A Habit of Writing by Helen Jacobs (Cuba Press, 2020), 60pp, $25; Social Media by Mary Macpherson (Cuba Press, 2019), 56pp, $25; Sinking Lessons by Philip Armstrong (Otago University Press, 2020), 54pp, $27.50
When you pick up Helen Jacobs’ A Habit of Writing, the first thing you’ll notice is the stunning, vivid cover, a detail from artwork by Julia van Helden. While I’m no art scholar or critic, the impressionistic sketch prompted me to stop and breathe in the colors—a fitting primer to Helen Jacobs’ meditative poems. Writing these poems as a 91-year-old environmental activist and former mayor of Eastbourne, Jacobs draws from life in a retirement village. While the title speaks to the ‘habit of writing’, the poems emerge from a habit of noticing, of paying close attention. These poems could only be written by someone with a deep practice of skilful observation, both of the physical world and the realm of thought. Many of Jacobs’ poems are short, capturing a small image from life as a retiree. Their simple diction but cleverly shaped syntax stilled me. I found myself drawn to re-read and, indeed, to slow down from my own wily mind. These poems carry within them a depth of metaphorical resonance and complex knowing.
What Jacobs has to share with us seems to defy the boundaries we set between stages of life. She is writing about being in her later stages of life, but she doesn’t seem to set this in opposition to any other phase. Rather than being an older poet who sees ‘ills’ of today or wishes to bestow wisdom on ‘youths’, Jacobs sees kinship, tries to dance alongside them: ‘I push my wheeler and / tap my toe’ (‘To the young’, p. 36). These poems hold me as poems of wisdom. They succeed in doing so by avoiding a pedantic stance, by following the voice of one who is still learning even after a life filled with experience—political and otherwise. In a few simple lines, Jacobs says so much, such as in ‘Time’:
The numbered years
at odds with stretched-out days
without a schedule of work.
And yet busyness,
or maybe a nap,
and I miss the broadcast news. (p. 32)
Lamenting the loss of ‘a schedule of work’ that comes with retirement, in 2020, this poem resonates with the lockdown experience of the general population, and the way that even when there was no ‘work to be done’, ‘busyness, / or maybe a nap’ could interfere with our industrious plans. The vertical proximity of ‘busyness’ to ‘nap’ explodes the contradiction implied by ‘or’. As I re-read this poem, I read the collapse between our notions of activity and rest as a subtle critique at the hustle capitalism fosters. Jacobs equates busyness with a distraction not wholly different from napping.
On the next page, Jacobs does it again in the poem ‘Name search’:
Your way of talking, the lie of your hair,
are familiar but nameless as your skin.
Your name has slipped
behind the curtains,
behind the books on the table,
behind the shrubs or hugging the grass.
It is elusive along the supermarket shelves.
I know your name, but not just now.
It is behind your eyes. (p. 33)
In a voice that does not explain anything to us heavy-handedly, Jacobs employs juxtaposition, metaphor, declaration and the literal to pull us deeply into the moments she monumentalises. Here, a poem about struggling to recall a name becomes a meditation on both the world of the aging mind, and on identity being something beyond a name. The ‘your’ in the poem reads as ‘ours’, the readers’. By reminding us that our hair and skin are nameless, and ending the poem saying our name is ‘behind your eyes’, this poem doubles as an ode to interiority—how, despite the ways the world will name us, ultimately there is a part of us no one can touch, that only we have the right to name.
Jacobs’ latest collection reminded me of what drew my young self to poetry—that so few words, arranged just so, can radiate into layered meaning. But it is not abstraction that creates this multiplicity, it is the literal and, in Jacobs’ case, a reverent mode of observing the mundane. While I do not know Jacobs, and have not read her previous work, I feel honoured to have been introduced to her poetry. I feel I have met someone who, through her rich settler life and relationship with the place of Aotearoa New Zealand, has learned to live with an eye to constant learning. What a gift that readers receive in learning from Jacobs’ deceptively simple observations.
Mary Macpherson’s Social Media directs our observing senses in another direction. Whereas Jacobs pays attention to the small moments and encounters that shape a life, Macpherson is interested in how language from the digital sphere—social media and ubiquitous marketing—shapes our sense of self. Social Media is split into three sections: Sections 1 and 3 are written from the voice of one speaker—presumed to be close to that of the poet—and section 2 is a series of poems following fictional characters named X, Y, R and S. The relationship between these characters starts via an online writing group, before ‘graduating’ to in-person intimacy between characters X and Y.
The online forum mediates and filters our reception of these characters. We must rely on the characters’ impressions of one another. In this way, each character is reduced to a mere sum of projections from others. In section 2, form is an extension of content that Macpherson employs to reinforce the layered mediations through which we perceive our reality today. Our sense of self and other is co-constructed by digital rhetoric. In poems such as ‘River’ (p. 24), Macpherson repeats the verb ‘worries’ for each of the characters, who worry over fictional projections they create for the others, their digital friends. These projections solidify into concrete images taken to be truths about one another. Later in the section, such as in the poem ‘Subtraction’ (p. 28), Macpherson uses the characters’ interactions to question the way we construct the identity of others—often falsely. The second footnote of the poem asks the pointed question: ‘Can she [Y] only say who a person is by subtracting them from another?’ (p. 29). This question recalls popularised business pitches where one defines a company through a qualified comparison such as ‘TikTok is like Instagram, but for videos.’ The character of Y, estranged to us through the medium of fiction, wonders about the echo chambers created when we transfer this marketing technique to each other. We feel the claustrophobia created through reductive acts of comparison.
