Brian Henderson, Year Zero
Reviewed by Jennifer Keene (The Malahat Review 113 Winter 1995)
In a poem called "The Winnowing Horizons" Brian Henderson writes these lines: "Death is a stagger in the rhythm / so you hear it for the second time / Birth is the first." If music in Year Zero is a metaphor for unbroken life ,then these poems are about the hiccoughs in the that music and the moments between ---spent waiting for the next one, or mourning the last. The collection is in two parts, beginning with a death and ending with birth, and follows a poetic, rather than natural, order.
The first section, The Winnowing Horizons, is a series of elegies written for lost family and friends. In the poem of the same name, Henderson focuses not on what has passed, but on what continues, what reminds after one leaves. For example, in "At Phyl's Farm, Hanover, Ontario," he writes of his aunt:
Everything now belongs completely
to her ---more so even
than when she could touch it
Her touch no longer needs to lie along things
but takes itself away like a glance …
the heavy glassware displaying its cuts
Henderson endows objects and landscapes with the weight of personalities. They stand in for the people who have owned them, or are associated with them, as the painted hospital screen "In the Sickroom" bears the weight of feelings for the dying man behind it.
Henderson writes around his subjects, at the edges of grief, with a delicacy and tentativeness that hints at another layer of meaning. Not only is life impermanent, but language itself is too evanescent to reliably capture anyone: "You are one word / claimed by language / What happens, once you are said?" His poems are almost ephemeral at times: they hang like riffs, final words or phrases dangling. But then this isn't a collection about endings. The poems in the second half of Year Zero are suffused with expectancy, and a belief that individuals are born into a universe they never leave. In "What is Named, Falls" Henderson envisions:
fierce planets, comets, suns, all
the unspoken and heavenly
bodies of the house of milk
in fact the whole sky
rising out of you
new, nameless, and unfathomable being.
The reverence for life in these poems is paired with a style that is disciplined and restrained, whose grace occasionally masks the poems' intensity. But passion, most obvious in the second half of the collection, threads through the natural world, a part of "The Mystical Estate." It is a comforting vision. At the same time, I'll admit, there is also something a bit evasive about it. Henderson's visions seems sometimes like an immaculate coverup---an avoidance of the darkest, strongest passions associated with loss or gain. His poems find comfort in philosophy instead.
But if the poems in Year Zero don't evoke strong passions, they more than make up for it with their touching eloquence. Henderson's work is affecting. Its simple beauty is showcased in "A Net, A Throw":
You lean into my dreams
as if against a membrane
you, who are no longer
happening to yourself
but to me
This is Brian Henderson's seventh collection, and the elegies and welcomings here make up a wonderful book.