The Plumb Line by Hélène Demetriades is presented in three parts: ‘Beginnings’ in which the poet shares her troubled childhood, from the ever present “ogre” of her father, to the veritable prison of boarding school; ‘Gravity’, where the poet examines motherhood; and ‘Departures’, which deals with the death of her parents.

In ‘Weekends’, a coming of age poem set within the confines of boarding school, the isolation and loneliness of the poet as a girl is laid bare. In the opening couplet, there’s a quiet desperation that sets the reader up for what’s to come:


     On Saturdays we herd like calves

     round the dark table, thirsting for post.

Weekends are supposed to be fun for children, a time of recreation and play yet here the children are “inmates in uniform”, seemingly forced on walks beyond their will. There’s palpable oppression at work throughout the poem, where even the outside world seems to be pressing in on the poet, exemplified by this regimented and controlled existence she skilfully portrays. This almost agoraphobic stanza is juxtaposed by the claustrophobic atmosphere of the stanzas that follow, where what should be comforting matinees of Sunday TV are oppressive as they “spill/against common room walls” and where “air void of family/presses against rib cages.” There’s a sense of the poet not being able to breathe in this stifling common room. And then there’s the pressing matter of the onset of womanhood, perfectly articulated in the girls’ toilets where we can literally feel the walls closing in on her:

     The toilet cubicles smell of bleach,

     the medicated loo paper is thin and shiny.

     On it I discover the smear of my first bleed.

Unfortunately, the family home seems equally oppressive. Indeed, she has the ever present threat of her father to contend with. In the unsettling ‘My Funny Valentine’ the poet illustrates this active threat in the present tense while she’s literally being chased up the stairs by her laughing father: “I hide/behind my door frightened/your hand up my nightdress.”  And if a creepy Valentine’s card isn’t enough to further unsettle the reader, the poem fast forwards out of childhood into womanhood, where an 80-year-old father shows us this abuse is a lifelong sentence for both girl and woman. The chilling voice of her father is used here with devastating effect with its creepy and almost proud flirtatious tone: “The driver will think I’m your beau.”

In ‘Playing Dead’ we realise there’s little hope of escape from trauma for this girl as she tries to negotiate her various ‘beginnings’, whether she’s under attack from the girls at boarding school who “squeeze toothpaste into my nostrils”, or in fear of her father when she falls out of bed and she can’t be comforted by her mother in case she wakes the ogre sleeping next to her. She plays dead instead and we’re left with a disturbing final frame.


     I lay on the floor

     squeezing my anus

     tight as a rosebud.

In the next section, ‘Gravity’, we’re in the epoch of motherhood, where threat is still present just after the poet has given birth, and dark figures loom “in spectral succession …” This suggests the poet continues to be haunted, or even that trauma from childhood bleeds into the present of her early motherhood. In ‘First Days’ the roller-coaster emotions of early motherhood are examined, where the woman is reborn as a mother into a life of “service” where “nipples crack open, weep”. When she watches her daughter sleeping “lying open to the world”, the mother is a “fish in the bedroom/gasping for words”, seemingly unable to articulate the vulnerability of her daughter in a world where fathers are sometimes ogres, and yet also managing to exemplify the bewildering joy of being reborn as a mother.

In the final section ‘Departures’ there are reckonings of a sort as the poet experiences her parents being as helpless as she once was. In ‘Familial Intimacy’ her father can’t resist a parting shot, forcing his daughter to leave his bedside: “You’re hopeless! You hiss.” The irony of the title sounds out here. The poet might well have been hoping to hear something comforting as she leaned in for a moment of intimacy. Her father’s words echo on two levels: first, the insult itself, and hopeless, as in void of hope. But throughout this collection, the sheer will of the poet’s human spirit shines through, which ultimately renders her father’s insult void of all its power.

And yet, it is the woman and the girl before her, the survivor of all her childhood trauma, who has all the power in the end. Furthermore, she doesn’t abuse her position. Indeed, in the poignantly titled ‘Daddykins’ there’s real tenderness as she strokes her father’s cheeks as he lies there like a “foetal skeleton”. If there is a sense of revenge or a final reckoning, it transpires as the poet transforms her dad into a proper father as she conjures him “into a loving daddy…” There’s real sadness and heartache here, despite the arguable reckoning. There’s a woman and daughter, representing the girl before her, showing her father what it means to be a better human being.

This remarkable collection is moving, devastating and occasionally packs a witty punch. Demetriades is fearless as she takes us on a journey through her life up to press, unafraid of taking us to the darkest places but ensuring still that the light will always find a way out. I love this book and can’t wait for her next one.

Review of The Plumb Line in Write Out Loud, July 2022Mark Connors

Hélène Demetriades’ debut collection, The Plumb Line, charts a life in three sections. The act of ordering gives rise to measured reflection. Complicated experiences are held up to the light and this considered examination perhaps allows certain chapters to then be closed. Demetriades is a psychotherapist as well as a poet, and these works are clear-eyed and knowledgeable, written by someone unafraid to turn over rocks and observe what squirms in the darkness.

Poems written in the first person aren’t necessarily about the poet—of course they’re not—however these do follow the chronology of her life. It seems these poems are unashamedly intended to be seen as expressions of personal experience—Demetriades makes no attempt to hide, and indeed uses poetry as a way to give a voice to a child who was denied that right.

The first third of the collection is entitled BEGINNINGS and charts the poet’s childhood, starting in Switzerland. ‘Let me slip past an old orchard,’ (IN MY WORLD)…

in a bright blue cardigan,April unbuttoned, the quilt of snow thrown off.

