The plumb line distils so much emotional depth and human significance – moments whose ripples spread out across a lifetime and beyond – they really spoke to me, There is real strength in the poet’s honesty and vulnerability – her openness to grief too: poem after poem in that first section, from Thumb Talk, Ghost Mother, On Being Sent Away to School (that shocking first line) The Arrival (with that unforgettable image of the swaying trunk like a coffin), My Sister Takes A Happy Family Photo (the final couplet is very powerful), the utter shock of Appeasement, the deep unease the poet communicates in My Funny Valentine. I think she writes with a lot of craft as a container for and communicator of all that has happened to her – a potent distillate. And such a distinctive accessible voice.The second section continues in this vein: so many poems (like Grace, with its stunning final quatrain), the beautifully observed Becoming Invisible for instance, and the very moving final section about the poet’s mum and dad – poems I have returned to many times – that image of the alembic! – the mystery and power of Your Last Hours…’Ultimate mysteries blown to the widest wonder’: the plumb line trying to fathom the meaning of itself.
At one level Demetriades’s The Plumb Line is about growing up with issues around mother/father and boarding school, at another it delves into the redemptive nature of love and complexities of being human.How does a child learn to love if she feels abandoned and her gender is unvalued? We follow the narrator, from early years in the Swiss mountains to the ‘desolate’ south coast where she’s packed off to board, her ‘trunk sways like a coffin’.The book is, like the best plays, in three parts: ‘arrival’, ‘gravity’ and ‘departure’. At the heart of the book, Gravity means weight, importance and falling, but also the force pulling bodies together. As in families, lovers, becoming a mother.The final section, caring for dying parents, bring touching insights. The title poem is particularly effective. A plumb line is an axis pointing to the centre of gravity, but in the biblical sense it’s also the standard by which people live. Like family. So, when her frail father actually thanks the narrator, she tells herself: ‘it’s the plumb line between us.’Exquisitely, the poet sings her dying father out in Sanskrit and finds ‘his eyes are polyhedrons’, the way we all have many faces, and the end line: ‘I’m gazing at the mask of a Greek monster’ surely both references her father’s Greek blood, and suggests she has seen behind the mask.Read this and be moved, warmed and inspired!
These courageous poems leave me in awe, and the transparency of emotion is breathtaking. Visceral, authentic, and deeply emotive. I am breathless. The poet manages to seamlessly weave poetic dexterity with raw, transparent emotion. A truly brave and skillful collection from a highly talented poet. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
I read this at one sitting – totally captivated by it. It deals with powerful, difficult emotional experiences with a gentle deftness. Loved it.
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.
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.
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.
Hélène Demetriades The Plumb Line reviewed by Rebecca Gethin
The Plumb Line by Hélène Demetriades. £10.99 Hedgehog Press ISBN 978-1913499334 . (Also signed copies available from the author: www.helenedemetriadespoetryy.co.uk )
Hélène Demetriades chose the perfect title for her award-winning, first collection: its cover shows a simple plumb line that drops vertically into the depths of her life in every poem. Divided into three parts, the poems explore her childhood before she was sent to boarding school and afterwards, motherhood and then the last years of her parents’ lives. The biographical narrative drives this collection, fuelled by suspense and deep compassion. The divisions have the effect of adding weight to the plumb line, each poem being a small accretion.
Her choice of language is direct and simple, her fearless voice speaks from heart and soul:
‘On a pebble beach draining into grey sea
a place so desolate I feel my life has died
I long for the mountains
the green belly of my village.’
In a poem tellingly entitled ‘Appeasement’ she gives three examples in short stanzas where she manages to dodge being assaulted. Her final No, I won’t do that setting a boundary in a perilous situation. Tellingly these are the only words the child speaks.
The events in these poems start innocuously enough but tension accumulates as the fragile vulnerability of this lonely child, navigating the world from the background of what proves to be such an insecure home, is revealed. Even the reserved mother recognises this in ‘Letter from Home’ where she states, ‘not having Daddy around would be a relief’ while she herself is trapped alone at home with him. It’s ironic that a child needs a secure home background to survive well at boarding school. Furthermore, we read in ‘The Aluminium Grater’:
‘Mum is the star I revolve around.
She leans into the grater daily
bolstering herself, I spin away.’
The tone is set from the outset where the poet’s thumb (the speaker in this poem) provides no comfort because ‘she skinned me / with her teeth’ so it is ‘sheathed in a black leather / thumbstall / tied to her wrist’. This poem illustrates from the very start how her line endings often feel like little gasps or sharp inhalations. They are as precise and effective as the deftly placed word chimes.
There’s menace in each poem, rendered more powerful by its understatement. In ‘Playing Dead’ we read about the tortures perpetrated by boarding school companions who ‘squeeze toothpaste into my nostrils’ compared to a memory from home when
‘….. I fell out of bed
too afraid to cry out to my mother
who slept next to an ogre.
