‘The House of Forever’ by Samantha Henderson

-Reviewed by William Howell

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Samantha Henderson’s collection of 21 poems, 12 of which have been previously published, presents what is at times an engaging group of work. A common thread, pointed out in the editor’s note, is the mixture of time frames in The House of Forever: from Neanderthals to aliens, King Arthur’s court to war time austerity, Henderson makes use of history, myth and fiction to depict a ‘tapestry of life’.

However, the poem from which the title is taken, ‘Veritas Was a Maid in the House of Forever’, draws the focus away from the ‘frequent theme [of time] in speculative … poetry’ that the editor strongly emphasises in the introduction onto a much more interesting question over the relationship of art and truth. The Maid, Veritas, serves the other inhabitants of the ‘House of Forever’, the ‘Milady’ and ‘Milord’ of the poem. She also serves the ‘weekend guests’, whose inability to understand robs her of all credible meaning.

Considering  that Veritas translates as ‘truth’, the poem (and the collection) takes on a more interesting position than a mere portrait of time’s ‘unraveling threads’. Veritas is found dead having hanged herself:

‘Finite, they find her,
Dangling at the end of the Butcher Boy’s rope,
Her head at an unnatural angle’

This, rather than recounting a tragedy, couldn’t be any more symbolic. ‘Truth’ being found hanging by the neck becomes a commodity, easily replaced by her relatives who arrive at the end of the poem. Truth, the ‘objective’, is reduced to the whims of the less permanent occupants that shape the ‘House of Forever’ who represent a subjective act of creation or shaping.

The collection’s exploration of subjective and objective becomes the driving force of much of what is interesting in Henderson’s poetry. ‘What Scuttles’ displays her ability to combine a variety of cultural references (‘Watch—your horror films: one with zombies; / or the Grand Guignol frisson of stepping into an open grave;’) to praise those that continue to do as their nature dictates in a world of artifice: ‘it’s in their innocence that they remain hallowed.’ There is also a knowing sense of irony at work on a number of levels in this particular poem: Henderson is aware that her experiments with perspective and truth are also shaped by a concept of ‘poetic art’, which she engages with despite the loose form of the majority of the work seen here. She finds her double in the Egyptian priests who scatter scarab beetles as part of the funeral rites, while at the same time associating the scarab’s instincts with that of the writer’s creative impulse.

The themes explored in The House of Forever are far from new, and return to very familiar ground without really giving it a good turning over. For a group of poems that explore the human proclivity to invent their own sense of reality, far too many question are asked without offering much in the way of critical engagement with those who have already visited this territory. ‘Hungry: Some Ghost Stories’ is a prime example of the problems with the way the collection reads as a whole. While offering a number of scenarios in which ‘ghosts’ and memories collide, the conclusion of each sub-section in a question leaves the reader unsatisfied instead of forcing introspection.

There are a number of poems in The House of Forever worthy of being read. Henderson’s ability to contrast history and popular culture leads to engaging narratives in her poems which raise timeless questions. However, the low points detract from the enjoyment of these more interesting poems watering down the collection as a whole. The potential of Henderson’s poetry is clear, but by the end you are quite glad that it does not go on forever.

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