Thought Horses Rachel Bush, Victoria University Press, 2016
Rachel Bush was born in Christchurch and lived a number of years in Nelson. That she lived to see a bound copy of her last poetry collection, Thought Horses, was special because this very special collection stopped me in my poetry tracks. I rarely tweet about the books I read but this book was an exception – I urged everyone on Twitter to run down the road, buy a copy of Thought Horses, take time out from routine and noise and beginning reading.
I adore this book. Everything I love about poetry is at work here. The poems reflect my personal biases on what good poetry can do. The bridge between reader and printed word on the page is luminous with activity.
Thought Horses is written out of exquisite poetic fluency; written on the breath, on a long, sweet exhale so that it flows. There is a slowness here as though the poet is observing, absorbing and reflecting the world through a single, leisurely pan.
The book, like Sarah Broom’s exquisite last collection, is written out of illness. The poems hold onto life, exude life, become life as they embrace sky, elephants, fan palms, birds, Venice, Anne Carson, departed friends, departing things. In the lines between are the fingertips of death. The subject matter is roving but the collection is harmonious with a unity of sound, craft, story. Perhaps it is to do with grace, writing with grace. Individual phrases catch me: ‘the rind of winter’ ‘lost is my quiet’ ‘Truth floats like scum on sea/ water’ ‘The best spring/ is in your own high/ free step’
This is the joy of poetry.
The first poem, ‘Thought Horses’ should be attached to the wall above every restless bed because it is as though the poet was thinking aloud on the line as she lay awake between four and six. Where does the mind wander? The poem provides ‘some things to think of’ and the list resembles a miniature self portrait, an anxiety map, a guide to the following day. I am expert in navigating night waking. I read this book on a plane to Nelson, after little sleep, with the world askew, and this poem nailed it.
You think of the poem you wrote about leaving a house, and how
houses we have owned will come back to us in dreams.
You think about taking your computer into the next room.
You think maybe you ought to try to sleep.
If I were an anthologist, hunting through the collection, I would build a sizable list of contenders for an updated anthology of New Zealand poems. ‘Sing Them’ is one of them. I am hoping someone asks me to edit a new anthology so I can start with this poem. It is light and lovely with little sharp bits and is a hymn to what words can do, and how poems are sung into being, into us. Each verse is a little shift, a tilt of the head to see things a bit differently, with tactile things animating the elusive, unrealness of words.
Because every day the poems
stay folded and pressed flat in
a suitcase of their pages
till the composer unfolds
them in sound lines and when
you sing them, they float.
Another poem to put in my anthology is ‘These Days’ with five little snapshots of the moods of different days that ache in the acuteness of remembering. There is the need to sleep when it is too light, the boy resisting with his string of NOs, ‘days that could make you depressed and flat as a squashed dog,’ the mother’s lesson to the dawdling son, the classroom singing, and the sweet, sugary days:
Long sugary days, you find these words come out
blurty blurty snap snap snap one after the
other and thoughts go off down little paths you
hadn’t noticed, like maybe lunch with a friend
whose round face under a merino beanie
smiles a vegetative smile, showing small teeth.
Then there is the poem I have already anthologised in A Treasury of Poems for Children because it is so vivid and surprising and is perfect to hook young ears and eyes. From ‘Early’:
The darkness wears a quiet sound
of fires died down and people who stir
in sleep. Soon they will slip on
their daily selves, button them up.
I have to point you in the direction of ‘It Ends with Forever’ which leads us back to mother and daughter and the way single words can stick in the head across a lifetime (‘frisky’ ‘forever’). This is a two-toned poem. An utterly poignant poem where death comes a little closer. In the second verse, the mother responds to the idea she will die one day by comparing herself to a kitten. She will live frisky, not forever. And then the maternal image in the first verse that made me well up:
Ah then sometimes, I wanted,
still want, something safe
and kind and firm and tight
as when our mother rolled
us in thin woollen blankets
on cold nights
OH, there are so many poems that lift you out of your skin. Mark Broach asks what is the point of poetry in the Latest Listener (April 23) and then gets a handful of poets to respond. This book is a point of poetry. Its needle pricks you. It makes you feel and be curious and review how your day will unfold. It shows the way poetry opens portals into what matters. For example, at the end of ‘ “All my feelings would have been of common things” ‘:
I once thought
many things would make my life happier
and now one by one I will let them go.
Rachel’s collection sits on my top shelf with a handful of poetry books that rise above the bulk to become something astonishing. Why? Because the heart is engaged. Because the writing is as contoured and as musical as the world no matter which way you look. Because this book was written so close to death, yet it shows the joy of life in little things, in big things, in ideas, relations, places. We all do this. We all write the world. But Rachel has made the word incandescent and in taking us back into the grit and light of living changes us. If you buy one poetry book this year, make it this one.
Victoria University Press page.
My tribute and an interview with Nelson school girl, Lucy here.
Four poems along with Louise Wrightson’s tribute.