I lay on the floor
squeezing my anus
tight as a rosebud.’
Is it because of the father’s frequent rages are to be avoided at all costs? The extent of his abuse is never revealed but remains a looming presence throughout. His outbursts are cruel and he stones a blackbird caught in the raspberry cage so seems capable of anything.
Along with suspense and trepidation the reader experiences a dark wit and often a self-deprecating humour. The effect is often surprising as in ‘My Sister Takes a Happy Family Photo’ where she describes herself:
‘My eyes are half-closed
in a plump face,
bright bag and shaggy coat
spilling over my arm
head jerked back
like a horse refusing to jump.’
or in this poem entitled ‘Whitegates (1)’ about the family home:
‘The playroom houses the dog and black and white TV,
the kitchen a chequered floor
where I cower, a small pawn, arm across my face.’
Demetriades’ courage shines in every poem. Clear-eyed and lucid she documents in this first section her father’s unfatherly utterances and her mother’s lonely helplessness except for the (one) ‘time Mum has intervened’ in ‘On Being Sent Away to Boarding School’. The last poem in this section captures how her father seems unable to express affection without it being sexual in ‘My Funny Valentine’:
‘… you send me a Valentine
of a man baby holding a heart
over his genitals and he’s blushing
and the card is saying,
IF YOU CAN’T BE GOOD
Later in life he quips that bees may pollinate her and the taxi driver ‘will think I’m your beau, (although excuse me, you’re 80), you are my father.’
A vein of menace and unease runs through the second section, ‘Gravity’, too, from the difficult childbirth and a dash to hospital in ‘28 Hours’:
‘Clutching the back seat of the car
I stare out at the world tuning without me.’
to ‘Keeping You Close’ where,
‘That night on the ward dark figures loom
in spectral succession at the end of my bed
admonishing me for keeping you
tucked to my chest.’
Although I feel there’s more to explore here in a later collection, I admire the poet’s choice of irregular stanzas. It gives the feel of words tumbling out in a rush, that there is no order, that everything find its own level. And yet these are short poems that are packed with nuance. Another skill is her dexterous use of ordinary things which carry significance beyond themselves. Nothing seems extraneous in these spare, compressed poems where the words have been wisely chosen. For example, in ‘Goodies’ her daughter comes home with doughnuts and broccoli from her Sunday morning job which reminds the poet of her father returning home with walnuts, pistachios and Swiss cheese. The last two lines strike deep:
‘Every evening the kitchen was filled
with his bounty and tyranny.’
The final section, ‘Departure’, the poet and her ageing mother have reached a quiet trustfulness in the first poem entitled, ‘In Solitude Together’:
You at the river’s edge, your walking stick
and painful hip, me wading to the spot
where the rivers join, turning my head,
catching your eye. This is our church –
the quietness of the river’s gush and pour,
the sullen rocks, a mother’s longing
for her daughter beyond the hailstone chatter.
The eye is introduced here and remains a repeating image throughout this section when the father’s eyes are hooded like a hawk’s; do not close in sleep and then ‘break the surface’ and later pulse with light; then become ‘polyhedrons’ after death. The language of the body and its basic needs creates tenderness.
Ultimately there is sympathy and compassion for her dying father. In the title poem the plumb line’s weight or gravity, its conscious work, provides the compassion needed to become the ‘safe-keeper’. Every breath becomes important, a counterpoint with the echo of death. In ‘Final Call’ she receives his kiss and’ feels the us of everything’. In ‘Daddykins’ she writes,
‘I stroke your cheeks,
whisper you sweet nothings,
sing you broken bits of nursery rhyme.
Conjure you into a loving daddy
with my breath.’
And in the very next poem, ‘Familial Intimacy’ his rage surfaces again:
‘We are chugging to your death
on the panting rhythm of your breath…
… you’re hopeless! you hiss.
You are the death adder, Acanthopis
I flee your bedside. You slip back
into your body’s fevered decoupling.’
While he lies on the ‘frontline of death’ she sings Buddhist mantras for him, watching him leave as he breathes ‘in and out, in and out’ until his last inhalation from which he ‘take(s) wing’. These elegies are sharpened in the final poem by the ambivalence of the poet’s feelings where spaces between the words accept wordlessness in the face of this man’s life and death and the face that she’s been concentrating on throughout these last poems finally crystallises itself: ‘I’m gazing at the mask of a Greek monster’.
Rebecca Gethin has written five poetry publications. She was a Hawthornden Fellow and a Poetry School tutor. Vanishings was published by Palewell Press in 2020. She was a winner in the first Coast to Coast to Coast pamphlet competition with Messages. Her next pamphlet is to be published by Maytree Press in 2023. She blogs sporadically at www.rebeccagethin.wordpress.com.