Posted on March 22, 2023
I hesitate to say a book is wise — that seems dangerous — but this book is wise. However, the wisdom in Unfinishing comes not from marble-carveable or Instagram-shareable truisms but from careful attention not only to the world and life as it is experienced but to attention itself. The poems enact a deep mindfulness — to metaphysics and to the process of thinking. Henderson evokes the flux and fluidity of consciousness: our experience of time and memory. But not only is there (to use Fred Wah’s famous title) “music at the heart of thinking,” there is also “thought at the heart of music.”
what we truly know
if even for an instant
we know by heart.
and so the world speaks to us (“There is a Way”)
Observation and awareness don’t only yield music, sensitivity to the music of the world (particularly nature and consciousness) yields thought. These poems come “Out of the Fabric of Knowing,” as the title of one poem puts it. Henderson has
in the writing
of what I used to think
I could easily read” (“Texts (at the end of the world)”)
The insight is understanding that perception and understanding are always a process, akin to Stevens’ “the mind in the act of finding,/What will suffice.” These are poems that unfold the experience of being in the world, of knowing and unknowing. We dwell, as Keats’ writes “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” And Henderson writes about this with great beauty, musicality and tenderness:
once upon a time the years move across our garden
like shadows of stratocumulus candles
burn down into wells of themselves
(How Light We are Becoming)
Notice the elegantly slippery grammar of “Once upon a time the years move . . .” Things aren’t entirely as they seem or as we expect but contain revealing multitudes of nuance and paradox.
who would have imagined beginnings themselves
would have no beginning
(“Translations from an Unknown Language”)
Indeed as the title of that poem notes, at times these poems give the impression that they are translations from another language, language as a second English, one more attuned to our actual perception and experience and which we too often slide over because of the well-polished surface of standard English.
There is a profound awareness of existential issues revealed in stunning lines of great subtlety:
at the point of death
each using their own lost things
as fuel (“On Afterlives”)
and the rain
the rain in falling
falls as if falling
might save it (“More Misunderstandings”)
Both these excerpts demonstrate compassion and insight into the emotional experience of living — of loss and memory in the first, of seeking consolation or perhaps hope in the second. Henderson finds small pivot points in language to evoke these feelings, for example the emotional tenor of “falling,” made to carry more feeling that just descending precipitation. Or these exquisite few lines from “Photograph at Evening Looking West Out to Sea”:
they are going
is with them
Again, the piquant grammatical spice. “Everywhere/they are going” is not quite idiomatic. Likewise, what does it mean for “everywhere” to be with one? But of course, the sentence is telling. It has the kind of compassionate metaphysical life wisdom that this remarkable book is rich in. We could unpack the phrase a number of ways — we are always already who we are or strive to be, or we are always already our experiences. Perhaps a sense of our fate or destination accompanies us from the beginning, or defines us. The world, the future, our eventual memory, is with us and keeps us company. In fact, the previous lines Reviews 107 reveal an image of more specific companionship, “in this streaming and stillness at once of/movement and this moment blurring/all the washes of time flashed”:
travelling as if
Tender and touching. Note also the “washes of time” and “streaming and stillness at once.” In these poems the world is both changing — a living thing in the flow of time — but also still and everpresent. Perhaps as the opening of “What Every Stream Knows” so gorgeously puts it, time and both one’s self and thinking know:
how to arrive
This is a masterful collection of vivid, delicate and yes, wise poems, poems of tender awareness and continual and energizing arrival. A book of profound intelligence, compassion and joy.
— Gary Barwin
is a writer and multi-media artist. His most recent book is Duck Eats Yeast, Explodes; Man Loses Eye.