Kerrin P Sharpe There’s No Medical Name for This Victoria University Press, 2014
Last year I posted a poem from Kerrin P Sharpe’s new poetry collection, There’s a Medical Name for This. Finally, after all this time, I have picked up the book to reread and review. It is an astonishing book that lurked in the undergrowth of my thoughts for months with its sachets of strangeness, enigma, acute realness. Just casting your eye down the poem titles is poetry pleasure. Some collections house a poem or two that stand out, where the poet has transcended that which is good to become that which astonishes. In this book, I found countless examples that did that for me. Not in a flaming extravagant way but in ways that are at more of an alluring whisper. These poems are imbued with little droplets of incident, image, tension.
Near the start of the book, a miniature earthquake poem, whose perfect line breaks punctuate the modicum of detail, the deft phrasing (‘the basilica is a waltz of stone’) and the way the final stanza sings you back to the title (‘when gerry thinks of angels he hears their wings’).
Sometimes, oftentimes, the poems step into strangeness surrealness the point of becoming fable. There are no endnotes to provide author-led guy ropes into a poem so it is over to you where you step. ‘[T]here were stars behind him,’ a portrait of an elephant, shifts from an elephant in a photograph with Hemingway to ‘that year the elephant/ became a living lighthouse/ he wore a lamp/ and built a curved staircase.’ Magical. Or, in an even more captivating example (‘in the cart’), a mother, a pie cart, two hats and pastry come together in what might be a bedtime story, an heirloom anecdote, a housewifery lesson.
Rather than talk about what the poems are doing, I keep discovering snippets to share with you. The way the beginnings of the poems catch you by surprise: ‘every poem has a mother/ to feed his house/ the small bones of snow.’ Where to after such a glorious start? An equally glorious ending (I am withholding the middle!): ‘not even his mother// sews such small birds.’
Things aren’t stable in this collection. This becomes that and that becomes this as tropes shift and settle and then shift again. And so ‘a pine that is/ really the breeze/ a fish that is/ really a stone.’ Similes startle and invigorate the lines: ‘her thoughts in the thermal pools/ like fern wrapped sushi.’
These poems draw upon illness, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, twins, snow, much snow, ponies, many ponies, birds and feathers. Whatever the subject matter, there is movement, and out of that movement vibrant, life.
Characters (pilgrims, farmers, surgeons, whistlers, gondoliers) stroll though the poems and it seems to me they wear whiffs of the poet, autobiographical traces, and yet they are more than that. Anyone can occupy these shoes that are like little shoe-stories that get handed down and then tried on for size. They are also, and so often, like fairy tales that take you out of the tedium of daily grind and familiarity and transport you to the magic and mystery of otherness and magical possibility. The poems might have a local genesis but they reach out beyond to the faraway, to Russia, rice plantations, Antarctica. Here or there, everything is in debt to place and that attachment to ‘where’ is one that makes the poems matter (‘the small farmer remains place faithful/ to the dell’). Characters become a way of circulating stories, those traces of anecdote, a forward tang to elsewhere (a turbine// turns my father’). The procession of pilgrims throughout is the poetic glue that tenders physical bearings to an uplift of wonderment. We get to be the pilgrims of the poems. We get to feel the gap, the connections, the arrival at arm’s length.
Some poems surprise in their shifting forms. ‘[S]on’ juxtaposes two definitions — the first stanza prosaic and dictionary-like, the second stanza exemplifying personal portrait as definition. The ‘half the story’ (I adore this poem!) is indeed half a story; it builds a list that builds narrative out of what you might call stream-of-conscious jump cuts.
You need a treasure box to store the adorable phrases and lines: ‘She carries him through the loom/ of fields’ ‘in the long legged darkness’ ‘the beachcomber/ keeps a button box/ a cross section/ of folded years’ ‘my father’s kitchen/ was older than eggs.’
This is a collection of exquisite variety, yet these poems are a snug fit as though for all their differences, they are meant to be together. As I read, my favourite poem was replaced by the one I was currently reading, and then again, and then again. To read these poems is to be a pilgrim – tasting the sweet and sour bite of the land, feeling the lure of travel and elsewhere, entering the space between here and there that is utterly mysterious, facing a terrific moment of epiphany.