Siobhan Harvey’s new poetry collection, Cloudboy (Otago University Press, 2014), won the Kathleen Grattan Award for Poetry in 2013. The collection navigates Siobhan’s experience as the mother of an autistic young son. Without knowledge of this governing theme, the title of the collection summons something fablesque, fairytale-like and wondrous and conjures an ability to read clouds as well as exist in the clouds. Either way, the title is a magical entry point. With knowledge of the book’s genesis however, the title is even more resonant. Poignant. There is a sense that the tough, earthy detail is going to be tempered by threads of the ethereal. The beautiful cover painting by Allie Eagle was painted specifically for the book.
When I think of clouds, I think of the ephemeral, but that notion slips into a fertile chain of thought—to an ability to be full, to add beauty to an ever changing skyscape, to cast shadows, to release life-sustaining water. The first section of poems is entitled ‘The Autistic Child Considered as a Cloud,’ and it is as though the boy is filtered thorough these cloud attributes (or clouds are filtered through the boy’s attributes). The poem ‘Stratus’ brings together acute personal detail: ‘Just out of our reach is the Cloudboy, we know,/ who dances in heavy rain, wets himself, mutters/ complaints like madness, and is a bogeychild/ other mothers warn their darlings about.’ This is real. This is uncomfortable. This is at a distance from most of us. It is as though he is aloft with ice crystals forming about him.
Sometime the collection feels like a survival kit for the mother as she writes into and out of her son and her patience—he, fathomable, unfathomable, close, distant, complicated, much and ever loved. The poetry seeps and grows and amasses what it must be like to be the anchor, to be constantly motivated by care and concern. How then to translate such an experience into poetry? These poems offer insights into the autistic experience, yet it is not a matter of judging the autistic condition or the choices the poet made in how to represent it. As John Marsden said in his stimulating presentation to school students at the Auckland Writers Festival—we need to learn ‘to throw rule books up in the air and to find the way that suits us as writers,’ to be marvellously creative and not depend upon paradigmatic choices or models that constrain (are we becoming more and more regulated at every educational turn and less able to take risks in writing endeavours at any level?).
Siobhan offers poetry—a multi-pronged engagement with her subject matter—that unsettles and resettles rhythms, images, juxtapositions, syntax, motifs, stable ground. Tropes radiate out from the son. Each poem has a white-hot heart that grips you tight and shifts the way you see things. There is the lyrical lift of line and the difficult narrative thread. This, a musical tapestry (yes ear and eye hooked!) at the beginning of ‘Arcus’:
‘Arcus is a coal-lick Cloudboy slinking its way
back to the nights its mother, pregnant
with being, prowled from cold bed
in dead of dusk to drop before bunker, hands clasped
to dark gold, her lap-lap-lapping drawing out
tastes of liquorice, truffle and salty balsamic
beneath the comfortless cry of morepork and moon’
Siobhan shows us the ability of poetry to take you deep into human experience that is fugitive, unrepresentable, unfathomable. You read these poems and something in you shifts; the way we face both the difficult child and the mother of the difficult child. The way we exist within systems that encourage us to conform, contain, confine, manage and control. The way we have notions of the child as a platonic ideal; ever unattainable, this perfect version, in the swamping dark. Cloudboy, like the sky itself, is changeable and hard to grasp; he doesn’t fit here but he fits perfectly there. He knows this and misses that with his ‘hungry mind.’ He frustrates and confuses and absorbs. He becomes more than an idea (the austistic child), he comes aching real through the vital detail Siobhan gathers: ‘On day one, he sits in a chiton, of white tape/ reading Republic.’ ‘His hair was a hat shaped/ from the fleece of karakul sheep.’ ‘Studying Aberhart, Cloudboy takes up a camera, empties land/ of everyone except his mother’ ‘These are the rare days/ when the child is quiet and compliant,/ when there’s no translation of Russian/ or Sanskrit, no constant questioning, no/ forceful negotiations at the dinner table/ (I only eat broccoli at weekends …) no devouring soap,/ being Superman, writing acrostic poems’.
The poems move through experiences that demand the fortitude of the mother, but there are also moments of joy. Touchingly so: ‘the sound of Cloudboy singing will be more/ than enough to lay down the lines of this poem.’ Siobhan’s new collection is a collection that takes daring and necessary flight in order to lay down loving anchors, and it reminds me why poetry matters. There are a thousand ways this experience could be transformed into poetry. This is just one of them and it moved me profoundly.
NZ Book Council page
Poetry Archive page
Otago University page
Otago University Press page
Thanks Paula, for putting in words, in this wonderful review, how I feel about this collection. I am sending your link to various non-poetry friends so they can, I hope, see why poetry is important.