Robyn Sarah, Digressions (Fitzhenry and Whiteside) $14.95
Beverley Bie Brahic, White Sheets (Fitzhenry and Whiteside $14.95
In Digressions, Robyn Sarah’s beguiling collection of ‘prose poems, collage poems and sketches’, the texts often start with an object. The object is then often held up to the writer’s gaze. That gaze will lead Sarah into what purports to be autobiographical reminiscence. An example of this is ‘Sweets’ which pulls the reader in with this opening, ‘Shhh. I’m remembering’ (Sarah’s italics). Then follows a description of the sweets her grandmother left out for her grandchildren. This description is very close and detailed; and it is beautifully written in short, rhythmic sentences with the careful cadences one would expect of this very experienced poet. In the course of ‘Sweets’ we get to meet much more of the grandmother, ‘(A tiny woman who had breathed away half a century on one lung, a survivor of TB in the thirties – now within months of ninety)’. And then we meet the narrator, who is carrying on the tradition of providing sweets but also a very sensual engagement with tastes and smells.
Through her engagement with the concrete, therefore, Sarah often outlines the ways in which an object is interpreted by more than one viewer. This is also true in the more ‘cubist’ of her texts, where an object is turned round in the gaze of the viewer so that it’s facets appear spread out in the reader’s view. In ‘Pardon Me’, for example, a rip in the sleeve of ‘your jacket’, is viewed by both participants. And the refusal of the narrator to mend the rip is metonymic of the state of the relationship.
Of the found poems in this collection, perhaps the most striking and successful is ‘A Brief History of Text: Digest and Subtext’. It might seem easy to take a well-known prose book and fillet it into small gobbets. However, the challenge is to create a text which not only respects and reflects the original, but also has an existence in and of itself. Robyn Sarah takes Stephen Hawking’s text and turns it into a poignant, glittering, but also funny poem, ‘It is rather difficult to talk about human memory/in our neck of the woods’.
Beverley Bie Brahic has already received a PBS Recommendation and a Forward short-listing for the British edition of White Sheets, and it’s easy to see why. At a time when so many volumes of contemporary poetry are so uniform in both technique and content, White Sheets has a most pleasant variety; from translations from French surrealist, Francis Ponge, to renderings of Thucydides, from rhymed quatrains and third person narratives, to moving and loving poems about her elderly mother and the death of her father. The first poems in this book have a muscular almost stolid quality, and it is in this style that Bie Brahic elegises her father. She shows him surviving the evacuation of DDay, he himself, working to evacuate others and being wounded. Then Brahic moves the piece through time to the Peloponnesian War, in a surprisingly tender gesture which mimics but avoids the grandiloquence of Alice Oswald’s recent Memorial. And the overwhelming note in this book is tenderness, and that is no bad thing.
These poems are all resolutely grounded, perhaps in conscious contrast to Bie Brahic’s day job as a translator of such as Kristeva and Cixous. A number of these poems have their starting point with gardens or planting, and Bie Brahic is particularly good at placing the detail of plant names at strategic points in the poems to pin down a mood or development. And plants in this book are handled with the same loving tenderness as other objects are. Tenderness is necessary to handle the world and dispose things in it; not to control the world but to allow it to be most fully itself, ‘But a bantam – oh, it’s a fancy-dress hat/with an extravagant plume – and when I pulled them/ from the branch I had nothing/in my arms – a beating heart/baffled by all the seasons of leaves.’(Compost)
Tenderness is also part of the erotic and sexual, about which Bie Brahic writes with singular, and non-sentimental, brilliance. This book is to be highly recommended.