This delicious failure of common names



Ten prose poems



Time skirts a property's perimeters, where a woman considers years of herding and fencing. And fractures of shade and sunlight underneath silky oaks as a swing rocks over the creek; as a boy bends a sapling to the earth and tries to bury its end, piling rocks to secure it. He steps back and it shudders upright; she steps forward into the space he's made where light breaks through shattered foliage. He absconds, red-faced, embarrassed at her words; she moves half into shade, possessing herself against his intrusion. The thrill of light breaks over her arm. She sees streaks of sweat, holding teetering summer in her palm.




Triangles chime in the hands of boys and girls. Tall windows scatter dusty light. At lunchtime the headmaster was beaten at table tennis by one of the boys. A line of sentences has been chalked on the board; a lesson on verbs and adverbs: Jane runs swiftly and Dan dawdles painfully in a yard. The teacher raps her pointer. 'Pay attention. The orchestra will concentrate.' But heat swarms. 'Look at the oval' — a shrilling student indicates the window's view of stilt-legged walkers. 'You must sit still,' the teacher shouts to the strewn, emptying room.



As You Like It

Mostly it's a problem of memory. There's a man twirling his cane in a familiar film, but you're convinced you've never seen the character before, and the words spoken by the heroine sound like paraphrases from As You Like It. Jacques rails, you know the forest must be Arden even as the countryside's referred to by another name, and the words 'A fool! A fool!' bounce in your mind. Though the make of car reminds you of Salinas Valley and a recalcitrant James Dean, you find yourself searching for Rosalind.




How that feeling, like a wing, held to her body — shifting in thought until the swan was most of what she was; her sense of propriety lifting into lighter edicts, so that air whispered of snow; so that arms murmured of the intimate dance. Her name rested lightly in her mouth; she spoke less often, reading of mythologies that animated the ancient world. Stepping lightly, she thought of childhood privations, heard a crowd murmur appreciation. Thinking of transformation, she was no-one she knew, at last without identity, all wing and a wild idea of flight.




You don't know the word for butter, so you spend seconds miming the way it froths in the pan. The owner of the shop says nothing. You want to buy their famous pesto, but it's nowhere on display. You think of making red sauce and pasta, but 'tomato' is another forgotten word. You speak to other customers, who nod and frown. This village's traditions are deeply held; even the postmaster won't leave his mother tongue. Eventually you point at fragrant cheese and a melon that smells of ripest green. How delicious it is — this failure of common names.




Vestiges; lumps of rock and dirt; the origin of a name. 'We have shaped the earth; filled the bay.' Taming a three-camels' hump of land. Shawmut, renamed Boston. Blackstone's invitation to fresh water amounting to more than he knew. We remembered Botolph, saint of farmers, travellers — a good, worshiping Saxon. Our origins push back into his pious body. We remembered that piety when we hung Robinson and Stevenson and obdurate Mary Dwyer; remembered, too, our dark journey here — to the bobcats, black bears, moose and coyote. The circles of bats. I chased a chipmunk that was digging my garden. Caught it, was going to pot it. But let it go. Here, where the three peaks were, where the land has been ground. Finding an iota of pity.




I arrive at the party and a man in a yellow coat thrusts a bag of bananas. Some are green, others are so ripe they appear to melt into the brown paper. I put a green one in my pocket 'for later' and take a glass of champagne from a waiter. A clown is falling over, time and again, as if it's an important joke; three women are juggling fire. On the balcony there are mice on a barbecue. A couple ask me about love, flinging themselves against one another. Time and again this recurs. We look at the distant glacier that a decade ago filled the land. Melted ice runs into the blue sea as if from a peering eye. Gargantuan tears.




She writes from the Protestant Cemetery in Rome: 'I love Keats' headstone; it's taken me back to the poems.' When we walked there the cats arched their backs and we remembered our original avowals. Oleanders and pines; the dense shade. Right words that occupied our mouths. We held loss like bodies in our arms; drank in warm air like breath from the graves. You said love was a forestalling. Over and over, through dark and coughing years: 'And words, too — lozenges in the mouth.'




The clock folds time into its face. We're looking at a magpie on a wire, raising its wings as if to shape air. A movement of clouds scuffles, until they stand apart, creating space and a bruised aftermath. We touch each other as lightly as the breeze skimming the long grass, gazing at an empty wire, seeing the outline of the vanished bird. We turn from the window and find ourselves stepping through another life, hearing the reverberant cry.




Music is an old Eagles song and your hands are on my body. Was that thirty years ago, hearing my heartbeat like a stuttering engine? Two blackbirds peck at soil in the yard; glossy thoughts line the mind. Your hands are wings as you turn. Your words lift and descend, you sing. A poem you wrote holds for decades, conjuring the sea's sour brilliance. You pointed at pines the size of black thumbprints; gestured at the oblivious expanse. You made up nonsense about being Ophelia. “An envious sliver,” you said, emphasising the narrowness of the final word.



Paul HetheringtonPaul Hetherington has published 13 collections of poetry and prose poetry, including, most recently Palace of Memory: An Elegy and Moonlight on Oleander: Prose Poems. He won the 2014 Western Australian Premier's Book Award (poetry) and was shortlisted for the 2017 Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry.

Topic tags: Paul Hetherington, poetry



submit a comment

Existing comments

Paul, your poetic prose is delicate and beautiful, full of meaning and feeling and with the possibility for further reflection.It rolls off the tongue when spoken aloud. Today, in Advent when we are sustained by Hope with the anticipation of the birth of a "Babe in Bethlehem", the words of discerning writers , poets and prophets around us also invigorate . The writing in "Wing" , "How that feeling like a wing, held to her body" evoked unlimited possibilities to consider. Thank you .
Celia | 10 December 2019

Paul, these are extraordinary - a very fine thing to wake up to.
Dorothy Horsfield, | 12 December 2019


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up