Ashleigh Young, How I Get Ready, Victoria University Press, 2019
A woman smiles out of a plastic coat
its yellow turning rain to torches.
Light rests on a man waiting to cross,
coats his dog.
Light crosses a man
waiting to rest.
The hills pull fog around themselves
and trudge to the sea,
carrying all our houses.
I like the shape of this book – this matters with poetry – because when a poetry book is good to hold it makes you want to linger even more, to stall upon a page. The book looks good, the paper feels good, and the cover drawing by Sam Duckor-Jones is a perfect fit. His idiosyncratic artwork moves in and out of reality, a person tilted by anxiety, the wind, both exposed and screened. A little like the poems inside the book. This is a collection of waiting, breathing, of curious things, anxieties, anecdotes, lists, found things, recycled words; little starts in your head as you read. It is extremely satisfying.
The Notes acknowledge the jump-off points of a number of poems – a line in a letter from Andrew Johnston turns into ‘Turn Out to Be Something’. Poems spring from epigraphs, a contents page, Margery Kempe, psychiatric cases, other poems. Where the poems shift to is perhaps a blend of the fictional and the personal. The speaker is always on the move.
One of the joys of reading these poems is the way connective tissue or an invisible thread holds the poems together; it might be the way you stay with one character or situation or mood. Yet the doubled reading joy is in the glorious little leaps: from an idea, admission, description or trope to another idea, admission, description or trope. Surprising, startling, fascinating and always feeding the invisible thread. Take ‘Ghost Bear’ for example. Eliot pulls me through the poem. He is the mystery and the guide. You will move from a ritual where someone tests themselves against a ghost bear with a skull head to a boy who gets electrocuted but survives then scores a try (‘He’s just showing off / because he got electrocuted’) to an inappropriate kiss. Before the strange, goosebump ending, I got stuck on this verse which feels like an intrusion from the poet herself:
When there are two frail old women together, there is always one
who is visibly stronger.
I have an old friend and I think about whether we will be old together
and which of us will be stronger, holding up the other
which of us the wind will push over first
for a good joke
The opening poem, ‘Spring’, begins with an eye-catching image : ‘I saw a horse lying on the street / and people were trying to help it up.’ It is a poem of little fascinations (forgive me if I keep using that word!) but it is also a poem of breath, of holding and releasing breath, of waiting. The words form little exhalations on the page. I am standing with the person (the ‘I’) standing in the street thinking random things as they wait to see that the horse will stand. I am fascinated by the little admissions (they have waited so long it is too late to go to work). I am fascinated by the personal truisms (‘When I am satisfied with one thing / I want something else’). I am fascinated by the biography of the speaker.
My mother assured me
that when I feel that I am not wel-
come at home and everybody has
hatred towards me that it is only
my imagination. This statement
made me feel very good;
I went to bed and
The poem arrives in surprising increments – in bursts of unsettling strangeness. Who is this speaker who must keep revealing things? I look at the Notes, only after musing on the poem awhile, and discover it is a found poem, with the words borrowed from the study of a young man with compulsion neurosis who transforms his life into bizarre distortions. (published in 1918).
‘Turn Out to Be Something’ is also a poem that involves waiting; the speaker waits for things and then modifies the admissions; waiting is fine as long as waiting is not in vain and something is at the end, although not necessarily what is first expected.
I can wait for a layer of sandstone to form over me
and freeze and thaw and freeze and be shattered
and be piped into the sea as long
as that turns out to be something.
Many of the poems play with lists, repeating the beginnings of stanzas before swerving or drifting in myriad directions. Take ‘Guide’ for example. A poem written for an exhibition of Colin McCahon’s Walk (Series C) at Te Papa. I love this poem; I love the way it builds upon ‘what if’ and gathers heart, wisdom and downright surprise. Ashleigh steps off from Colin’s ‘walk’ along Muriwai Beach and walks through meditations on water (the sea, fresh water, a river mouth, waterfalls). Her poem walks us into the physical and then catapults us elsewhere. It makes my heart ache.
If a girl is lost, someone will walk a long way to get her.
If her hand is held all the way back, it will be a short walk.
I have to share the ending with you because it gets right to the heart of what makes an Ashleigh Young poem so darn good.
If a waterfall no longer has water, it is a groove
that suggests a falling motion, just as this trail
suggests a walking motion
but if a person keeps walking until there is no more walk to take
they will no longer look forward to it, so will turn back.
Pretty much every poem is a poem I want to talk about. I want to talk about ‘Driving’ because it feels like a miniature autobiography that goes deep into experience. It gets personal but it’s prismatic in image and ideas. Somehow in this mix of riding a bicycle, learning to drive and imaginative leaps, the poem feels acutely human. Like it is breathing life back into me. When I stop on this double page I am thinking you could swap ‘driving’ and ‘riding’ for any number of things. The way the things we do conjure anxious thinking and random thoughts. I read the poem and replace all the driving/ riding words for ‘writing’. For example: I write along the street outside your house / with my heart floating loose and getting chain grease on it.
Yes this poem is a gem – it builds and ducks and freewheels. Here is the start:
They tell me any idiot can do it and I tell them
I’m not just any idiot, I’m specific. Even when my lungs
are bursting – properly bursting
like things dragged up by a deep-sea fisherman
I keep riding. I get tired. I just keep riding!
I have written about this book in Wild Honey so have tried not to repeat myself or even refer to the poems I picked to talk about in the book! But Ashleigh became one of my sky poets for all kinds of reasons.
Every poem catches me! Some books you pick up, scan a few pages and then put down because you just can’t traverse the bridge into the poems. Not this one. It is as exhilarating as riding a bicycle into terrain that is both intensely familiar and breathtaking not. The speaker is both screened and exposed. The writing feels like it comes out of slow gestation and astutely measured craft. I say this because I have read this andante, at a snail’s pace. Glorious!
What song will they play if I don’t come home tonight?
I wished someone would write a song for me, then someone did
but it was a song berating me; it was called ‘Actually, Ashleigh’
and I think of the cruelty of songwriters as I get ready
how their music makes their words sound better than they really are
how our feelings make music seem better than it really is
and how the difficulty of getting ready is a pure, bitter difficulty
like calculus. In the back row a once-promising student cries.
What will my face become? Strings of demi-semi quavers.
from ‘How I Get Ready’
Victoria University Press page
Read ‘If So How’ from How I Get Ready
Ashleigh Young is the author of the poetry collection Magnificent Moon (VUP, 2012), and the essay collection Can You Tolerate This? (VUP, 2016) which won a Windham-Campbell Prize from Yale University and the Royal Society Te Apārangi Award for General Non-Fiction in 2017. She works as an editor and lives in Wellington.