Paul Hetherington, Moonlight on Oleander: Prose Poems. Crawley, WA: UWAP, 2018. ISBN: 9781742589862
The idea of ‘moonlight on oleander’ offers a complex image from the outset. A beautiful and poisonous flower, widely spread around the world, the exact origin of oleander and its name is subject to debate. Despite the threats its toxicity poses to humans and animals alike, oleander remains a popular presence in gardens. Hetherington’s prose poems mirror this combination of the beautiful and sinister, interweaving all aspects of human life. The collection is relatively uniform in style, primarily composed of brief, almost episodic prose poems, with the occasional longer prose piece. Each poem is a snapshot of human experience. Love, death, violence, childhood, politics, art and history. There is little not approached in this richly varied text.
There is a visceral quality to the poems, celebrating immediacy and intimacy. In ‘Soil’, this is heralded with confrontational verbs, clashes of communication paired with the earth, combining the acts and words of humanity with the land:
Pinched, tasted, spat – worms, earth, sand. Grit in the mouth gathered with language; sun touching a lolling arm. Utterance a thrown rug on which to lie down. A further lump of speaking like a rock. Cascades of talk like diving fronds of fern. White legs frame a spade and clods, the new world a child’s fervent dream. Clots of nouns and writhing, soiled verbs. A sky like a blanked illustration. Doings and undoings of hands. (106)
The poems do not linger on one place for long, before moving to another setting. ‘Soil’ is immediately followed by ‘Frame’, which catches the ominous oleander link to continue the notion of human communication and its frequently ominous connections with life:
A stillness near a corner of the picture frame; a river jetty with boys practising bombies; an old car bobbing with two girls standing on the bonnet. They dive and surface, splashes of pale light. There’s a beach and a nearby angel. At four years old he grasps a straggling feather. His parents’ talk is the tide’s burble. He thinks of a scorpion’s beautiful tail – reaches, and someone bats his hand away – sucking an oleander leaf, its bitterness filling the mouth like nascent thought. Under another oleander he reads novels with Jane. ‘We’re characters,’ she says, and all one summer he imagines a developing plot. The stillness is what’s unwritten; what declines to stay. (107)
Oleander is generally too bitter to be willingly imbibed to a toxic level, but fatalities have historically occurred. The young boy struggles to capture meaning from what he witnesses, focuses on the natural world to ground him, but still returns to oral-fixated images as a means of self-expression. However, such expression is evasive. Hetherington’s punning on ‘what declines to stay’ flirts with the slippage of language as a complete means of expression, its temporality and ability to be re-imagined under another ‘developing plot’.
Relationships between people are central to Moonlight on Oleander, with the prose poetic form capturing poignant moments in a series of narratives. In this sense, prose poetics is an ideal mode, capable of balancing the speaker’s frequently lyrical observations with a distinctly dry tone. The form is a melting pot of tensions, made natural. Human relationships tend towards the bittersweet in Hetherington’s collection. Hetherington depicts tense moments of contact between men and women in poems such as ‘Shower’, as well as families and lost connections in ‘Ghosts’. The prose poetics serve as beautifully layered snapshots of image and emotion. In the final two poems, an emotional weight behind the text arrives: ‘Elegy’, memorialising the death of Hetherington’s father and ‘The Black Page’, remembering a friend, are reminiscent of Dennis Haskell’s Ahead of Us with their sensitive exploration of these events.
In addition, Hetherington espouses a firmly anti-imperialist narrative throughout the collection. This is initiated on an international scale with the poems ‘Jut’ and ‘West Coast, Ireland’, and then linked to Australia with ‘New Ways’:
The old ways traded slaves and unconscionable practices. New ways see children behind wire, dragging feet, as if their ankles are tied, who lament in waiting and silence, unprotected even as parents shield them. New ways permit strangers to walk among their intimacies, extinguishing hope in their mouths, as if earth doesn’t own them, as if their breath doesn’t belong to common air. Old ways ensured that speaking out was dangerous. ‘Silence the boat people,’ the new ways say. ‘Don’t let them freely utter their names.’ (60)
Dehumanisation of refugees and involuntary, indefinite detention of vulnerable individuals by the Australian government is sternly critiqued. Linkages with historical atrocities and denial of names, language and voice, are paired, to condemn on-going human rights abuses. This is a collection that is as critical as it is tender, empathetic and unwilling to stay silent.
As an eco-poetic text, Moonlight on Oleander also offers critical commentary on exploitation of the land. ‘Wheatfields’ presents brutal imagery with a hint of changes to come:
We drive towards wheatfields, like the wide pelts of animals long since flayed. Distant silos are giant thumbs, signalling ‘drive this way’ as distorting rain leans, sliding on airy panes. When the small trucks have vanished and wheat has sunk like scatterings of rain into desiccated soil, we see time’s end – a sublimity of long perspectives. Earth stirs. Creatures gather their skins. (58)
Dismembered bodies are linked with human constructions and landscaping, the violence of their coming to being, but these are also connected with temporariness. Hetherington suggests that the land is not content to remain fully subservient. The trucks remain ‘small’ in the face of ‘long perspectives’. More is yet to come.
Paul Hetherington’s Moonlight on Oleander is a fantastic example of the wealth and variety of emotion and experience that can be captured in prose poetry. The collection traverses a range of political and social issues, in addition to personal intimacies and pains, offering a rich series of access points for a range of readers. The text is a pleasure to read in every sense of the word.
Siobhan Hodge has a PhD in English literature. She won the 2015 Patricia Hackett Poetry award and has had poetry, reviews and articles published in numerous places, including Westerly and Cordite. She is Reviews editor for Writ Review and an Associate Editor for Rochford Street Review. Her collection Justice for Romeo was published by Cordite Books in 2018.