Johanna Emeney, Family History, Mākaro Press, 2017
My darling, this afternoon, I found three white parachutes
from a dandelion on my shoulder, seeds stuck in,
wings waiting – little angels of your imprint, your leaving.
What you bring to a book affects the way you read it – as though already established trenches or crevices are more receptive, more alert to shared experiences. Johanna’s new poetry collection is a family history but the mother is placed centre stage; we are brought close to her breast cancer and shocked by her premature and unexpected death. The collection begins with gaps in the family photograph album and ends with blurry photos; it is as though these poems are held up to the gap, where light and dark dazzles and where edges blur. Early on a poem stalls me, as I too watch the ducklings ‘that cats dare not disturb.’ The snapshot tingles because I have never thought of ducklings this way, and it is as though I am seeing the world as something that must not be corrupted or thrown off course. The pathos lies in the way the poet is thrown off kilter; her family not ‘off limits.’
Even if one were to straggle,
to drop off the end
like a misplaced preposition,
lost for a moment in the long grass,
no cat would mess with it
because today belongs
to the ducklings
and all the other
that on some mornings
and some afternoons
are just plain off limits.
You never know how you will react when faced with life-threatening illness, or when someone close to you is; you never know which details will stand out to elbow and nudge and stick. Johanna’s book traverses the sweet and the sour, the coordinates of illness, the pain, the anger and the way things can be luminous, sharp, elusive, blunted. ‘Undertaking’ is a sestina, the perfect form to catch the undulations of grief that repeat and slap an attack of feeling – a little like the book does as a whole.
Things are palpable: gateways to grief, memories, a relationship presence, a relationship absence. ‘Ham bag’ was a humorous code for handbag between mother and daughter; when the poet (I am boldly granting the first-person pronoun autobiographical status) catches sight of a calico bag, she misses her mother again:
Ready to go? Got your hambag, darling?
And I say:
Yes, Mum, all the better to put my ham in,
and we’re beside ourselves again.
from ‘Ham bag’
I am sitting in a cafe at AWF17, a table of writers next to me, conversations adrift because I am adrift on the currents of this book. The writing stitches me and I feel the needle prick and sew, prick and sew, as I read. There is a fluency of writing, a lightness of line as the shadows swell and the hurt pulses. It is not the first time writing poetry stands as a keepsake, for the sake of mother, family, friends and self. For the sake of a reader who keeps reading the same lines over.
The final poem, ‘Glass bowl with pink swirls,’ is so simple yet so sharp, I think I am going to cry, despite the writers I know laughing and conversing at the next table. This is what writing can do. It can pull you down to the very tiny gestures that mark a day, that mark a life so that everything shifts a little. You can feel those internal trenches and crevices tremble. The glass bowl holds the mother’s hand, a last image, a last desire, as she feels the warm soap suds. The glass bowl, a keepsake; and the poem.
To perceive you seeing nothing and everything
to watch the loop of your hand in its benediction
or to sit at your feet with my hot cheek tilted
to meet the roll and stroke of soft fingers,
was to be most steady and most moved
by your tender infinitive. That keepsake.
from ‘Glass bowl with pink swirls’
This book is a breathtaking startling soothing toppling skin-shaking eye-pricking heart-skipping glorious read.
Johanna Emeney lives in Auckland where she tutors at Massey University and co-facilitates the Michael King Young Writers Programme. She has been placed third and been commended in the Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine and shortlisted for the International Montreal Poetry Prize. Her debut collection was entitled, Apple & Tree (2011).
Mākaro Press page
The collection is part of the 2017 HoopLa Series that also includes Jeffrey Paparoa Holman’s Dylan Junkie and Elizabeth Morton’s Wolf.