TEXT review

The (re)Made Man

review by Katharine Coles



Paul Hetherington
Recent Work Press, Canberra ACT
ISBN 9780648087861
Pb 104pp AUD12.95


If the prose poem keeps its time across the sentence rather than the line, it also distinguishes itself from narrative as the lyric does, by sequestering narrative, with its relentless cause-and-effect motion, to a space outside the poem itself. Cannily situating the poems of Íkaros within the overarching context of a story so familiar most children know it, Paul Hetherington relieves himself of any obligation to provide narrative, and so allows himself to cast each poetic gesture adrift on lyric time, where the poems can operate in the realm of pure voice.

Íkaros’ famous story comes to us through so many literary and visual retellings, not least by Ovid, Breughel, and Auden, that it hardly bears revisiting. It originally came to me as, I think, to most children, as one of childhood disobedience and hubris, in which the young Íkaros refuses to ‘quell [his] restlessness’ (17) and suffers the consequences. This collection takes pains to remind us not only of the hubris of the disobedient son, but also of that of the father, Daedalus, who was an artificer, cunning maker of the Minotaur’s labyrinth and Ariadne’s dancing ground as well as the famous fashioner of intricate (and working) wings for himself and Íkaros to use to escape their imprisonment on Crete. As we all know, in spite of his father’s instructions not to fly too high, where his wax wings might be melted by the sun, Íkaros lost himself to the heady power of altitude, and he plummeted to his death in the sea, in most versions never to be seen again.

Hetherington’s lyric retelling both reminds us of Daedalus’s responsibility for his son’s tragic end, and repositions Íkaros less as a figure of too-boldly exercised power than as a product of the continued and repeated reinventions of others, occupying and reoccupying a changing world in which he must ‘[learn] machinery’s rhythm and noise’ (4), then relearn it. This deft move allows Hetherington to meditate on that third-favorite subject of poets (with love and death), techne, as in poetic and other forms of making. It also allows him to consider the question of how an ur-narrative functions across and through time as it unwinds from the story’s origination, through its various retellings, into our moment, asking as he does so how Íkaros means in each reincarnation and so what his larger significance might be within the context of human imagination. 

Thus, the book opens with Íkaros not on the banks of Lethe but on the shoulder of a freeway that ‘runs like Lethe’ (1), occupying the same functional space of the river, flowing into the urban underworld. As this human-made (as in made by and also made of) river blurs with the river of myth, so already do the ‘arms that [propel]’ become fused with ‘wings that [ensconse]’ (2), and Íkaros emerges as our culture’s first technologically enhanced body, a man with ‘parts’ that can be ‘broken’ (61) in the ‘world of machines’ (10) that Daedalus and his spiritual children imagine. Meanwhile, the story of Íkaros remains embedded in the larger story, which includes the Minotaur and Ariadne and is expressed in multiple alphabets as well as in paint and clay, all together marking the ‘imprecise locations of self’ (42), including ‘rain, snowfall, and gust’ (43), such a temporally and geographically dislocated self might inhabit. Working through substitution, the collection shifts us not only through bodies but also through consciousnesses as they arise from, examine, and shape those bodies, before being erased by what comes next, so that everything and everyone happens at once, ‘Father, childhood, Ariadne, dance floor’ all blurring and passing. ‘That is myth,’ Íkaros acknowledges; ‘I never knew it.’ Also, ‘That is memory; I was never present’ (67).

Unlike in the myth, Breughel’s painting, or Auden’s poem, but exactly in keeping with the themes of this collection, Hetherington’s Íkaros survives beyond his drowning to make a surprise recovery; though even he ‘guess[es] [him]self to be dead,’ the book washes him (and us) out of the sea and onto ‘the shore’ (62). This shore is not the freeway of the opening section, Íkaros reset in a contemporary landscape; rather, Íkaros washes back into his myth, where he and his story can await their next resurrection into a present that is still before us. Again, we find ourselves among ‘huts’ (62) in the world of Minotaur and Ariadne and their elaborate dance, a place where Íkaros is ‘no longer Íkaros’ the myth but where he ‘has no other name’ (66), only the one he was given. The one that has entered myth, which he ‘never knew’ and to which he ‘was never present,’ travels forth without him. So, near the end of the book, Íkaros wonders, ‘Who knew me so well to make of my face this inscrutable gesture?’ (64). In the next poem, he has himself become a book, and this book reveals itself an extended meditation not only on a specific identity but on the nature of identity, what it means to be – to be a self, or to make one; to be made and remade by others, by external forces including parents, engineers, history, and art. 

In this erasure and reassertion of story and memory, Íkaros emerges finally in the last section ‘as refugee,’ as the section is titled, a figure likewise persisting across time and immediately, even urgently, into our own time, where other dislocated and broken bodies keep washing up onto our shores. The book leaves Íkaros in the past and in the present, where he is taken ‘to a camp with hundreds of refusals’ (83). Thus does he move back into the present moment, refigured and bearing with him all of history in its redundancy, the cycle of repetition that makes this myth and others endlessly renewable. Despite the arduousness of the journey and its (in this case) unsatisfactory result, like so many others he’d ‘try it again,’ he says, imagining another escape; again he would ‘strap elaborate wings.’ In the last line of the book, as in the opening, he is ‘almost ready’ (87).



Katharine Coles’ memoir, Look Both Ways, will be published by Turtle Point Press in 2018; her seventh collection of poems, Wayward, is due from Red Hen Press in 2019. She also writes extensively on poetry and poetics. She is a Poet-in-Residence at the Natural History Museum of Utah and the SLC Public Library for the Poets House program FIELD WORK. Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Utah, she has received grants from the NEA and NEH and a 2012 Guggenheim Fellowship.  


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Vol 22 No 1 April 2018
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews Editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker