Wild Court

An international poetry journal based in the English Department of King’s College London

On ‘Fear of Forks’ by Hilary Menos

Matthew Stewart

One of the main reasons for exerting restraint in poetry is to play with what is held back, left unsaid. The portrayal of linguistic and existential order implicitly hints at the disorder lurking just beneath the surface of our sentences and our lives. Read in this context, the unshowy method Hilary Menos exhibits in her latest pamphlet, Fear of Forks (HappenStance Press, 2022), has ramifications that echo throughout.


An especially illustrative example can be found in the poem titled ‘Mise en Place’, which begins with a description of perfect precision:


After a year on the Bac Pro Cuisine
he is au fait with the mise en place, blasé with a baton,
each polished knife, fork, spoon

nudged by a knuckle to an inch from the table edge,
glasses for water, white wine, red, triangulated,
salt cellar facing the kitchen…


Here, Menos’ use of language is as exact and measured as the table setting that she evokes: semantics mirroring syntax. And then, as the poem moves forward, a sense of foreboding enters, the skilled contemporary youth of the opening stanzas is juxtaposed with other, equally deft waiters of another era who were doomed to die on the Titanic. The infamous disaster is not referred to by name, the waiters’ deaths never explicitly invoked, so that realisation of the scene only gradually dawns on the reader via a list of gorgeous cutlery “sucked into the depths/spangling like silver fish all the way down.”


This understatedness conversely intensifies the impact, the sense of loss. Moreover, via her use of juxtaposition, Menos is also hinting at the fragile nature of youth, and at a parent’s constant fears for their children even in apparently safe circumstances. This resonates all the more deeply for the poet’s restraint.


In syntactic terms, meanwhile, Menos maintains the appearance of order even as the ship is going down, her linguistic precision still intact. Where others may have chosen to break up the language to reflect the chaos described, Menos prefers to generate an implicit tension between meaning and line, determined to fight the losing battle against disorder and mortality, just as we do in our own lives.


Cutlery isn’t just significant in the collection’s title and in the above-mentioned poem. Rather, it plays a pivotal role in enabling Menos to lay out a whole poetic aesthetic and attitude to life itself. If the driving force of Fear of Forks is a tension between order and disorder, between control and loss of control, cutlery provides her with a terrific leitmotif, as in ‘Knifework’:


...Behind him, on the beech rack, his first knife,
the Petty we had made for his tenth birthday
with an A1 steel blade, a handle of lignum vitae
and a ferrule forged from a brass threepenny bit...


This poem, which further demonstrates Menos’ mastery of line, cadence and sentence, intentionally subverts its own precision in its hinting at a parent’s letting go of their child into the wider world, to have them exposed to all the potential risks and disorder that come with growing up.


One poem, ‘Universal Key’, seems not to fit with the pamphlet at first glance. There’s no knife-wielding teenager here, no homage to special cutlery. But on re-reading, its significance becomes clear, especially in light of the following lines:


...I put it on the mantelpiece, wind it once a week
– a sacred ritual for my temporal life –
or it stops and no amount of winding can start it,

or it stops and I don’t care and the key gets lost
and the clock is deposed, relegated to a high shelf.
Or I drop it off a cliff (There are many versions.)...


As is inevitable when addressing Hilary Menos’ poetry in general, a questioning, a probing, and an invitation to thought permeate this poem, expressed via the tension between permanence and temporality, fact and fiction. Two sides of the same coin, of course, complementing the rest of the collection, striking up a dialogue between individual pieces and incorporating added layers of nuance.


Current trends might dictate that Fear of Forks be ignored by critics and readers alike. Restraint is out of fashion, along with linguistic control. And few poets trust us to probe beyond what’s left unsaid. But these are precisely the qualities that make Hilary Menos’ poetry so convincing and satisfying. A proper meal with proper cutlery – one that lingers on the memory’s palate.







One response to “On ‘Fear of Forks’ by Hilary Menos”

  1. Poetry Blog Digest 2022, Week 50 – Via Negativa avatar

    […] Restraint is out of fashion, along with linguistic control. And few poets trust us to probe beyond what’s left unsaid. But these are precisely the qualities that make Hilary Menos’ poetry so convincing.My review of ‘Fear of Forks’, Hilary Menos’ new pamphlet from HappenStance Press, is now up at Wild Court (read the piece in full via this link). […]