Cloudboy, by Siobhan Harvey, (Otago University Press, 2014), 80 pp., $25
Cloudboy comes with excellent references. It won the 2013 Kathleen Grattan Award and some of the poems were runners up in the 2012 Meanjin Dorothy Porter Poetry Prize and the 2012 Kevin Ireland Poetry Competition.
It is not difficult to see why. Cloudboy is a sustained and passionate account of the stresses, frustrations and more occasionally rewards of an autistic child’s developing interaction with the world, especially with the world of early education.
The poems together give a mosaic of this process by invoking the extended metaphor – perhaps the term should be pataphor – of cloud in its various manifestations for her son and his situation. (A pataphor is defined as an extended metaphor that goes well beyond mere ornamentation to take on a life of its own. The concept derives from the ideas of the French symbolist Alfred Jarry).
The child has a passion for clouds, and this passion is a trigger to his imagination, and thence to the poet’s imagination. Certainly the cloud trope takes on its own life as the poems unfold. All but a couple of the forty-six poems invoke the image. There is a danger here of course, that in attempting to wring every drop of juice from the metaphor the idea can become strained in both senses. Luckily, Siobhan Harvey is too accomplished a poet for this to happen and as in the definition given above, the cloud pataphor sustains itself ever more richly as new aspects are explored and elaborated. The overall effect is of a violinist double-stopping: two strings simultaneously sounding throughout the book.
At first glance the cloud trope is a daring although not especially promising analogy. A child is solid, tactile, contained; but then the possibilities begin to stack up: the mutability, the mood-inducing, the atmospherics. As Harvey enumerates in the opening poem ‘Cumulus’: ‘… shape, soul, creation and caesura. / Such softness, halation and omniscience.’ And then develops in the following poem
Cumulonimbus’: ‘… mettle, spleen, spit and fire. / Such turbulence, charge and disease.’ The opening section of thirteen poems essentially categorises clouds and deftly draws the comparisons, rarely explicitly, and a composite, complex and nuanced picture emerges. These poems are as varied in form and style as are clouds themselves, and through them we are given a picture of the ‘strange boy’ other children are taught to avoid, the protean strange boy with astonishing intellectual and artistic gifts coupled with such violence and moods that he is the ‘… bogeychild / other mothers warn their darlings about …’
The second section deals with Cloudboy’s first forays into school. In these fourteen poems, each an independent vignette, we are given a deeper understanding of the boy’s singular and creative take on the world and the increasing disconnect between this and the world of the classroom he is supposed to conform to. The nature of the child’s language is developed in the powerful poem ‘The Gifted Linguist Invents Language’, which begins ‘Not code composed in ink, ether-screed or decibel, the word is / skin, blood, and teeth … In time it will evolve into something like Wingding.’ The startling simile is at once apt, original and current and is a good illustration of Harvey’s restless inventiveness as she rummages through the language in order to nail an idea.
In the following prose poem ‘The Gifted Nephologist Goes to School’ (a nephologist is one who studies clouds, a fact neither I nor spell check realised before reading this book) the poet for the first time becomes Cloudmother, a Cloudmother who not only empathises with her son – ‘when a child starts school, so too the parents …’ but has a growing sense of her own alienation – ‘… the years she spent invisibly circling the schoolyard …’ and the fact that the whispering labelling that rains upon her son will also ‘… condense icily in the air he and Cloudmother occupy …’ These poems also chart the poet’s disenchantment with what modern education has become in New Zealand and its lack of passion, political commitment and creativity, with its punishment lines, ‘naughty circles’ and insistence on conformity. There is a narrative flow to this section, which culminates in the two poems ‘After All That’ and ‘And After All That’. The first pits the school, which has turned to the ‘rulebooks’, against the parents and the poem works though mantra-like repetitions and echo words, most notably frustration, whereas the second acts as a coda introducing the paediatrician who both diagnoses Cloudboy and offers help in the form of drugs.
The third section is meditative and considers, through the bifocal lens of Cloudboy and Cloudmother, this ‘land of migrants’. These poems are infused with iconic plants (pohutukawa, raupo, kauri), birds (tui, godwit, silvereye), animals and places, and what these all mean to those who have come to live here in Aoteoroa. While Siobhan Harvey is too subtle a poet to ever spell the link out explicitly, the knowledge that we are all recently arrived migrants to this land of cloud is the ground of these poems.
It is in the final group of poems, the poems that constitute a manifesto, however, that Siobhan Harvey’s art and artfulness are most fully revealed. Here her willingness to persist throughout with the cloud trope, the extended metaphor, the pataphor, really pays off. For in these impassioned and humane poems demanding an accepting, caring community, we discover that throughout the book she has been teaching the reader her language of clouds, language she exploits eloquently and in which her readers have been subtly schooled.
It is an admirable achievement. Few if any New Zealand poetry collections have been so focused, nor so secure in that focus. Cloudboy is a book that takes great risks but confronts those risks with courage and unflinching honesty.
JAMES NORCLIFFE is a Canterbury poet, novelist and anthologist. His recent poetry collections include Packing a Bag for Mars (Clerestory Press, 2013) for younger readers, and Shadow Play (Proverse Press, Hong Kong, 2013).