A “prose poem” — just to clarify the oxymoronic term in the title of Joal Hetherington’s collection “On the Edge of No Answer: prose poems” — is a poem with no line breaks. This is an oversimplification, of course, but nonetheless the guts of the meaning.

A poem, in one way of saying it, consists of language concentrated into patterns of sound and rhythm to exert an impact on readers similar to that of music. And words have the added capability of conveying imagery and abstraction. So lines break in poems to call attention to rhythmic patterns. (These may be formal, regular meters, or “free verse,” jazzlike, irregular, spoken patterns.) Not all contemporary poets seem fully conversant with this basic fact of prosody.

Joal Hetherington is, though, I’m pretty sure. Her prose poems, like all the ones that have been written since the form first took hold in France in the mid-19th century, are paragraphs that sound like poetry — there is a definite music to every entry, and they’re full of oddly constructed figures of speech and dreamlike metaphors that you normally associate with poetry, not prose. For example, “how to tell time” begins:

“No one knows what time looks like. Just ask your friends — even those who claim to be most familiar can’t tell you; it turns out they’ve only ever caught a glimpse of him turning a corner as he walks away with that fluid, unstoppable stride”

The opening sentence is kind of startling in a poetic way (who ever thought to visualize time?) and then goes on to personify time as an elusive human disappearing around corners.

Most of our poets would break this sentence (and the three that follow it) into lines that call attention to the irregular speech rhythms they form. Many times those breaks seem arbitrary, but we’d understand by looking at them that we should read them with an eye to their musical and figurative meanings. So why does Hetherington cast them as prose, instead?

The answer, to me, is: because she understands that our poetry (including hers) tends to be prosaic. So instead of pretending her prose is high poetry by breaking it into lines, she has the guts to mark it down as prose, in accord with longstanding conventions. She gains a lot of advantages through this unconventional honesty about convention.

One is that, since each little chapter is in prose, the whole book is a lot easier to receive as a narrative, which it is, and which you might not notice, exactly, if the chapters were cast with line breaks. The book’s six sections move through an engaging, often wry, heart-startling process of introspection which in most people (who take seriously the Socratic observation that the unexamined life is not worth living) plays out over a whole lifetime.

Section i, “the little part of you that I know,” reflects a person in a kind of youthful lostness, maybe like Dante’s dark woods in suburbia, who is trying to figure out what is happening around her, minute for minute. In “isn’t” we hear: “It isn’t what you said it was. It wasn’t what you thought he did. It takes more than that to turn wine into water. It isn’t whether, but when. It certainly isn’t Zen.”

Scene after scene is given in entertaining, precise, oddly made sentences like these. In section ii, “plan b,” we go deeper into the seeking psyche, where ghosts and numinous words live pregnantly and often bewilderingly, sometimes fragrant with the stream-of-consciousness sensibilities of Virginia Woolf. Section iii, “whatever after,” progresses into a world of explanations according to fairy tales and myths. Youthful self-importance, maybe, making its slow, painful fade.

The learning, maturing narrative voices move from fantasized to practical problems of self-identity in section iv, “compass,” only to discover toward the end in “destination” that the journey has led to “the suspension-of-disbelief bridge, which has only a middle and no beginning or end, and you realize for the first time that all things are possible.” Notes toward a supreme fiction of life.

This revelation does not lead to nirvana, however. Section v is titled “guilty bystander,” where the expanded consciousness finds uncertainty on a level the narrators of section i had no inkling of. Section vi is titled “life in prism,” a play on words that delightfully reflects the inescapable unsteadiness of a late-life wisdom. “Holding still” begins: “It only works if you think of it as flying — soaring, hovering in place, the kind of vivid unmotion that achieves a state of grace. Otherwise it’s an endless stop-action of failed effort, the muscles that twitch, the refused world-worrying itch, the blink that shutters the day into a frame-by-frame shatter.”

To oversimplify it, this is a book about how the humdrum world, your innermost psyche and what you tell yourself about them fuse to make the place (story) you live in. It’s in prose, but it strikes your mind like good poetry, which means you grasp it beyond the limits of rational understanding.

The language in this book is clinically precise, startlingly evocative and funny. One of the best books of poetry that’s come my way in some time.

Joal Hetherington, of Kittery, has received Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance awards and is a co-founder of the Pen Central writers group. “On the Edge of No Answer” is available through book stores, Bauhan Publishing (bauhanpublishing.com/edge-no-answer) and online book sellers.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first Thursday of each month. Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].

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