Macpherson uses questions throughout the collection to lead us out of these reductive fictions of self. ‘Litter’ (p. 15) is a catalogue of questions by turn humorous and poignant, which builds a light-hearted self-consciousness: ‘Which would you rescue / the family pet or your computer? / Do you think your computer is upset / when it gurgles or whirrs?’ The poem’s voice reminds me of Otago poet Liz Breslin, whose poems estrange the tiny moments of everyday life to humorous and self-mocking effect. When Macpherson’s speaker asks, ‘How often do you choose / the name of your first family pet / as a security question?’ (p. 15), I feel the anxious eye of judgment upon me for often choosing that question. Even the innocuous facts of life, through the language of memes and social media, become catachrestic fill-ins for who we are. These poems capture the resulting anxiety, such as in ‘Dog mask’ where the speaker is twice interrupted, presumably by a voice in the head (indicated by italics) that interrogates the speaker with the questions ‘Am I silly or convincing?’ and ‘Am I being superficial?’ (p. 17). Even as the poems drop overt markers of the internet in section 3, we carry this heightened, accusatory self-awareness even into the ‘natural’ world. This book reinvigorates our awareness of how social media not only impacts those who engage with it—it shapes the world itself. There is no escape!
The title of Philip Armstrong’s Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award-winning collection, Sinking Lessons, evokes another contemporary reality we cannot escape—the ecological crisis. The word ‘sinking’ in the book’s title resonates, omnidirectionally building a conceit that buoys the reader. The title refers to the literal sinking of historical ships such as the HMS Orpheus, which sank en route from Sydney to Auckland in 1863 (inspiration for ‘Song of the Orpheus’), a ‘drowning’ of childhood love and innocence that the myth of Orpheus evokes, and a reference to our sinking world as sea levels rise.
Armstrong uses sonically driven lyric to meld the ‘real’ world with a heavily allusive imaginary one. His speakers return to quiet memories of childhood by the sea, while inviting allusions to literary figures such as Melville, Shelley and Shakespeare to illuminate some of these memories at a distance. These sonic and allusive qualities weave throughout the book, which is comprised of short stand-alone poems of compressed diction that punctuate four sets of poems written in series, and culminates in the six-page climactic ‘Song of the Orpheus’ mentioned above.
Music, through changing rhyme schemes, sibilance and internal rhyme, weaves these disparate threads together. Song strings the clothesline along which childhood memory, historical memory, ecological history and imagination hang in the sun. Armstrong’s poems dissolve the borders we fix between human and non-human, past and present. In ‘Die Traumdeutung’ (p. 14), Armstrong’s speaker writes of dreaming alongside his dog:
As I drift off he kicks me, animated
by the fetch and whistle of his dreams.
Next moment, I dream dreams created
by his nudges, while his dreaming rhymes
in turn with every spasm of my spine.
I can’t imagine where it leaves my claims
to being human, where I draw the line (p. 14)
The repetition of ‘dream’ and the long ‘e’ sounds, coupled with the end rhymes and consonance between ‘spasm’ and ‘spine’, create a textured music in which the boundaries between dog and human disappear into sleep. It is fitting that these poems often employ rhyme, a form associated with childhood song and wonder. The music lulls us into a dream-like state where we can re-imagine our relationship to the non-human. In this case, it is the dog; in others it is the sea, the fictional stories, and the ships sunk with all the lost stories they held.
These poems champion wonder, and if something connects the lessons the poems carry, perhaps it is the fact that the past ‘never moves into pastness’, as scholar Christina Sharpe has written in her book In the Wake: On blackness and being (Sharpe 9). Looking back with personal, imaginative and historical lenses, Armstrong’s poems remind us that the boundaries between human and non-human are artificial; that if we pay attention to the past in our present, we can re-imagine our silo-ed world.
I am grateful to have read these books in conversation with one another. Diverse in form and tone, they are all driven by a sharp sense of observation—and they challenge me to question the language through which my inner narrator describes and judges the world. After reading Macpherson, I’ve caught my impulse to presume the intentions of folks with whom I’m communicating over email and Zoom chats. After putting down Jacobs’ book, I stop long enough to take in a bumblebee clinging to a nasturtium petal outside and the McDonald’s wrapper drifting along the grass beside it. As I walk along the harbour shore, Armstrong’s voice teaches me to indulge in my own memories and reveries. At the start of a year primed to bring its own new challenges, these books have heightened all my senses.
RUSHI VYAS is a US-born poet of Indian descent who lives in Ōtepoti Dunedin. His first collection of poetry, When I Reach for Your Pulse, will be published in 2023 by Four Way Books (NYC). He has been a two-time finalist for the National Poetry Series (US) and his chapbook of poems ‘Physics from the Scaffold’ (unpublished) was named runner-up for the 2020 Center for Book Arts Chapbook Contest and finalist for the Anzaldúa Poetry Prize. He is currently working on a creative/critical project on rituals and poetic practice as a PhD student at the University of Otago Te Whare Wānanga o Ōtākou.