Poetry Shelf summer reviews: Helen Jacobs’s A Habit of Reading

Helen Jacobs, A Habit of Writing The Cuba Press, 2020

Flying

I am being ordinary

and flying on a word

as the mist of the morning

unfolds.

I am being ordinary

in a community

where all are old and ordinary

and I am flying on a word

to meet the sun.

Helen Jacobs

Helen Jacobs (the pen name of Elaine Jakobssen) was born in Pātea, Taranaki in 1929. She has published eight poetry collections, and contributed to numerous journals both in Aotearoa and offshore. During her time as Mayor of Eastbourne, Helen advocated for the local environment and local writers and artists. She worked at the Women’s Electoral Body and was appointed to the Planning Tribunal. Since her time in Christchurch she has been a longtime member of the Canterbury Poets Collective. Aged 91, she lives in a retirement village and is still writing.

Helen’s new collection A Habit of Writing is a delight. Here is a poet writing in old age, absorbing things, often small, but sometimes large, always captivating: an object, walking, a flower uncurling, the hills, the wind, a pot of utensils. Each poem slowly and exquisitely unfolds its subject with rivered fluency, with enviable economy.

These are poems to place on your tongue, one at a time, where they will slowly dissolve leaving vibrant aftertastes that last all day. I read the poems before I went to sleep and I got straight back when I woke up. Perhaps I am drawn to the state-of-being of a woman in her nineties, where relations with life and death shift a tad. Where age is a close companion. Words matter a lot. She reaches out for words. She writes. She celebrates.

Fluency

Fluency traipsed off with the years,

shuffled out imagery.

I look at the pots on the balcony

the plants static, consonants and vowels

straight up.

They do not speak in the wind.

Look to the hills. I do,

as the low cloud ends wisp

across the ridges.

This is a collection of miniature pieces that form a larger mosaic, a wider picture that holds up the poet’s lived-in world. I am acutely drawn into an experience of age that makes me see things a little differently. And that is good. When Helen was ‘young’ and in her sixties she would see the ‘oldies’ out on a bus excursion, and now when she is out on the retirement-village bus she sees the young go by on bicycles. Her steps might be slow. She might slowly examine a geranium leaf as she waters her pots. She might repeat her mother’s ritual and drink a glass of port wine at Christmas. A sonnet would never suit ‘the bowls we play’; free verse is the ticket. It is the ‘small things / as my time grows old’ she observes, that ‘remark the larger world.’

Here I am, a young one on Helen’s time scale, but I am drawn to the slow step, to the measured pace, the prolonged look, to the way a single object or activity can be both rich and comforting in reward. The poem ‘Thinking of lemons’ reminds me how we skate over the surface of things, places, people, experiences. How every person we brush against in the street has a story, a sequence of dreams and mishaps. How every view is on the move, and like a good book, or a good poem, reveals further lights and shadows.

Reading A Habit of Writing offers the utmost joy and comfort. This is a book to savour and to give away. Glorious.

Watercolours

You said, ‘Write me sonnets,’

perhaps –

If I squeeze the day,

wring the hours, spin-dry the minutes,

perhaps the drips will swell dry words.

There will be watercolours,

washes of light.

The Cuba Press author page

ODT review

Rachel McAlpine piece

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