The Wash House
The turning on was slower done — the firebox stoked,
the wooden lid the copper had, gilded shine of its deep pan.
And side by side two great stone sinks
for suds and rinse, could hold a muddy child.
The place became a store — chook mash,
pig grits — housed a mat and dust of wares,
played host to mouse. Cat found a hide for bed
and laid her kittens there.
One small window choked with web,
light gave way across the floor; each step
softening to listen hard
though you could never say what for.
Warped tracks of tallboy teased, opened to a world of finds.
A jar of pennies turned to bank. Rust crept
along the blades of knives. And each oilskin coat, from its nail,
stiffened like a corpse impaled. The kittens ended in a sack.
The shedding held small lost endeavour, walls with cracks
poached by the weather, dissolved the meanest acts of time
where garden slept in seed sachets, the mewing
ghosts, the lynching strength of binder twine.
©Rhian Gallagher, Shift Auckland University Press, 2011.
Rhian Gallagher publishes beautiful poems, each one of them burnished to a sheen. Her first volume, Salt Water Creek, was published in the UK and shortlisted for the 2003 Forward Prize for best first collection. In 2012, her second collection, Shift (Auckland: AUP), won the NZ Book Award for Poetry.
How to choose a favourite poem from her oeuvre? I can’t, actually – there are many poems from her two collections that I love. So it’s been a deep pleasure these past few days to read both books again in search of one poem to talk about. At random, here are a few of the Gallagher lines that slay me: What did I ask of you, water of no-going…? (“Salt Water Creek”); Reaching for you was to hear the light expand (“A Winter’s Room”); Give us this day, cobbles worn to shine like water (“In the Old Town”); To walk off the edge of the green world (“Under the Pines”); It’s always been a wired country (“Paddocks”); Heat radiated from the schist, the air felt migrated (“The High Country”). The spirit animating these poems is open and alert; the writing is sensual and intelligent.
“The Wash House” is one fine example among many possible fine examples.
It’s a poem I simply cannot tire of. It casts its enchantment early through lulling lyricism, assonance, consonance and internal rhyme. I’m hooked before I know I’m hooked. Into this sound-cradle, Gallagher embeds concrete visual details: the firebox, the wooden lid of the deep and shiny copper, the stone sinks, a muddy child. Ah, you might think, how nostalgic. You would be wrong. As the poem progresses, its lyrical charm builds and intensifies. By the middle stanza, we’re hypnotised. Quietly and slowly, we step with the poet behind the “window choked with web”. We “listen hard”. Our eyes and ears adjust, and suddenly we’re in the “world of finds”, and what we find there is both brutally real and threaded through with the uncanny. Gallagher’s exquisite, multi-dimensional craftwork is invisible, but everywhere, in this poem (take the selection and placing of the last word, for one example). I recommend reading “The Wash House” aloud – I recommend learning it by heart.
Sue Wootton lives in Dunedin where she is a PhD student researching the affinity between medicine and literature. She is the selecting editor for the Otago Daily Times Weekend Poem column, and co-editor of the Health Humanities blog Corpus: Conversations about Medicine and Life. Her novel Strip (Makaro Press) is longlisted in the 2017 Okham NZ Book Awards. Her fifth poetry collection, The Yield, will be published in March by Otago University Press.