feel of urgency and desperation:
Alone, a smoker and, god love us, reading a book! He has
the kind of cough it would be nice to wake to in the middle
of the night. I make all ‘hello’ noises known to man –
glass-clonk, lighter-click, unignorable see-how-much-we
have-in-common flutter of pages. Arrow-tang. Cough.
Nothing. The young Swiss boy, working at the baker’s,
(starts at four a.m.) stops on his early way to bed
to chat about his day. The Greek at the table next
to mine asks what I’m reading. ‘Po-et-ry’, I say
The chase ends in the disappointment of the discovery the men she’s been eyeing up are immortal. The dense packaging of words doesn’t give readers much space to stop and think. There’s an underlying assumption readers have the same sympathies as the poet. This isn’t a risk when poems are on more universal subjects, but risks turning readers away when they don’t share the poet’s sensibilities. In ‘An Englishwoman Eats a Vegetarian Haggis in a Scottish Hospital’, the poem’s narrator is commenting on a patient’s meal choice. The patient is English:
And chosen while
poorly, as though the national dish – their
national dish – might in some way be healing,
as their country has been to me in
my incomer stay of ten years, which is why,
come 2014 I’m going to vote YES
even though the hospital’s version
of vegetarian haggis is perfectly inedible.
The poem’s narrator does not ask the patient why she chose the vegetarian haggis but assumes that the patient chose it because it “might in some way be healing”. Usually in hospitals there’s only one vegetarian option so the English patient’s choice was the vegetarian haggis or nothing (not much of a choice when you’re in hospital and need nutrition). It’s the poet’s opinion that the vegetarian haggis is inedible. She doesn’t ask the patient for her views. We never find out if the patient was making a willing choice (yes, I’d love to eat the haggis) or a default choice (I don’t want to be hungry so I’m choosing the vegetarian option, whatever it is). There are a lot of assumptions being made. We never find out whether or not the patient liked her meal either.
The poet is trying to turn this into a metaphor, suggesting that the poet’s move to Scotland has been healing which is why the poet is going to vote for Scottish Independence in the referendum in 2014 even though the political system post-independence may be no better than the Parliament is now. However, a yes vote would enable the Scottish culture that has been healing for the poet to continue. The metaphor doesn’t work for me. It shows little empathy with the patient within the poem and assumes that by simply identifying the patient as an Englishwoman, there is a shared and common cultural background. The assumptions, combined with lack of information about the patient held up my reading.
Pianos are a common feature throughout The Seed-box Lantern, giving a unifying thread to these new and selected poems which span 1995 – 2013. One of the new poems, ‘How to Play the Piano’, is a series of responses to references from Jozef Gat’s ‘The Technique of Piano Playing’, here the instruction that some players might need to sit closer to the piano,
Come to the instrument with your hands and heart clean
And your nails clipped. Straighten your spine. Remember
That your weight on the note really comes from the feet.
Saying Grace would not come amiss. This is an occupation
Much like prayer. You are about to enter someone else’s mind.
It could read as instructions for approaching The Seed-box Lantern; readers are about to enter a world of clarity and truth described with an observant wit.