How to describe Heather Minette’s Half Light? Half-asleep, “half-awake,” half-empty, “half-asking,” half-full, “half-note,” half-life, “half-moon,” half-dark, “half-light.” Each poem is a sparse vignette (in both meanings of the word), mostly colloquial in tone and expertly half-finished in a way that allows for a cosmos of unremembrances to enclose every stanza, navigated by a vague meditation.
Across these pages, Minette is mourning memory and remembering mourning. For example, in “Christmas ’88,” while the narrator watches a VHS of Christmas past with her brother, noting that the family members in the video are changed or deceased or both, she is struck with a spasm that causes her to knock her brother’s wine glass onto the rug and “I watch the kidney-shaped stain fade from purple to gray/ and I will it to settle,/ so that if I lose him like the others,/ there will be tangible history/ of this night/—a memory recorded.” Mistakes, imperfections, even ugliness itself, can serve as reminders of the past, which is wont to become fonder with the exponential avalanche of hours, days, years, lifetimes. Or, more accurately, the looming of our future return to earth’s soil. Eventually the future becomes the present, then irrevocably the past, a seemingly obvious phenomenon that is all too easily forgotten in the immediate focal point of the quotidian. Yet it can all spiral, crisscross, and tangle.
One of the narrator’s earliest pre-mourning memories, or half-mourning, is realizing in “Sand Mermaids” (half-human, half-fish) that her artistic mother is not a god, as the vantage of early childhood makes parents seem, but impermanent “like the spring flowers/ that wither in the summer heat,/ the papier-mâché faces that fall from tall bookshelves,/ the glass dishes that break on tile floors,/ and the sand mermaids that wash away/ in the morning tide…” With this, Minette allows us to peer at her peering into the ethereal river of instance and flux, as Marcus Aurelius noted across time, near the beginning of the common era.
As it is with her mother, so it is with her father at an unspecified time probably later in life. At her father’s best friend’s funeral, the narrator of “A Silent Promise” describes how her father transforms grief into humor and “the heavy air unfolds with laughter.” Yet, while walking to the car, she makes a promise to herself regarding her father’s inevitable funeral, or perhaps the world as whole, “When you can’t be there, we’ll still laugh./ I swear to God I’ll make them laugh.” Like sex, humor can ward off death, or at least ameliorate it.
There are recurrences of glass, flowers, rooms and their walls, some wine (half-full, half-empty), some cigarettes (half-ash, half-paper), orchestrated and enwrapped in melancholy, for in these faded word-photographs the reader’s irises catch flashes and exposures of mortality in its varied but unified forms. Sometimes definite, as with the “infant graves/ of Parker Cemetery” in “Small Hand,” sometimes indefinite, as with the woman of “Portrait of a Gypsy,” in which the narrator explains that the woman’s “left arm cradled her empty stomach.” It’s a simple image that evokes complex insinuations: the famine of the destitute, the hollowness of a dead or aborted or missing child, the pain of some internal illness. It’s the peripheral that can create “an abyss that sings….” Lulling, distracting, communicating in a familiar yet esoteric tongue.
It’s not a mystery as to why the word ‘oblivion,’ which comes from the Latin for ‘forget,’ is associated with both the sleep of consciousness and the sleep of sleep, Hypnos and Thanatos. “If I had the courage/ I’d ask you to remember….” The mere act of remembering, or evoking it in someone else, is an act of courage, for it temporarily defies the Sleep, taunts it even.
And when we cease to remember, we cease in part to exist, neuron by neuron. The narrator’s friend in “Cindy Sue Moved to the Country” “talks with her hands/ like her father,/ the left in a circular motion/ above her head,/ willing into existence/ a forgotten word.” I first read the last word as ‘world,’ only to reread and realize that it was, in fact, ‘word.’ I believe this mental Freudian slip is indicative of a truth that is one and the same: the world exists in words (as well as in ancient images), and vice versa. And Cindy Sue’s forgotten word is ostensibly never remembered by either of them, only remembered, if at all, as a void.
And the void takes varied forms, too. Echoing Nietzsche, Minette describes in “Flo, Texas” “a sky that doesn’t end,/ that exists to gaze back,/ to remind you that you came from somewhere,/ that your history is no one’s/ history but your own.” Our histories coalesce to form History, the former perhaps too small, the latter too large. We must bridge the gap, the void, the abyss, with expression, with art and words, with remembrance both singular and collective.
In “Returning Home from Adam’s Funeral,” the narrator puts away the occasion’s black dress in the back of her closet, where it will remain buried, for even if she washed it and wore it in a foreign country, she still “would wear the sadness.” If this book were clothing, you’d wear it, too. For all the sadness, Half Light is full-hearted.
review by George Salis
George Salis is a Swiss-American writer. He is the recipient of the Sullivan Award for Fiction, the Ann Morris Prize for Fiction, and the Davidson Award for Integrity in Journalism. His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, The Missing Slate, CultureCult Magazine, NILVX: A Book of Magic, Quail Bell Magazine, Crab Fat Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Atticus Review and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil appeared in Skeptic. He is the author of the novel Sea Above, Sun Below. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland.
Half Light is available here: