Michele Amas Walking Home Victoria University Press 2020
Hold your own hand
Not the idea of it
or the theory of it
Hold your own hand
with your own hand
See how confident
how knowing it feels
how held it feels
It will cross the road
It will be your older brother
sister it will be your parent your lover
It says I’ve got you
from ‘Walking Home’
Michele Amas (1961 – 2016) was a poet and actor. In 2005 she completed an MA in Creative Writing at IIML and was awarded the Adam Prize. Her debut collection After the Dance appeared the following year and was shortlisted for the Jessie Mackay Best First Book of Poetry Award. Ken Duncum has edited a posthumous collection, Walking Home selecting poems from across the decade, including the final poem she wrote. In his introduction he writes:
Michele jotted down fragments, phrases, verses, anywhere and everywhere – it was how she did her thinking and feeling about things, herself, the world – and this effort to feel and understand was never more pressing than in the last two years of her life. Most of the poems in this book were written without thought of publication, but those in the last sequence, ‘Walking Home’, are particularly like bulletins from Michele’s soul, naked, without artistic pretence, reminder notes to live (in all senses of the word).
There is something immensely appealing about writing for the sake of writing, without publication or public attention, just as there is something enormously moving when a writer faces their own mortality. We approach the need to be published and to garner attention in so many different ways. Our relationship to writing, when faced with life-threatening illness, is unpredictable. I am deeply curious about writing as a way of warding off death, as a way of achieving equilibrium, and making connections in the most difficult circumstances. I found the final collections of Sarah Broom and Rachel Bush deeply gripping because they created poetry, at the edge of death, that is luminescent with life. I am equally moved by Walking Home.
Reading Michele’s collection reminds me that reviewing can be so much more than a recap that reduces the magic of an unfolding book or critical judgement in terms of both success and failure. I am interested in the effect a book has upon me as reader, upon how it makes me think and feel, on how it affects relationships with the past and the present, with both the world at large and more intimate settings, with my private circumstances. The capability of poetry is vast. Yet what happens when we are reading work that the author never really intended for the public domain? In my extensive research for Wild Honey, I so often came across women who wrote for the sake of creating, and were disinclined to name it poetry / poems. I feel close to these issues, and agonise over what to put in a review of this book. I take this book personally. I write reviews as a form of intimate engagement with what I read.
The opening poem ‘The Documentary’ resonates sweetly with gaps and loops. It is both rich and economical, and the perfect entrance into a collection of such exquisite layering. The poem becomes talisman.
A grandson takes a stone
from a southern Pacific coast
carries it in his wallet
across the world
to place on a grave
Poetry is also something we might carry. Here I am at the start of the book, brimming with both sadness and delight. We might carry the poem and the stone as solace, as keepsake, to mark the graves of those we lose, to hold when we are close to death. This feels like the hardest review I have ever written, and so yes, I will call it an engagement. The mark of a poem that catches is when you keep reading it over and over (like when you play an album or song over and over as only that will do). I keep playing this poem over and over, marveling at the scene. Here is the end of the poem:
Hear our chorus
our bony percussion
our grandson, our grandson’s sons
hear us claim our future
and our escape
Do not be caught unarmed
bring your film, your press, your theatre
your manuscript, your piano, your pencils
bring your keepsake gift, your promise
bring your stone
And so through the gate, into a collection that offers vignettes of prismatic life, from the way it is not easy to be happy to the story of an actress whose baby is taken because the courts decide an actress is less stable. Perhaps by choosing to write for the sake of writing as opposed to the sake of publishing, you can eyeball dark and light without filter or expectation. Writing as a form of liberation. ‘This Is About You – Isn’t It?’ is a poem of deliberate mishearings and imaginings, and accruing feeling.
He’d build things for you
for your swans.
I wanted you to be married
so that I could be married –
I guess it’s as simple as that.
Many poems in Walking Home are written out of the flaws and complexities of living and loving as mother and lover. I adore the three ‘Tender Years’ poems, where mother addresses daughter, and exposes hurts, dislikes, yearnings, wisdom, epiphanies, experience. Poems cut through just diverse and distinctive experiences, often changing key memorably. Hanging out the everyday washing in ‘Separate Lines’, the two neighbours don’t discuss war or religion, but the poem takes us beyond ‘safe ground’:
Tonight at six we watch the war
think of the washing out
of mud, of blood, both sides
will dress from a laundry pile
a fence between them
two separate lines
Ah. I just want you to read this book. This multi-toned glorious book with every note pitch perfect, with roving subject matter and delving points of view. I have thunder and storm outside as I read, and a threatened national border, toxic political point scoring, and I am reading poems that fill me with joy and melancholy, and then more joy. Mostly joy. Transcendental. Transporting. I once read a review of Sarah Broom’s final collection Gleam that incensed me to the moon and back because the reviewer suggested the book’s relationship with near death would always affect the reader, and that was far more potent than the poems themselves. The reviewer had missed or eclipsed the exquisite poetic effects. Walking Home offers a equally breathtaking reading experience.
I get to the last poem, ‘Walking Home’, and this is broadcast from serious illness, drawing us to the way illness ripples out to affect those close by, to the way the poet learns to hold her own hand. The poet confesses she reads a poem backwards, but the poem is long, which means things are topsy turvey with answers arriving before questions, and admits she wants ‘to read this disease backwards’. The unease, the uncertainty is there in the fragments: the what to do and how to be, the entreaty to her daughter, the fear, the ‘age’ disappearing at arm’s length, the pain and lack of appetite, the writing, the writing of pieces that may or may not be called poetry, in the eye of the poet. What matters is the love of writing in these gleaming self exposures (to borrow Sarah’s title), and now, as I hold this book close in the storm, the love of reading matters. I adore this poem so much.
The idea being
we walk each other home
so let me
The idea being
there’s no physical address
it’s a concept, right
so let me
This is an astonishing book. Quiet, raw, physical, getting deep into the truth of things. Astonishing. I take this book personally and I will carry the poems with me and I am utterly grateful Ken Duncum and Victoria University Press have risked its publication.
Victoria University Press author page