Helen Rickerby, Cinema, Mākaro Press, 2014 (part of the Hoopla Series)
‘With a whirr and a click/ we’ve conquered distance and memory’
There is an anecdote that the Italian film directors, the Taviani brothers, saw a movie when they were adolescents that rebounded a version of their world back to them (the constellation and collision of worlds that we know as Italy) and they dramatically said, ‘Cinema or death!’ Such boldness in the light of this shared epiphany.
Helen Rickerby’s terrific new poetry collection takes you into the world of cinema. Fittingly, the first poem is entitled ‘When the Lights Go Down.’ I immediately stalled on the title and pondered on the shared experience of reading poetry and watching a film. Even in the public space of a cinema, there is something intimate and private about your immersion in the cinematic world. It is comparable to entering a splendid poem and letting the world fade to pitch black along with the barking dog and the wet laundry— it’s just you and the poem.
In this book, ‘cinema’ is a thematic glue that gives the collection cohesion, but it is also the ingredient that animates at the level of detail. If you love film, and you have a history of film viewing, then this collection offers abundant rewards.
An early poem, ‘Revolutions,’ leads you into various meanings of the word from the click and whirr of the camera and the projector to the daring work of pioneer filmmakers. And so it is with the poems– the poetic effects are various, whether humorous, confessional, inventive, challenging, insightful, quirky.
There are a series of wry poems that re-imagine the life of a friend or Helen herself as directed by a particular filmmaker (Ken Russell, Sergio Leone, Quentin Tarantino, Stanley Kubrick, Jane Campion, and so on). ‘Chris’s life, as directed by Ken Russell’ is particularly witty. When Chris awakes to find ‘an anteater on my chest/ tearing at my throat’ it is , as Ken says, ‘the anteater of self-doubt.’
There is the way cinematic life has the ability to seep into and become saturated in your own (or vice versa) as the title of one poem suggests (‘Impressionable and impressed’). Thus the last verse of this poem hooks you:
What these poems do, too, is capture the magical, mysterious pull of cinema where there is a physical interplay between light and dark that then shifts beyond the material to an interplay between intellectual and emotional levels. Light and dark’s electric connections become the connections between life and death, desire and indifference, ghosts and humanity, real life and fantasies. In ‘Camera’ there are numerous such ripples —and the opening lines signpost the burgeoning magic: ‘There are lots of different stairs to be climbed/ each with a different kind of railing.’
The collection has an intermission! As though we can make our way out of the dark to collect popcorn or ice cream. I have never thought of this before, but I feel like I install a miniature intermission after each poem I read (if it is any good!) in order to absorb the poetic complexities or savour the poetic simplicity.
I love the way Helen’s collection pulls you into a poetic mis-en-abyme—into layers and levels of translucence, symbols, self exposure, tangible details, ephemeral details and above all a contagious love of film. Not that it’s a terrifying vortex! It is just deliciously complex.
Several longer poems stood out for me. I love the glorious ‘Two or three things I know about them’ which carries you along the white-hot tension between Jean-Luc Goddard and François Truffaut, and their different approaches to making a film. I also particularly loved ‘Symbols that make up the breaking up girl,’ a lush poem in parts where each part exudes a joy of language. Then there is the wonderful density and intensity of detail, with shifting tones and fitting repetition, in ‘A bell, a summer, a forest.’ I also delighted in ‘Nine movies,’ a sequence of poems that filter love and personal life through somebody else’s movie plot, incidents and discoveries.
Each poem in this collection is like an aperture into the magical world of cinema which in turn is an aperture into the magically fizzing world we inhabit—in all its shades of light and dark. And this then becomes poetry. As a big cinema fan, I loved it.
Helen is a poet, publisher and public servant with three previous poetry collections to her name. She runs the boutique Seraph Press and is the co-managing director of JAAM. Along with Anna Jackson and Angelina Sbroma, Helen is organising Truth or Beauty: Poetry and Biography, an upcoming conference at Victoria University. Details here.
Mākaro Press website Hoopla page
Helen Rickerby’s Seraph Press
Helen’s blog Winged Ink
An interview with Helen