Sleeping with Stones, Serie Barford, Anahera Press, 2021
come my love
follow me down the mountain
through the desert
across the ocean to Piula
fish will lomilomi our tears
into crystalline water
I will kiss you better
from ‘Piula blue’
Serie Barford’s new collection Sleeping with Stones is an exquisite testimony to life and love. The poems are both odes and eulogies, because at the beating heart of the collection is the man to whom the book is dedicated. He was the poet’s beloved. The opening poem shows us a scene of joyful presence alongside a scene of terrible absence. I am inferring, as I read, that the poet’s beloved was pulled over a hard-to fathom edge. The poem suggests to me the collection will weave here and not-here, pain and joy, and that the writing will draw the loved one close. And that is exactly what it does, and it is so very moving.
I am finding it hard to write this review, when the subject matter depends on such a delicate mesh of dark and light. Yet Serie’s book is a compelling work of beauty that you read in one sitting. I keep imagining the tidal build up of feelings, memories, experience, and here I am holding, let’s say falling, into a book of bittersweet economy. The unsaid is ripe with the spoken, and the spoken is poignant with the unsaid. The beloved comes and goes, and goes. There is the light-rich setting of scenes, of shared places (a fresh water pool on Upolu where they first met), and there is the dark-shadowed pangs of regret. How to hold someone closer to keep them safe? How to be near the grief stricken? How to write grief and how to write love? All these questions and more rise to the surface.
Other things find their way into the weaving. The poet is having mammograms, buys a frock in her beloved’s favourite colour, uses traditional healing foods (turmeric and kawakawa leaves), faces institutional racism, mows the lawn, stands by the pōhutukawa they planted together. All these daily activities and challenges, nestling into the grief and the recollecting, are placed within the four seasons of a year. The seasons indicate the passing of time, the harvest and the plantings, yet also indicate the way life is shaped into so many stages, compartments or loose-bordered arrangements.
The poems sit in generous space on the page, using an open rather tight font. The openness gives the pain and the celebration breathing room. Feeling and thinking room. Which is exactly what I want to do for you. I want to open the book and then let you pick it up and fall into its beauty, its hope, its connections.
your fine voice lies buried
on the other side of the world
how you loved our garden
sing to me
from ‘Sing to me’
Serie Barford was born in Aotearoa to a German-Samoan mother and a Pālagi father, and grew up in West Auckland. She has published poems online and in journals, along with four previous collections of poetry. In 2011 she was awarded the Seresin Landfall Writer’s Residency and in 2018 the Pasifika Residency at the Michael King Writers’ Centre. Serie promoted her collections Tapa Talk and Entangled Islands at the 2019 International Arsenal Book Festival in Kiev. Sleeping With Stones was launched during Matariki, 2021.
Poetry Shelf: Serie reads from Sleeping with Stones
Poem on Poetry Shelf: ‘The midwife and the cello’
RNZ Standing Room Only interview
Kete Books: Grace Iwashita-Taylor review