reading the signs Janis Freegard, The Cuba Press, 2020
I walk into Ema Saikō’s room to find the poet herself at the writing desk,
long hair scraped back in a bun. She wears an embroidered robe. Tea? I
offer. It seems the right thing to do.
I let her choose the teapot. I was tossing up between late evening
blue and bright green. She claps her hands and says something about
bamboo. So I go with the green one that looks like a Dalek.
from ’11. Meeting Ema Saikō’
I have been musing on national book awards and how they expand the life of shortlisted books and boost the authors and boost readership. Without a doubt they are a vital and important part of book landscapes. But like so many people, I find the idea of a ‘best’ book a little twitchy. I flagged the 2021 Ockham NZ Book Award poetry longlist as the best I have seen in ages, especially because (for once) it wasn’t top heavy with Pākehā poets. I had read, reviewed and adored eight of the books and then read, reviewed and adored the other two. If you haven’t read these fabulous books check them out. Yet there are other nz poetry books I have read, reviewed and adored that didn’t make the long list. Slowing down with a poetry book, finding the ways your body, heart and mind absorb the poetic affects is a privilege. A joy. As both author and reader I claim the writing and reading process as the most important thing.
A book has the ability to lift you.
I have been reading Janis Freegard’s poetry collection reading the signs over the past months and falling in love with the way it inhabits the moment. Janis had been awarded a residency at the Ema Saikō room in the Wairarapa. This room and the rituals Janis observed were the springboard for a sequence of connected poems.
Halfway through the book I became curious about Ema Saikō (1787 – 1861). She was a Japanese poet, painter and calligrapher much influenced by Chinese art, and who was producing work at a time when it was rare for women to do so (publicly anyway). I know nothing about her beyond her attachment to the physical world. But I am curious about the bridge from this much lauded woman to the occupants of a room named after her. It seems like Janis was also curious about Ema as her poetry and her occupation of the room become more and influenced by the poet / painter from the past. In both writing and in observing daily rituals such as making tea, especially in the making of loose-leaf tea with an exquisite concentration, Janis moves closer to Ema.
While you’re drinking the tea,
only drink the tea. By all means
notice twig shadows fluttering on the ground,
the calls of kiwi and kākā,
but do nothing else with your hands.
Let drinking the tea be the whole of it.
from ‘4. If you’re looking for a teapot, make sure
there’s a lug on the lid’
Janis writes after a fracture in her life, mending herself by writing poetry, paying attention to what is close at hand. A gender-fluid interpreter arrives in the sequence to direct her attention to things, questions, possibilities. Poetry stands in for the gold that ‘seals the fissures’:
You’ll break until you feel you may never be whole again.
(You will be.)
But you’ll be altered. Now is the time for kintsugi,
the Japanese art of repairing with gold, mending the cracks
in smashed ceramics to make something more beautiful.
You’ll reassemble yourself and use gold to seal the fissures.
from ‘8. Kintsugi’
So you could see this sequence as therapeutic, and no doubt it is, but it transcends the therapeutic and becomes a mesh of experiences: of slowing down and taking note of, of absorbing beauty in nature, from the sky to birds to trees. She is reading the sky – and the way a poem is a tree and a tree is a poem. She is reading the tea. She is absorbing stages of grief and loss and peace and life. She is translating what she feels, thinks, observes into lyrical poetry that is both steadfast and ethereal.
Ema Saikō says, ‘It is true things get lost in translation, but if you lose so much more if you don’t translate at all.’ In a sense Janis is translating herself on the line, finding lyrical form for experience, memories, feelings, contemplation. She is translating myriad connections with the world, with life – with an endangered world, with an endangered self.
It is warming to read, this book of dreaming, of signs, of being. I imagine it as a prism in the hand that shifts in the light. And here is the thing. I am never after the best book. I am after the prismatic effects that poetry has upon me, the way a book can shift and glint in my heart and mind as I read. Think how the effect changes with each book you pick up. The way it lifts you off the ground and out of daily routine and then returns you to your own daily rituals observations concentrations. An exquisitely layered and fluent book that reminds you of the power of the moment. I loved this book.
Janis Freegard is a Wellington poet, novelist and short story writer. She has won a number of awards including the Geometry | Open Book Poetry Competition and the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Short Story Award, and she was the inaugural Ema Saikō Poetry Fellow in the Wairarapa. Janis performs with the Meow Gurrrls poetry collective.
The Cuba Press page
Janis Freegard’s Weblog
VIDEO: Janis reading poems from reading the signs (Wellington City Libraries)
Janis held the inaugural Ema Saikō Poetry Fellowship with NZ Pacific Studio in Wairarapa. The 2015 Fellow: Yukari Nikawa (Japan); 2016: Alan Jefferies (Australia) and Ya-wen Ho (NZ); 2017: Makyla Curtis (NZ); 2018: Leanne Dunic (Canada); 2019/2020: Rebecca Hawkes (NZ). For more