A Mortar of Seeds

by Tom Henihan
ISBN: 1896860230

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A Mortar of Metaphor: Tom Henihan
by Shane Neilson

Tom Henihan is an odd kind of Canadian poet. He has never applied for a grant. He does not submit to magazines or contests. When he deigns to give readings-which is rare-he refuses to identify himself beyond his host's introduction. He also eschews the typical set-up most poets inflict on their audiences. He detests the story-behind-the-poem and the why-I-wrote-this explanations. He wants no injury done to the essential mystery of poetry. His personal practice is to state the poem's title, pause, read a poem, and then move on to the next poem.
It is clear that Henihan is a poet who, in his relationship with his audience, trafficks only in poetry. But his unwillingness to degrade poetry with "banter" extends to his prosody as well, in which anecdote is utterly absent and metaphor, instead, is stacked upon metaphor. Such a technique is unique in Canada, and might be due to his Irish roots. He was born in Limerick and upon emigrating to Canada in 1981 (he now lives mainly in southern Alberta and on Vancouver Island) he met an art that was-and still is-hijacked by prosiness. He reacted by choosing to deal in metaphor alone.
As a result Henihan's poems are uncompromisingly dense. A short love lyric called "Refuge" illustrates the compactness of his poetry:

"There is a hint of the night on her coat
and a snow-covered fountain
in the coffee cup
that she waits to be filled"

The subject's coat is compared to night; her coffee to a fountain; and the woman herself is compared implicitly to a vessel that is waiting to be filled. That's almost a metaphor per line. The poem continues:

"A stifled omen sleeps about her lips.
Above the concealed light of her breasts
shadows from the river
hang about her neck and in her hair and her eyes have amber secrets
that she hopes everyone
will be kind enough not to touch."

Here Henihan compares lips to an omen; breasts are linked to light; shadows falling on the woman's neck- perhaps from her hair-are likened to a river's shadows, which itself suggests flowing hair, returning again to the earlier invocation of a fountain. Finally, he imbues her eyes with secrets that are themselves rich as amber. Compact indeed. Unlike most other poets who select a dominant metaphor and build on it in related iterations, Henihan employs an interlocking system of disparate metaphors that is initially daunting until a reader begins to understand that the metaphors, when taken together, are elegiac summations.
For Henihan, above all, is a poet of loss. He made his elegiac propensity obvious in "September", the poem that starts his first book, and ends with

"You can feel this place cling too much,
even the dying must hate these walls
stained with more sorrow than September."

This elegiac tendency continues to the present day. The mournful "Absence," a poem that refers to a dead lover, opens his most recent collection:

"In every room of this house
the doors open on a strange new undertaking
and the dust of your absence lingers about me
like sins without ownership."

Here Henihan provides a reader with the cohesiveness required to encounter the poem not as a random amalgam of metaphor but instead as a series of oblique gestures towards something that will remain ineluctably gone.
Despite the amplitude of metaphor, his poems paradoxically read as stark compositions-there is no abundance, no teeming lushness to his language. Instead, poems like "First Love" are somber and encased in loss:

" morning [that] blessed our pale embrace
and the wind
rising from where death is locked away
swept salt on our faces."

And this from a poem titled "First Love"! Yet it's restraint that amplifies elegies; in this fashion Henihan manages to wring a vast pain and endless longing out of his lines. His talent for understatement permits no flash or trickery. His nouns, adjectives, and adverbs are commonplace-when the latter two are present at all. "First Love" itself characterizes an embrace as "pale"; the remainder of the nouns are the unremarkable "death", "salt", "wind" and "faces". This minimum of exposition powerfully elicits a deep sense of loss.
The central elements of Henihanian imagery include the moon, sky, mountains, the sea, and rain. Thus Henihan chooses to use very large objects and forces, rendering his poetry almost primeval. He usually declines to qualify these images; the words are simply left alone to be what they are. Perhaps Henihan explains this point best in what might be his own declaration of craft in "Poem":

"words pliable as metal
strive for the consistency
of water and stone

Where Canadian poetry has largely become a discipline of the specific, an art where nouns are trussed up with limiting adjectives and where verbs are modified by adverbial straightjackets, Henihan has arrived at a general method that benefits from its generality by thwarting limitation. Henihan stays in his archetypal pose- reaching towards, though in this case he's reaching for a purity of tone (loss) and device (metaphor). Most importantly, by consistently reinvoking his imagery from poem to poem and book to book, he bolsers the cohesiveness of his metaphors.
This is not to say that one can always follow him. Poems like "Toward the Mountains" are baffling:

The breeze dreams
a white sun nurses its moans.
The hills with their arms of parched grass
charm the blood that flows
toward their pyramid of salt.
The river with her bracelets dances.
The breeze dreams of seeds
and dark birds with wings of charcoal
and red wine.
A storm of canvas and fire
possessed with an impossible heart
pushes the dreaming breeze
with hands of sulphur and stone.

The familiarity of volcabulary-wind, the sun, hills, grass, blood, salt, the river, a storm, and stone-does not, in this instance, lend clarity.
The only other serious criticism that can be leveled at Henihan is the fact that his first book showcased him as a rather tone-deaf poet. Consider "Before Your Landscape":

"Yet for a moment as infinite as an unfamiliar room
The blade of the sky touched the river with its light
Your breasts shone through the night like it was an
old coat
The mountains in my forehead rained
And your sweet thirst opened its mouth through the grass."

This stanza possesses a jarring, teeth-clenched rhythm; the metaphors are simply crammed too close. It's as if early Henihan, so disdainful of his fellow poets' anecdotal content, has metamorphosed metaphor into its own kind of content, neglecting that other essential formal element-rhythm. Yet his subsequent collections display a greater consciousness of rhythm, as shown by "The House":

The door opened on a
tumbled garden, where the
dust and sting of summer
pierced the air, about
the apple trees in blossom
where he had already learned
to grieve. By the nettled
wall in the pungent air
always as his own house stared
at him, always within
him a scrupled prayer"

Note the more sophisticated carry-over line length providing the poem with momentum. Henihan's repetition of "air"-it appears three times-makes the word the aural cornerstone of the poem. Henihan then reconstitutes its sound with rhymes both end-stopped and internal, like "where", "stared", and "prayer".
Henihan espouses an unconventional poetic. That, and probably his own dislike of the logrolling ethic that turns veteran poets into demiurges and novice poets into disciples, has lead to his neglect. In future books it might prove beneficial for him to turn to some of the formal verse structures like the sonnet or villanelle; by meeting the poetry-reading public halfway in this manner he could provide an accessibility that his preceding verse could be said to lack. At any rate it would be interesting to see how he will continue to bend his metaphors into even more challenging forms, and even more interesting to see whether Canada's poetry scene will notice.

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