by Sean Hewitt
Perhaps it’s because I’m a Cantabrian, living in the semi-perpetual rebuild that is the “new normal” of life following the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. Or maybe it’s because I’m now a homeowner, dealing with the multiple joys of discovering that the wiring is erratic, and that the plumbing is something other than entirely according to best building practice. Or possibly it’s because, as teacher of poetry, I’m always on the lookout for poems that illustrate how amazingly complex and layered and energetic even the most simple-seeming poem can be, once you sharpen your gaze below the surface. For whatever reason, this poem has been occupying my thinking.
Ostensibly, it’s the story (or evocation) of a house repair: the house has bad problems with rot in the timbers; the owner is elderly (and so, by extension, is the house) and hospitable; the repairs required are extensive and possibly not able to be completed (or at least, not within the scope of the poem). So far, so little. Don’t worry, it seems to say, nothing complicated going on here. I’m just a trio of quatrains. Nice, simple, ordinary quatrains. Nothing fancy at all. Oh, but gentle reader, it lies, it lies! Let’s start by considering those three simple stanzas.
Superficially, it looks extremely regular. All three are roughly similar in length visually, and even the syllable count doesn’t change much (a low of 9 up to a high of 11, but most often 10). Neutral, simple, conversational. Quatrains usually imply control of the material, and the syllable count suggests that it’s an easy, effortless control, and that the poem hasn’t resisted. It “just came that way.” Neat. Tidy. Unthreatening.
But things get a bit more complicated when you look at the way the imagery changes. Not so much the vehicles of the images themselves, but where the imagery occurs and how it shifts. The first stanza is loaded with metaphor – the damp has a “grip,” the joists have “heads” and have “feathered,” and the room has a “wet belly,” which has begun to “bow.” Most of the imagery is not especially challenging – we’re used to seeing words like “head” and “grip” used metaphorically as often as not, and “feathered” is surprising and apt for the slow blooming of rot. “Wet belly” is a bit more startling, but again fits the context without requiring much mental changing-of-gears. (And then there’s “bow” – I’m reasonably sure we’re meant to read “bow” as in “warp,” but you can’t help getting a hint of “bow” as in “genuflect,” which is an even more strange – and pleasing – image. Of course this is only possible with the poem on the page – one case where hearing the poem read aloud would limit its scope.)
The middle stanza is where things change. This time we’ve all but abandoned metaphor, and are dealing solely with the experience of the builders. Literal. Straight-forward. Non-imaginative. They “ripped the boards up,” there was a “smell,” “crumbling wood,” and “you pottered back and to with tea, soda bread.” (Don’t you love that inversion?) The contrast is quite dramatic – from the state of the house, to the job at hand. From the a-metaphor-in-every-line extravagance of the first stanza to one single line of non-actual detail: wood “gone to seed, all its muscle wasted.” It’s a great image, isn’t it? And all the more so because of the quite plain surroundings it finds itself in. (The choice of image itself prepares the way for the appearance of the elderly “you” – who has let all this decay happen unawares, and whose only contribution to the remedy is the provisioning of the builders. But I digress.) (And will again.)
The third stanza picks up where the first’s metaphorical profusion left off. It dismisses the owner with “eighty years shaking on a plastic tray,” which gives us their age; their frailty; and their rather domestic and politely-ineffectual responses in one single-line metaphor. Ok, the poem warns us, enough simplicity. Back into the weird we go! And oh, we certainly do – I have no idea what actually, literally happens next. The builders slip underneath the floorboards, to continue repairing things? Awash with tea, they drift through the rest of the day’s work? The tea or cake was poisoned, and they’re going to be buried under the house? (Um, probably not. But even so, go back and reread, starting with the title. Did you notice that the elderly owner and the decaying house are the ones still standing, while the (presumably) young, strong, fit builders are the ones who slip away under the floorboards? Metaphorical or literal?) Those final two images are very strange, but they work. Fish will swim in patches of moonlight, where the moon’s light has penetrated down into the water. But it’s not – quite – their natural habitat. Similarly, although divers will swim around old ships, and may travel considerable distances to do so, they aren’t the natural inhabitants of either ships or wrecks. (That would be sailors and sea creatures respectively.) So “builder” is to “old house” as “diver” is to “old ship”. And the palette of images remains moist – “damp” and a “wet belly” becomes “fish” and “divers round an old ship.” (By contrast, the middle stanza is much drier – “boards,” “crumbling wood,” “gone to seed,” “muscle wasted,” and along with the tea, “soda bread.”)
And there are two other ways in which Hewitt signals this turn: breaks and punctuation. Stanzas one and three are end-stopped stanzas. Complete, discrete units. (You could argue that stanza two is also end-stopped – after all, there is a comma – but it’s much less definite a halt. The “eighty years … on a plastic tray” is really another item in the list of things the owner has brought to the builders, and most readers will skip through as though the stanza break isn’t there.) Even at the level of the line break there is a change – the first stanza is enjambed until the last line; the third stanza envelopes two enjambed lines inside two very firmly stopped lines (and so the overall impression is of continued movement); and our crucial middle stanza pauses in three different ways for it’s four lines. And the punctuation? Two full stops in the first stanza – one midway through the second line, one at the end of the fourth line – and three full stops in the third stanza – one at the end of the first line, one midway through the third, and one at the end. It’s quite symmetrical. Especially when you look at the punctuation in the middle stanza – one full stop, six commas, and a colon. Every line is multiply interrupted, qualified, delayed. Just like the elderly owner, the poem is moving haltingly, where it had previously stridden firmly. Written out just as punctuation (a trick I like to perform for my students, and one which is frequently very interesting), the poem is patterned
One thing the punctuation makes clear is that this isn’t a midpoint turn, even though the turn happens midway. It’s much more of a meditative-descriptive turn, with the third stanza being structurally something of a synthesis of the abruptness and definiteness of the first stanza, but tempered with a few extra pauses (without being quite so tentative as the middle stanza.) The imagery backs this up too – metaphorical, to (somewhat more) literal, and back to metaphorical. And just as the punctuation of our third stanza could be thought of as “stanza one with a dash of stanza two,” the imagery also picks up an extra charge in its third movement. What it most reminds me of is a film trick, most often seen in SciFi shows, where there is a momentary “glitch,” a brief flicker of distortion, then everything flickers back to normal. Except we’ve stepped sideways into another dimension, and the heroine’s shirt is a different colour, or her hair is different, or there’s a different picture on the wall behind her. We have entered the twilight zone…
Just as we can learn a lot about creatures we’ve never seen before by looking at their skeletons, the bones of this poem have a story all of their own to tell – appearances are deceptive: there is always something else beneath the surface. One of the niftiest aspects of the way Séan Hewitt has constructed this poem is how the structure plays sleight of hand. It’s a simple, straightforward construction … except it isn’t. (There is nothing in my hands, nothing up my sleeves.) It’s about a house being repaired … except it isn’t. (Pick a card, any card …). The turn is there, in plain view – like all good conjuring tricks. And like the best conjuring tricks, it makes you look again, and reconsider what you thought you saw.
Joanna Preston is a Tasmanaut poet and freelance creative writing tutor, living in rural Canterbury, New Zealand. Her first collection, The Summer King (Otago University Press, 2009), won both the 2008 Kathleen Grattan Award for Poetry (NZ) and the 2010 Mary Gilmore Prize (Aust.).