Sonorous echoes

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 28.05.2021

The title is more than intriguing. Journeys into Modern Mythologies, the new collection of poems by Tom Hengen, has you guess before you turn to the first text. Will it be a tongue-in-cheek updating of classical mythology in the Carol Ann Duffy vein or a rather more solemn affair, a revisiting of the stories humans have been inventing throughout the ages in order to cope with the predicaments they face?

Well, you will soon discover that what is on offer here is neither of these more obvious options, but a mix of approaches. Thus, the opening section creates a dialogue with Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man and literally gives voice to the various stages in a human life. There is room for celebration as well as mourning and confusion, for hope as well as ambiguity. You meet ‘Eyes purified in love eternal’, but also ‘The distorted mask of man belligerent’. The word ‘soul’, which is so often dismissed nowadays as too religious or old-fashioned, returns quite often, while various ‘monochrome glimpses’ become words in their uncompromising and sometimes terrible beauty.

Hengen succeeds both in concentrating on detail and in saluting the universal nature of the exhibition created by Edward Steichen.

The second section entitled Pirates and Slaves conjures up a world of old oceans and of Romantic solitude. In the opening poem the rhythm is slowed down from the very start, becoming slightly stilted, even ponderous, as alliteration follows upon alliteration. This is, no doubt, deliberate, but it hinders the flow of ideas and sounds. Things are refreshingly different in Waltzing with the Mantis, the next text, which draws a subtle portrait of the human condition. Elsewhere lines evoke relationships that sour or breakups that free. There is the occasional contemplative portrait of nature, but strife and destruction are always lurking in the background. Moments of isolation trigger seas of memories. You will also find a poignant homage to Ashraf Fayadh, a political poem in the old tradition, both powerful and sober. A few pages later, Pequod, named after the doomed whaling-ship commanded by Captain Ahab, echoes Moby Dick as well as Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

In the final section entitled Songs of a Travelling Mind, the reader is taken on all sorts of journeys. Some are solitary, others are undertaken in welcome company: The father, the son, and the opening sky. Here there are campfires as well as teepees. At times the tone is lighter and more ironic, too. Occasionally, ‘the wounds of age’ are momentarily unbruised as ‘empty skies tell stories’ and words offer solace.

Often masterfully compressed, the poems in this section create an atmosphere of restlessness and constant movement. Situations and memories are recorded with clarity and dismay as the ‘blissful fabric of fantasy’ beckons once again. Perception flows into language. Understanding human nature, it feels, is essentially social, as it is in the photographs curated by Edward Steichen. Life becomes a journey of discovery, of closeness and sharing. Wales, San Diego, Brussels, and back once more to Wales with its archetypal landscapes. You are bound to be carried along by the enthusiasm and the energy of the language.

So it is not surprising that three lines by Walt Whitman, that giant of American literature, of open spaces and of equality, have been chosen as the epigraph to a collection which is both personal and universal. Somehow these deep poetic bonds echo the bonds of brotherhood which Tom Hengen is celebrating throughout. You are bound to feel the numerous voices within the poems come alive as soon as you sit down and let them sink in.

Tom Hengen, Journeys into Modern Mythologies, Black Fountain Press, 2021 (ISBN 978-99959-998-7-2)

Janine Goedert
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