Sarah Jane Barnett
Gleam, by Sarah Broom (Auckland University Press, 2013), 52pp., $24.99
The Baker’s Thumbprint, by Paula Green (Seraph Press, 2013), 98 pp., $25.00
Sarah Broom was a New Zealand academic and poet who was born in Dunedin but grew up in Christchurch. Broom did her postgraduate study in England including a doctorate on contemporary British and Irish poetry. She went on to lecture at Somerville College, Oxford, before returning to New Zealand in 2000. Broom’s debut collection, Tigers at Awhitu, was published by Auckland University Press in 2010.
In 2008 Broom was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer, and in 2013 passed away. Gleam is the collection that she worked on after that diagnosis and before her death, so invariably the poems are about the experience of having a terminal illness and of facing one’s own death.
While the collection has not been split into sections, the first half draws on traditional imagery from lyric poetry: the poet frequently describes the sea, the moon, her dreams and astral imagery. In some poems these familiar symbols feel fresh, such as this wonderful passage about the moon:
but tell me also
what it is like
to be carved
to be regularly
to have to become
a stray eyelash
a flake of soap floating
in the wide black bath of sky.
While the images in these poems are beautifully rendered, at times they are too expected and manageable to bring us into the experience of living with cancer. There are hints towards a world outside the seascape – the ‘tankers / sleepy on the horizon’ and the almost scientific ‘I have heard that we are mostly made up of empty spaces’ – but the poems could have used more. The poems rely heavily on metaphor and often describe the poet’s escape through transmutation. Her body turns into a bird and the starry night sky; she becomes the ‘stalky resistance’ of grass and then the ‘muddy tides’:
I wish my heart
such elegant metrics
of its floundering
In a way, Broom uses figurative language to distance herself from her own experience and to resist direct statement. For example, when she directly confronts the knowledge of her death – ‘I am trying to breathe … like someone about to stop breathing entirely’ – the poem immediately retreats into simile:
I look for that place
where breath becomes so light it vanishes,
pulls away like a small plane turning steeply
and heading up, straight up,
fishbone thin in a thin blue sky
While this is beautiful writing, I am not sure that the imagery captures the complex experience (the horror, mundanity, acceptance and grief ) of living with a terminal illness. Or maybe it does. Maybe to die is to not think about dying.
The second half of the collection begins to fulfil the promise of the early poems, and there are some powerful and surprising moments. For example, from ‘Vigil’:
after we said goodbye
I could feel you for days,
like a live fur coat
put on backwards
In some poems Broom and her husband coexist in a state of pain, both physical and emotional, as illness creates distance between the poet and those she loves: ‘you don’t always want me,’ she states. The subtle ‘Of Necessity’ is grounded in everyday chores and the idea that, for the poet, they are ending. In other poems she inhabits a skeleton, and a new vulnerability and harshness appears. She compares the ‘flawless curves’ of the surf to the ‘blind sack of bones – / porous, nude, aging, pale’ of her mortal body. In ‘The Bony Crowd Whispered Thinly’ the world is both meaningful and senseless. In ‘Little Black Stick Figure’ the poet describes the desire to give up. In all of these poems Broom vividly explores her death through imagination.
The most powerful poem of the collection is ‘Gleam’, which brings together surgery, frailty, the soft butterflies of consciousness, the poet’s ache for the domestic, and the fight she wants to make for her children. It is surprisingly one of only two poems explicitly about her children (the other, ‘This City’, does not go beyond the sentimental imagery of ‘sandy socks and iceblock wrappers’ and ‘fights and long, long hugs’). While concluding the collection with a series of strong poems is not unusual, I did wonder if they could have been spread throughout the collection. The tendency for poems to end on a stand-alone last line could also have used an editing hand.
I have found it a difficult task to review the work of an author who has just died, and to read the collection as I would other books – that is, as impartially as possible. But just like Broom’s poems, this review is invariably coloured by my feelings of sadness and empathy for her family. It reminds me that books are most often read within the context of the author’s life, and this is the most fascinating aspect of Gleam. While it has had many positive reviews, the collection is a mixture of powerful poems and those that are just perfectly well written. In this way, Gleam does not fulfill the promise of the back cover, to ‘open out painful, rewarding vistas for its readers’. Many will disagree, I am sure, just as I am sure the collection will be enjoyed for its beauty and tenderness. Maybe this is all Broom wanted.
The Baker’s Thumbprint is Paula Green’s sixth collection of poetry for adults and her first book to be published by Wellington publisher, Seraph Press. Green is a well-known figure in New Zealand literature, having also written books for children and the popular blog Poetry Box. In 2012 she edited the best-seller Dear Heart: 150 New Zealand love poems (Random House).
The voice in The Baker’s Thumbprint is more playful than Green’s most recent collections while maintaining her characteristic use of repetition, lists, and language that is musical. At the Wellington launch of The Baker’s Thumbprint, Green said the poems were written from a place of love, and this idea shines throughout the collection. The poems share her love of her home on Bethells Beach (West Auckland), of living a simple life, and of the world of imagination.
One of the surprises of The Baker’s Thumbprint are the historical figures that appear throughout the collection. We spend time with Janet Frame and Frank Sargeson; Simone de Beauvoir and Copernicus; and, among others, Albert Einstein:
Einstein is eating sandwiches with me
at the lookout point.
He likes the combination of
cos lettuce, pecorino shavings and
anchovy dressing, and the way
the Tasman sea lifts the imagination
like an old-fashioned washing machine
willing to take any load. (‘Bethells Beach’)
While such poems could easily feel heavy-handed, Green balances the appearance of these famous characters by placing them within her domestic life. Many of the poems centre around the act of sharing food, and there is feeling of summery abundance. People go fishing, swing in hammocks, and eat ‘broad beans with thyme and roasted tomatoes’. While it is exciting to encounter these historical figures, the poems are laid-back and subtle in their suggestion that the people we admire – whether we have met them or not – become part our imaginative lives.
Other poems are a vehicle for Green’s own philosophical wonderings about life. From ‘Ponsonby Road’:
I asked him how the real
beauty of life is found not
in the infinite blue
but in the drizzle of oil
upon fresh rocket or
the smell of washing dried
in the sun.
The idea that happiness resides in small moments recurs throughout the collection. In another poem the speaker wants to tell Simone de Beauvoir about the ‘despots drunks [and] abusers’ of the world, but Simone ‘is in the orchard by the lime tree / the mower drowning out the birdsong’. Green seems to suggest that living in the moment somehow saves us from our many anxieties.
The multiple characters and locations of the collection may make readers feel less guided than with Green’s previous books. Partially this is because the collection jumps between locations – from New York to Rangitoto; from Rome to Auckland – without a clear rationale. There was also a handful of poems that felt as if they belonged to another collection, for example those at the beginning of Section 3 on early New Zealand life, and the poem about learning te reo. Still, this is a leisurely, genuine and beautifully rendered collection.
SARAH JANE BARNETT is a writer, tutor and book reviewer who lives in Wellington. Her first collection of poems, A Man Runs into a Woman, was published by Hue & Cry Press in 2012, and was a finalist in the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Awards. Sarah is currently completing a creative PhD in the field of ecopoetics. She blogs at: theredroom.org