Unsettling images soon mar the idyllic landscape. The child sees, ‘a rat’s corpse on the wall…maggots devouring it to bone tracery.’ There is a description of being in a childminder’s home where kittens get drowned and the child is assaulted by a lodger in the attic.

An abrupt relocation appears with a poem entitled EAST PRESTON—the reader feels a sense of being plucked from one place to the next. And now the child is thrown into a depressing landscape where she stands:

On a pebble beach draining into grey sea a place so desolate I feel my life has died.’

In this new home, each scene again contains an undercurrent of threat. In the garden is ‘the raspberry cage where Daddy stones a blackbird.’ (WHITEGATES I) and the kitchen has ‘a chequered floor / where I cower, small pawn, arm across my face.’

Throughout these poems, the father is a volatile, menacing figure, and the mother distant. The child has no reported speech in these poems, except for one where she (perhaps a teenager now) says: ‘No,I’m not doing that,’ to an adult who masturbates beside her in a car (APPEASEMENT).

I found myself starting each poem with a small twist of trepidation for what this silent little girl might be about to encounter. They are unsettling due to the quietness with which these disclosures are revealed, as if long held-in. The stunning Swiss scenery adds further incongruity. The quietness is achieved through spareness—each image is precisely described, there’s little punctuation and good use of white space provides pleasing variety of shape and form. The very artistry of having used poetry as a means for exploring this complex subject has allowed the poet’s insight to grow through the slow work of writing.

The poems move to a middle section, entitled GRAVITY, focused on the narrator’s parenting and adult life. Here, experiences trigger memories, such as when the speaker’s grown daughter brings back food from her job in a supermarket, reminding the narrator of her father bringing:

bags of dusky pistachios from GreeceGruyère from La Suisse.

Every evening the kitchen was filled with his bounty and tyranny.


Some of these poems seem more distanced, perhaps to protect those depicted. Nevertheless, they are thought-provoking, deft sketches on moving forwards despite past trauma, on the joy and pain of mother-daughter relationships and a child’s growing independence.

The third section returns to the narrator’s parents, now in old age. These make for a deeply considered portrayal of what it is like to relate to a parent who did not treat one well. Indeed, notonly that but also what it is like to actively provide care for such a person. Poetry becomes a powerful, artistic means for interrogating incredibly complicated emotions, presenting them with no simplistic answers.

This is a collection that consoles by showing ways to look at pain and brokenness fearlessly and with compassion. There is no easy resolution, but with breath-taking spareness the poet pinpoints searing truths: in HAWK the father’s reduced state is described as having ‘clipped wings—his soul is outraged.’ And then FIRST STEPS ends with what struck me as summing up the whole flaw of the father:

On the phone the next day in different countries you confess you hadn’t really seen me.

Zannah Kearns is a freelance writer and editor. Her poems have been published in The DarkHorse, Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal, Finished Creatures, Under the Radar, South, andelsewhere. She is part of the team who organise a monthly open-mic event in Reading, The Poets’Café.

‘The Plumb Line’ is reviewed in Ink Sweat & Tears, October ’22Zannah Kearns

This debut collection was joint winner of the Hedgehog Poetry Press ‘Full Fat Poetry Collection ‘competition, 2021, and was published recently. The ‘Cult of the Spiny Hog’ is marked by its stylish presentation, and in this case, the blood-red inner linings to the covers suggest the hurt and menace we will encounter in these pages.

The collection is book-ended by poems about ‘Beginnings’ and ‘Departures,’ where Demetriades lays bare the abuse and emotional starvation inflicted by parents and the conflicting feelings of love and rejection experienced in such situations (the final section is in fact dedicated to both her parents). The central section, tellingly titled ‘Gravity’ shows the ballast provided by her own experience of parenting. Here we see the transformation effected by the opportunity to cut the Gordian knot of ‘nurture,’ leaving space for both ‘nature’ and a determination to avoid past patterns. ‘Rewilding’ shows a deft use of the holly tree as an image of the flowering of hope from seeds ‘buried deep.’ Images from the natural world crop up throughout the book, suggesting grounded-ness as well as intellectual sharpness; we meet a moth caterpillar, pollinating bees round the roses in Greenwich Park, tadpoles, and a blackbird being stoned.

In her ‘other’ life Demetriades is a transpersonal psychotherapist, and had also been an actor. It is not surprising therefore to see myth used as metaphor; and to observe the ‘monsters’ and ‘ogres’ that our fathers have been morphed into the frailty and indignities of aging as they literally lose the plot, and become subject to our own narratives. At the same time, her persona comes across strongly, even at times employing the imagery of thespian practice (‘In the Wings’) whilst convincing the reader of the authenticity of the experiences she chooses to share. ‘Caged’ makes rare use of the third person rather than first as a narrator – a device to distance the poet herself from particular uncomfortable memories?

The final poem, ‘An Alembic on the Threshold,’ is quasi-metaphysical in its use of metaphor, shifting from watching her father’s final hours, in which ‘the doors of your mind/fly off their hinges,’ to a Donne-ian comparison of the rising and falling of the chest as the eponymous alembic.

The themes of oppression and forgiveness, liberation and loss, make her poetry accessible (I can’t bring myself to use the word ‘relatable’) to many of her readers. A disturbing, thought-provoking read which should be embraced, and lingered over.

Review of The Plumb Line in The Lake Poetry Magazine Sept ’22Hannah Stone