Cold water cure Claire Orchard Victoria University Press 2016
Lately I have been thinking about the bridges that occur between poem and reader. Some bridges are so surely established that the ensuing traffic is free flowing. Noisy. Exhilarating. On other occasions, the bridges falter and it is barely possible to cross.The poem remains at arm’s length. Reading can be viewed as a travel card of crossings, but it is also invigorated by countless sidetracks and multiple rest stops.
Claire Orchard’s debut collection, Cold water cure, affords rich crossings. It is a book in three parts with the long middle section, a fitting centrepiece. The first section resembles a picnic spread where everyone brings a plate and it all seems to fit together perfectly. These opening poems bring family close to the surface of reading in ways that move you. Move you to laugh out loud, to wry grins, to feel something. Claire prunes the dross, and peels a poem back to the bare bones of incident. Then she adds a little kick, a curve, a tilt and the bare bones gleam so we take notice. This is the joy of poetry. The way it enables renewed attention to old things.
So many favourites in this first section but here are a few:
What people often don’t realise, my grandfather said abruptly,
while we were sitting on a bench at the playground,
is that parenting involves taking
a lot of split-second decisions.
This poem is a grandparent anecdote involving an egg. I had no idea where the poem was taking me and it made me laugh out loud, grin wryly and feel something. All in one little poem basket.
Several of the poems suggest that Claire was once a primary-school teacher. Very rarely do I come across poems written from the point-of a-view of a teacher. It sparked a whole train of thought. I taught in primary schools in my twenties (Auckland, Wellington, London), yet I have never written poetry about these experiences as though they are low-status material or too far back in time. Janet Charman wrote some tough poems about being a high-school teacher. Johanna Aitchison has written hilarious poems about teaching English as a second language. Claire’s poems catch a knife-edge delight I recognised.
Here is the ending of, ‘Sharpening,’ one of the teacher poems:
I ask these questions without thinking,
tearing open a band-aid.
He’s six, the number of perfection.
There are a few found poems in the bunch. Found poems work best when the poet considers how best to serve them. Sometimes found poems don’t shift beyond road sign or stolen conversation and the connection is one of indifference. Not here. I especially love the one that kick starts the collection with a recycled quote from Ali Williams during the All Blacks 2011 World Cup Campaign.
I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.
Last time we got ahead of ourselves,
we shot ourselves in the foot
then we did it again a few years before that –
shot our other foot.
We’re just trying to leave our feet on.
I loved the poem that riffs stream-of-conscious like when the poet spots a young man wearing the exact same T-shirt at the next table (‘Don’t let me be misunderstood’). Equally funny is ‘Poetry master class.’ This is based on sharing a copy of the poems with a late arrival at Bill Manhire’s event at the Embassy Theatre. Just hilarious with an ending that nails it. Here is an early stanza:
She referred to the presiding poet as Bill and,
before he’d begun to address himself to the first poem,
had taken a pen and scored briskly through three of its lines.
Yes there is humour in the opening banquet but there are ample reasons to savour rest stops. The end lines. The shift of the eye. The look of the poem. The sound of the poem. Tropes that renovate things. This from ‘Legendary creature’:
Your many-winged laundry rack
resembles a pale, anorexic albatross
in the boot of the car
The middle section constitutes the bulk of the book and sets up bridges like Russian dolls, chiefly between Claire and Darwin. Unlike most poetry collections, Claire has placed her detailed notes at the start of the book. A travel guide, if you like, that signposts the link between poem and original source. Many of the poems juxtapose the words of Darwin or those connected to him with the words of Claire. The poems thus promote conversation between then and now, him and us, this idea and that idea. His experience and her experience. It is quite the thing for poets to step back in time at the moment. To take a historical figure and see what happens when you transplant yourself or your subject or both.
Such transplantation raises questions about how we represent the past. How the past infects us and vice versa. What I loved about the Darwin poems is the way his ideas percolate in the gaps but he is placed in a context of living. The poems are infused with life.
In ‘Voyages,’ Darwin’s voice sits on the left-hand side of the page, Claire on the other. I am itching to put Claire in quotation marks to stress her collision of selves. And then I think Darwin is equally unstable, and want to do the same for him. In the end, I leave them to float at will. A word from Darwin on the left prompts a personal anecdote, a musing, an image from Claire on the right. I keep looking at the page and reading the tiny stanzas and seeing them as two hand-prints. He and she. The connections are electric.
Another poem, ‘Near Lima,’ provides new entries into the Darwin section.
Somewhere I read that, day to day, most of us
rarely raise our eyes more than fifteen degrees
above the horizon.
This is what the Darwin poems do. They lift us beyond the horizon line of fact, beyond the borrowed phrase or lines to reflect on how ideas rub against wife, child, animals, watches, ornaments, fish, ceremonies, death. So innovative. So stimulating.
The final section faltered for me. These poems venture out into the wider world, untethered by theme or style, which felt liberating. I am fascinated that I didn’t make it across the bridge for some of them. I don’t see these poems as failures. I see this as a failure on my part as reader. Sometimes it is like wine affected by mood, circumstances, company or context. One day a vintage hits your palate. The next day it misses. As a persistent reader of New Zealand poetry this interests me. Reading poetry is also susceptible to mood, the weather, what you have just read or done. I haven’t yet got what these poems are doing. I am planning a return visit.
I heard Claire read from ‘Voyages’ at the Lauris Edmond Poetry Prize in Wellington recently. What a treat. It could have been a disaster trying to read these two voices into audible life (do they need to be discrete?), but it was a highlight for me. Hearing the voice of the poet aloud, heightened the effect of her deft hand. I shivered with connections that I hadn’t spotted on the page. Some kind of spooky yet wonderful ventriloquism was taking place.
This book is a gift. It makes you laugh out loud. It rejuvenates. It challenges. I adore it.
Victoria University press page.