Alzheimer’s and a Spoon by Liz Breslin (Otago University Press, 2017), 76 pp., $25; Night Burns with a White Fire: The essential Lauris Edmond, edited by Frances Edmond and Sue Fitchett (Steele Roberts, 2017), 180 pp., $34.99
The dissonant juxtaposition of having a good time and the looming spectre of death are very evident in Liz Breslin’s first volume of poems, Alzheimer’s and a Spoon. From an author new to me, it’s a book that delights in a suggestion of paradoxes – there’s this guilty pleasure, and then this: the sucker punch. In a way, the collection gives the impression of a hive-like busy mind, with lots of ideas eagerly placed on the page.
Yet I struggled a bit with some of the content. There are poems here that feel too light in touch, offering featherweight sentiments, or others that are puzzlingly occluded in meaning. Poems sometimes suggest or imply an introduction to an occasion that then doesn’t happen, or is passed over. Sometimes the stream-of-consciousness effect is itself a bit bewildering, when Breslin presents statements as they may have been uttered by someone who is suffering from a degenerative neurological disorder:
I wouldn’t let them into the house, of course.
Not when your dziadzio was alive.
But he’s actually, you see, quite nice –
doesn’t seem Russian at all.
The book is like delving into a lucky dip. ‘Universal experience’ is a set of puns on a game of man in the moon. Other poems dance about and seem naughtily childlike on the page in refusal of your expectations: poems such as ‘The wheel of fortune cookies’, and ‘Instant autocomplete’ – which, as you might imagine, feels frustratingly unfinished. Then there’s ‘Dead famous cleaner’ with its plaintive question: ‘Did Sid Vicious have to dry the dishes?’
Yet Breslin is also presenting a carefully curated collection, and in the seemingly unfinishedness of bits, and the disorienting displays of jigsaw-like poems that piece things together and blurt things out, there are many cultural allusions. Some of these are more puzzling than others, with sudden exclamations included – references to Warsaw, for example, pop out from the domesticity of other things: ‘can you believe it / the złoty so cheap’.
The legitymacja, noun: card, identity card,
The legitymacja’s definition is unobtrusively placed, but then it resurfaces as you read a later poem. And only on a second reading did I ‘get’ the photo of a package of spoons, labelled ‘Forks’.
In among all of these fleeting riddles are longer works, and these poems have a more accessible, even sometimes discursive explanatoriness. Here you’ll find wider expanses of narrative and the answers to some of the riddling. I found only partial satisfaction in these lines, however, as the imagery remained mostly obscure. Nevertheless, some lines intrigued me:
your hands, a benefaction
over the remaining playing cards.
and this gem:
all that grit will not turn pearl
you are not the flimsy white thing
you are only waving
I tried hard to sympathise or empathise with the situations described in the poetry, especially around the subject of a grandmother with Alzheimer’s, but I felt distanced as a reader. However, I certainly respect the currents of energy evident in the language around the Warsaw uprising in Poland during World War II, which the poet’s grandmother experienced. The last line of the blurb on the back cover puts it in a nutshell: ‘There is much to remember that she so badly wanted to forget.’
This is a book of poetry that enacts both the remembering and the not remembering – the gaps and lacunae – infusing memory, or ‘mind’. Its jumble of pervasive popular culture themes are perhaps a nod to the invasion of technology with all its gadgets and jargon, and also capture something of the complexities of dealing with someone who has Alzheimer’s.
The tragedy of Alzheimer’s is that you can’t really pull the drapes wide open on the condition: it is a definition itself of loss of a past the sufferer once knew so well. This book is about the tragedy of the poet’s grandmother having to flee a war-torn country and then repressing, before finally forgetting, memories of atrocities. There’s the tragic irony of a granddaughter wanting to know the stories yet no longer able to access them. Meanwhile, the grandmother, or ‘Babcia’, continues to have her own internal uprisings of partial memories ambushing the present, which only serve to bewilder her further.
I found that the use of colloquial language – ‘higgle-piggle’, ‘scrumple’ – and references to things like Harry Potter and Marks and Spencer’s distracted me from the raw, primal, elemental aspects of the grandmother’s stories. They are almost too mundane, and they dilute the gripping drama of the Warsaw years. It is as if the caring and the therapeutic process, in terms of the writer dealing with an elderly woman with a disability, are blocking intuitive revelations that should be in this collection. I would have liked to see the clever and self-aware moments in this book as a departure point for another world of language that eliminates the stammering everyday attempts to recall memories. I understand what this book is about, but I wanted to read the one that is implied between the lines, but that hasn’t been written: the poetic meaning of a life being written about.
But there is one particular piece that is both simple and wonderfully effective: ‘Alois Alzheimer’s notes on conversations with Auguste Deter at Irrenschloss, Castle of the Insane’. Based on clinical medical material, it is a found poem; it’s a transcript of a discussion with a patient, known as the first woman to have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It reads beautifully:
What year is it? Eighteen hundred.
Are you ill? Second month.
What month is it now? The eleventh.
What is the name of the eleventh month? The last one, if not the last one.
Which one? I don’t know.
Finally, two other poems stand out: ‘For Christ’s sake’ remarks on the tragedy of the grandmother as she must exist in her body, her solitude; and ‘The way things are’ feels like it is at the heart of this book in its genuine, direct storytelling. This is Breslin reaching out and sharing with us what has been preoccupying her mind with a compelling immediacy.
