Paul Hetherington and Jen Webb, Watching the world (Review)

Hetherington and Webb, Watching the worldI hope it’s not condescending to suggest, at this time of year, that a book would make a good Christmas present? I know some publishers, and fair enough too, choose around now to release certain types of books deemed to be good gift material. That, however, is not the case with this book, Watching the world, as it was in fact published back in July. It’s just that I’m reviewing it now and, quite coincidentally, I think it would make a good Christmas book. This is not because it’s a light, easy summer read, as it’s not your typical beach book, but because it’s a very attractive book that is priced reasonably and that can be enjoyed in multiple ways. You can meander through it sequentially, stopping to ponder, or dip in and out, exploring what catches your fancy.

Subtitled Impressions of Canberra, Watching the world comprises poems by Paul Hetherington paired with photographs by Jen Webb. It has a rather interesting genesis, as the Introduction explains, in that it’s the “result of an extended collaboration” between the poet and the artist. Their aim was to explore Canberra as a place in which people live and work, rather than, as is usually the case, as a planned city that is also the national capital. I like that idea. Too often Canberra is used as shorthand for the federal government – as in “Canberra said today ….”. But, as we who live here know, there is far more to Canberra than that.

Hetherington and Webb’s method of working was interesting too. They worked, they say, semi-independently:

Jen took photographs, which Paul then used as springboards into poems. Paul’s poems led, in turn, to Jen taking new photographs, or editing existing ones.

They continued this “iterative process” until they found “enough poem-photo pairs” that would satisfy their intention. They suggest that in this method of working a new “reality” appeared, one that was somehow separate both from themselves as individuals and from their partnership, a reality which confronted them with ideas about “the incommensurability of world, image and word”. That makes sense to me – I think! At least, it makes sense to me that we never can completely or exactly capture in one form – say poetry – that which is in another form – in this case life in Canberra. It seems both obvious and sophisticated at the same time to make this point! And so, when you have a poem and a photograph both “commenting” on each other and on life in Canberra, then the meaning (or the “reality”) surely becomes multi-layered? Hmmm … I think I’ll leave the philosophising here, but I hope that I’m making sense and that I’ve understood what Hetherington and Webb are saying.

Now, I’ll get to more concrete stuff (a very poetic word, that), starting with the wider project. In the Introduction, again, we are told that it was initially produced as an installation for the Imagine Canberra exhibition during Canberra’s 2013 centenary celebrations. It then had a couple of other iterations – at a conference, and as a set of scholarly essays – before finding its way into this book form this year. I love that they have managed to achieve such varied mileage out of their work.

And finally, the book itself. The poem-photo pairs are divided into three sections – Where we live, Memory places, and Paddocks and perambulations. They are, as you’d expect from the process described, idiosyncratic, although there is logic too to the groupings. The first poem-pair is titled “Waltz” and captures the physical sense of Canberra. I was amused by the poem’s opening:

Like algebra, these straight-drawn streets,
curves, crescents and rounding circles

Starting with the “straight-drawn streets” must surely be a little provocative gesture to the popular cry from tourists that they get lost in Canberra’s circles! We do, I’m sure, have far more traditionally designed streets than circular ones. It’s just that the circular pattern is a feature of the inner, early Canberra where tourists focus. The accompanying image is a low aerial shot of a warm, cosy looking Canberra suburb in autumn. The poem suggests that there is magic in Canberra, that for all the apparent “algebra” in its straight lines and curves, there is much here that cannot be easily defined or narrowed down to simple formulae.

The poems vary in tone. There is, for example, a subdued reference to indigenous inhabitants in “Ainslie”, whimsical self-deprecation in the simply titled “Canberra”, and wry or defiant humour in “Letter”. At least, it made me laugh: a woman hands her letter to someone, perhaps a husband she is leaving:

‘I know it’s not done
to be so formal
but just this once
I’d like the last word’

The accompanying image shows the back of a blue car driving away in light rain.

Sometimes the meanings of the poems and the connections with the photography are clear and unambiguous, more literal perhaps. Other times they are more tenuous, or abstract, as in “Handkerchief” with its accompanying leaf-litter image, encouraging the reader-viewer to delve further. I enjoy these challenges. It would be interesting to see whether different combinations challenge different readers.

The images are, of course, important, though being primarily a verbal/textual person, my focus tends to be the words. However, there are some gorgeous images here. I’ve mentioned a couple already. I also like the mystical tone of the poem-photo pair titled “Boundaries”, the sense of coming into and out of our different spiritual and physical selves, our individual and our social selves, and so on. A simple image and a two-line poem. Perfect.

Some of the pieces are universal, that is, they could apply to a lot of places in which people live, but many draw on signs and symbols familiar to Canberrans – the circles, the balloons, and Black Mountain Tower, for a start. We are a bush capital, and along with our trees come the birds. I enjoyed the cheekiness of the poem titled “Birds” (and the accompanying image setting movement against stillness) which suggests that for all the planning, life in the city might have other ideas. If you are now intrigued, have a look at the sample provided online by Blemish Books. That will probably speak louder than my 1000 words!

Watching the world is a quietly subversive work that looks at Canberra from an insider’s point of view – with a lot of affection but a willingness to cast an acerbic or questioning eye at times too. And remember, it’s Christmas soon!

Paul Hetherington and Jen Webb
Watching the world: Impressions of Canberra
Canberra: Blemish Books, 2015
ISBN: 9780994250827

(Review copy courtesy Blemish Books)