Wanting to tell you everything Elizabeth Brooke-Carr, Caselberg Press, 2020
Our kitchen table was perfect for a family of four with Protestant
leanings. Solid and square, legs sturdy as posts, set between window
and woodstove, it kept the faith, never moved, wore no adornments
except for a gingham cloth laid before a meal, on the diagonal,
triangles of polished wood showing bare at the corners like our
father’s elbows through the worn wool of his gardening jersey.
Afterwards the cloth was shaken out over the back lawn, and if
unspotted, folded away on the same crease lines for next time,
chairs slid in, chaste, ribs against the unyielding edge so they
scarcely dared breathe. But if you sat there alone at night with your
homework, undisciplined thoughts wandering through your verbs,
there might be a sudden creak, a sly shift in the air around the table,
a loosening of values as chair legs brushed against each other and
laughter scraped the linoleum. And if you shut your eyes you might
hear flakes of gossip peeling off the cracked cream paint, history
you thought forever sealed in grainy wood, being whispered low like
bedtime prayers destined to be heard in heaven; a pair of Edwardian
spindlebacks, gifted from a well-married aunt careful with vowels,
exchanging memories of refinement and silver service in a designated
dining room, a ladderback, in darker patois, telling tales of neglect
in the cellar of a second-hand shop, and the bentwood, rescued
from the tip, singing our father’s praises for the number eight wire
he’d twisted around its legs to keep them from growing crooked,
as sure as God’s grace and the metal brace on my teeth.
Elizabeth Brooke-Carr (1940 – 2019) was a Dunedin poet, essayist, short story writer, teacher, counseller. Her writing appeared in newspapers, online journals and anthologies. She was awarded the New Zealand Society of Authors’ 75th Anniversary Cmpetition and the Dunedin Public Libraries competition Changing Minds: Memories Lost and Found. She received a PhD from the University of Otago.
Elizabeth’s posthumous debut collection has arrived in the world thanks to friends and her writing group,: Maxine Alterio, Claire Beynon, Martha Morseth, Carolyn McCurdie and Jenny Powell. The cover features Claire Beynon’s painting of Elizabeth’s favourite necklace. Mary McCallum provided editorial assistance, Paul McCallum production assistance. The book itself is published by the staunch supporter of poetry, Dunedin’s Caselberg Press. It is so heartwarming to see this group of poets and poetry fans bringing this book, and thus Elizabeth’s poetry, to our attention.
Last year, when I hosted my Wild Honey event in Dunedin, Elizabeth had just passed, and as much as the event was a celebration of women writing poetry in Aotearoa, it was the celebration of a particular woman. It felt both special and fitting. The more we shine the light on women writing, and the women who have written, the more we enrich our poetry communities, as both readers and writers.
The collection’s opening poem ‘Upright’ holds a kitchen table for our close attention. It is the place of family experience, a repository of history and anecdote, celebration and loss. The table is so present I want to reach out and stroke it. Maybe because the details are nostalgic; the gingham cloth set on the diagonal leaves wood patches reminiscent of ‘our / father’s elbows through the worn wool of his gardening jersey’. The table, like family history, is lacework in its prolific gaps. The speaker was once at the table with homework dreaming, and from that moment, I am carried across decades of secret musings that filled the writer holding the pen.
The joy in reading Elizabeth’s poetry is in part the way the poetry gifts you a joy in life: the joy you find in moments from the past, your kin, beloved places, friendship. More than anything her writing ink is fuelled with love. To read these poems, at this particular time, with such uncertainty and global loss, both global and local, is of the greatest comfort.
The poems are light-footed, with honey currents and patches of shade. I am reminded that close friends arranged the collection’s order. They have done a good job; we move from the kitchen-table hub through various scenes and connections to perhaps the last poems she wrote before she died. People and places are paramount: this is poetry that gathers together life, from the speckled past to the endangered present:
We arrived in the future, unpacked, folded the years
away into our own small histories. Now, my family
gone, I look back on the life-stained map
with the rusty pins that marked our meanderings,
my finger trails over mountaintop folds,
into valley creases, tracing the journey home
from ‘A spot on the map’
The movement that shapes the poems is so appealing; it builds mood, presence, absence, surprise. I find myself constantly moved as I read, drawn into the surprising notes that ring out in the endings. Moments are recovered and translated into poetry. I adore these. In ‘Out of the glare’, a couple go for a drive in the countryside and eat at the Wobbly Goat. The ending catches so exquisitely:
Dazzled by a low ray of sunshine on silver,
he slid the spoon sideways out of the glare,
laid it in the curve of hers.
Over the page a poem deposits me in the sensual shimmer of Bannockburn, and again it is the poem’s ending that grips:
At the base of the hill you leap from the stile
arms thrown wide like ropes tossed to my bollard.
Your mouth tastes of sunshine.
Your palms smell of bruised thyme.
from ‘Bannockburn sluicings’
Mood is such a potent ingredient – mood that is subtle and steady in growth. Poems reach towards beloved family and friends who have departed. Like a deep kernel, like an origami bud, this skillful handling of feeling is why I keep reading and why I will read this book again. The poem, ‘Gardening in the rain’, is a way of remembering, of recalling a goodbye kiss to a brow. In the opening lines the speaker is ‘digging deep / for the sound of your voice’, while in the last lines ‘My claggy spade / sticks to the soil’. So much unsaid. So much felt. The image of the claggy soil and the effort to dig so heart-breakingly sharp.
Love is equally significant in poetry that embraces both the economy and richness of everyday life, and why the personal can be so resonant. ‘Poolburn’ is written in old age (‘All the days of our youth are behind us / dust spiralling back along old roads traversed’) and again the couple is driving though beloved southern countryside. It is as though people don’t exist without place, and place is made vibrant and vital through the eyes of those in the scene. This is a love poem. A beautiful, slow pitched, breathtaking love poem. Again the layers, the scent, the texture is resonant. Like a piece of music, like a song perhaps by Nadia Reid or Reb Fountain you want on replay, this is a poem to read at intervals throughout the day. Here is the ending:
When the sun sinks and the light fades
purple shifts among the rocks, wild geese arc
in an amethyst sky, ruby veins line the face
of the lake. You come indoors, sit by the window.
Dusk has gathered you in.
The final section of poems were written from Elizabeth’s death bed. She is writing from terminal illness, nearby death, with her small revelations, her rage and her equilibrium. Perhaps writing is a way of living, of bearing treatment, a changing body, the changing future, a way of sharing what is difficult to decode. The final poem, ‘Wanting to tell you everything’, presents a phone call to a beloved, another moment, larger than life, urgent with feeling, subtle with the unsaid, using a moment of physical beauty (a rainbow stretching across the sky ’embracing everything that soars – light and sound and thistledown’) to summon so much more than the words on the page. The final lines – of the poem, of the book, of a life – unfold and refold, unfold and refold, and poetry is a way of breathing. Necessary. Exquisite. Blood boosting.
Your television in the background talks to itself.
While you turn the volume down, I wait.
Yes, I’m still here. I’m still here and wanting,
wanting to tell you everything.
Elizabeth’s poetry reminds me of the joy of reading Elizabeth Smither, Cilla McQueen, Ruth Dallas, Jenny Bornholdt, Bernadette Hall. I am drawing Elizabeth Brooke-Carr into the house of Wild Honey: she belongs there, with her honeyed currents, her uplifting translation of life into poetry, her wisdoms and her poetic finesse. Poetry can do so much. This book is a gift.