In writing about Night Burns with a White Fire: The essential Lauris Edmond I feel compelled to talk about Edmond as if no one has ever done that before. And I feel compelled to mention younger contemporary poets, particularly women – their freedoms, both on the page and in the home, and the historical context in a contemporary milieu, as their generation contrasts with that of Edmond’s. And the context of time, place, society and learning within which Edmond wrote. I have read this essential Lauris Edmond, searching both for what is essential here, and why Edmond is essential to me.
I guess this is a similar task to the one adopted by the many family members and friends who worked collaboratively to select this anthology. As the poems were chosen, I assume they, like me, were put to the test of judgement of Edmond’s poetry: ‘I like this one more than that one’, ‘I prefer this way of writing’, or ‘I don’t like that one’. So the list was compiled by a literary community, and I can feel the love and delight in finding the pieces that have spoken to them. There is an index of names so that you can see who chose each poem, piece of prose or excerpt.
For those who may be approaching Edmond’s work for the first time, there is a very handy timeline of her life in the back pages. If, like me, you hadn’t heard of all the events that shaped her life and work, these pages are a good place to start. Or else read some poems first, then flick to page 171 and read through the brief, matter-of-fact comments, beautiful in their simplicity:
1948: Lauris and Trevor move to Ohakune, where they live until the end of 1961. Five more children are born during these years. While her family is expanding,
Lauris’s writing languishes.
I found myself obsessing over the word ‘essential’ on the cover. Among other meanings, the book puts the case that Edmond is essential to us. I think this is true. There is so much unsaid in Edmond’s poems, and that is a powerful indication of her role as a spokesperson of a generation of women writers. While those who knew Edmond will already be aware that her poetry was maintained as she maintained herself, a modern readership will learn that her sorrows, nostalgia and joy, as read through her poetry, were part of a discipline of building self-identity.
Some poems here draw me in strongly, have my stomach tightening, and I have had to put the book down to breathe in deeply. The poem ‘One to one’, from a section representing her early work, begins with a typically matter-of-fact description of a theme many poets have written on:
Love ends, as it began in a flash.
Lightning splits the heart, breaks root
and trunk at a stroke and scatters
The same poem goes on in an equally direct way to paint death as an atonement:
It’s all one now. Your answer’s
here: this pale immobile face,
the marbled hands, the odour of
It finishes with a stanza that solidifies resolve: ‘Your death is my correction’. This line is so telling of Edmond’s determination to confront matters of the heart directly and fearlessly. Then she writes:
It is as though you said why then
hold on to anything – the loss
of love is all, and lasts forever.
But the following lines made me put the book down momentarily:
… My loss I thought
struck then, midway across the bridge,
all later compromise the merest fiddle.
A fiddle? First, the gauging of a grief as though it were a broken bridge over a chasm, but all in all, on recollection now in writing this poem, it turns out to be ‘the merest fiddle’? The phrase seemed so infuriating until I checked the dictionary to see if there is another meaning to the word ‘fiddle’. And there it is, a nautical term: ‘a ledge or raised rim that prevents things from rolling or sliding off a table in rough seas’. It’s as if I am called to attention by Edmond who, like a teacher, is looking at me from beyond the grave with one eyebrow raised. Yes, fiddle while Rome burns, a happy jig in the face of immense loss, an actual real desire to roll off the ship requires the violent tucking in of one’s emotions, some rigidity in managing one’s affairs, and some sharp use of double entendre. Edmond was a war-time Kiwi girl. She was both a stoic and a riddler. If her work was a ship that she built and then made off in, then I am getting a sense now of what kind of ship that may have been.
I would like to suggest that this book is an excellent one for scholars – contrarily, as the introduction explains that a scholarly book wasn’t planned. However, this is as perfect a place as any for scholars to attend to the workings of Edmond’s life and poetry. Scattered throughout the book are pieces of prose, memoirs and excerpts from letters providing scenes from Edmond’s life. One of these makes clear her admiration for the poet Hone Tuwhare, and ends thus: ‘He’s like a heater – if you just stand up close to him you feel warmed.’
The strength of these poems is the discovery of warmth, light, beauty and structure among the chaos and mishaps of everyday life. In the poem ‘The night burns with a white fire’, which serves as a preface to the collection, these purposeful lines move me to a sense of recognition:
beyond the blurred darkness of the fig tree
smiling a little, her pale face
familiar but smaller than I remember it.
In the collaborations on selections for this book there’s a reminder of poetic friendships and influences. Vivienne Plumb’s choice of poem, ‘The pear tree’, begins:
Pear tree like snow blowing across the sunlight:
spring this year is not for love, nor hope,
nor passion, but something with which we are to be
Themes of atonement and resilience occur more often in later poems, and the chapters are arranged beautifully for us to study this. Night Burns with a White Fire is a comprehensive collection showing us a range rich in accomplishment. I will draw attention to one poem that illustrates that well; looking to see who recommended it, I discover it was poet David Howard. Well, I’m with you on this one, David. The poem’s called ‘Crossing the Rimutakas’, and it begins very simply:
My wheels steady
the tilting hills.
Beside me sits
GENEVIEVE MCLEAN is a poet, actor and filmmaker and has a combined degree in theatre history and English literature from the universities of Auckland and Otago. She teaches creative writing and is developing work intended for film, paper, stage and digital media.