“A Happening in Hades” S K Kelen (Puncher and Wattmann) – book review

S K Kelen A Happening in Hades book cover

Hades seems to be a state of mind, not just a place, and takes readers on a tour through politics, history, love, boredom and other human conditions in a variety of forms. The opening half is a collection of casual sonnets that don’t strictly follow the rules but allow the underlying structure to give the poems a framework, a reason not to wander too far off into digressions. The first poem, “Barbarian”, starts,

“Fey provincial folk played guitars
and zithers, slowly farmed the days
they read books and sat through plays
lived their lives creatively
(crochet, writing and pottery)
oblivious to the barbarian hordes
surrounding and then they noticed.”

Each turns to prayer only for them to be replied with disaster after disaster as “the home audience stare/ at shiny screens.” Being good is punished by reduction to entertainment to keep the barbarians on the right side of the screen. Escaping into a parallel world, in this case “Parallel Worlds (Earth No. 47)” doesn’t always help as the tourist lands at a airport,

“the talk gets giggly about a new war, the time to hate,
and who to hate, keep in mind the terrorist thrill,
sexy and mysterious. Join the fight to save Propaganda.
Make do in this tiger-free dimension—at least a while—
hotter here than the last world, things fall apart fast.”

The talk starts with trivia – the idea of war so familiar that’s it’s merely gossip and picking sides as simple as keeping up with high school cliques; stick with the cool kids, you’ll be fine – like a game that doesn’t acknowledge that death is permanent, not an entry to a new life. The lack of external predators – “tiger-free” – suggests the enemy is within, neighbours report on neighbours and everyone’s a spy. Not a stable foundation for a civilisation. Contemporary references seep in, “Eternity” sees,

“Tetris plates, cups, saucers, spoons,
knives, forks, spatulas into a dishwasher
and st vitus dance a broom
(do this daily) sweep clean until doom”

Then in the calm after a storm,

“Today, a warrior made of plastic blocks
stands guard on the dining table, strong
vigil like a power ranger grandma.”

A bored mind, going through the same motions each day starts turning everything into a game, the strategic loading of a dishwasher, an inamiate lump of blocks becomes a warrior guardian.

“The Nothing Days” feels familiar after national lockdowns,

“Thursday (what date is it?
Begin forgetting), Nothing Thursday
Nothing Friday Nothing Saturday Sunday
Monday. Recite Nothing each day.
Practise this Tuesday and Thursdays
Days easily confused, they run widdershins
Last week vanished up a tree.
Or say Wednesday (note: remember: read to-do list)
Concentrate on breathing all day. Say nothing,
The day is full of hours
Breaking down to minutes, seconds
All the way to never. Stop. Think, say nothing.
Nothing every day, today. Forgotten.
Say anything and there will be trouble.”

No only have the days slipped into one another, to-do lists become something to read rather than action. Lethargy has taken over to such an extend that saying something becomes a rebellion, something with undesirous consequences. Talk may be discouraged, but music isn’t, in “Spiral”,

“the earth shifts for a jukebox number,
instrumental, ‘Love For Sale’, cool and hot,
wordless, each note suggests a word
that can be felt, seen, synaesthesia
jazz always sounds and feels great:
a lingering trumpet turns a mobile phone
speaker into a singing bird, the stereo
grows an extra dimension”

The music expands until,

“H being Himself on his tenor sax rescued,
and Herself sings blues, a city weeps.
Together they hit up joy and start to die.”

Time to hit another dimension. “Parallel World 101: Hero Product”, a prose poem, takes the reader to

“Next? Getting older you start to slow and see some day sooner your own end is coming. Our world is going to hell and the Earth is moving on. Desperately homesick for the past, we’ll miss the world’s good times when there was a future. Sure, as a species we were warlike, tyrants to each other and doom to our fellow creatures, yet invention and aspiration, the endless fascinations we discovered in the Universe, kindness, nobility of spirit, Life’s transcendent moments, art, sport and good fun balanced human evil: we wanted to live. That’s how I remember it. Now I can’t bear to hear the doomsayers’ talk nor the crazy prophets’ optimism. One side says Despair the other tells us to Rejoice, they agree we’ll all be Jelly soon.”

The collection draws to a close with two longer poems which were originally a chapbook, “Don Juan Variations” (Vagabond Books, 2012), narratives that reply on the rhyme and rhythm of poetry for pace. Naturally, this being Hades, “Don Juan Enters The Underworld” and observes,

“A line for the deceased and one
For those souls who prefer a living hell
A shambolic crew lining up with passports,
Curricula vitae, scribbled notes
Old tickets, envelopes or what-have-you.
Don Juan joined the queue.

The poets are well represented.”

A poet’s life is a living hell of teasing the extraordinary from the ordinary to entertain barbarians. Sounds about right.

S K Kelen has created a lively tour of an underworld that could be just a mis-step into a parallel universe, that uses an external landscape to mirror an internal one where characters inventively create distractions from routine, the smallness of the world and how similar everyone is. “A Happening in Hades” explores the necessity of invention, how people escape through small acts of rebellion and make the world theirs.

“A Happening in Hades” is available from Puncher and Wattmann.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

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