Poetry Shelf review: Frances Samuel’s Museum

Museum, Frances Samuel, Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2022

Up here in the thin green air,
I’m feeling the wind on my face
with the joy of a dog on a family car trip,
head out of the window.

from ‘Exhibition (DNA)’

Frances Samuel worked in a museum writing texts for exhibitions for many years. For me, museums are an endless source of fascination and marvel. I wrote about the intoxicating thrill of museums in New York Pocketbook. Standing, for example, before a pair of child’s boots in Ellis Island’s Immigration Centre or moving with the wonders of the Natural History Museum. Or the roll call of museums that fed my Italian degrees. There are the hungry gaps of the past that you seek to fill by studying scuffed toes, wrinkled leather, the uncanny emptiness, the child that once ran or skipped or hid. In my self-imposed lockdown, picking up Frances’s new collection felt like a trip to a museum and, as happens on the threshold of any museum space, I felt a heady mix of anticipation, joy, curiosity. Where would this book take me?

I pass through the book’s opening poem, ‘Exhibition (Security)’, and then move through three exhibitions: ‘SUPER(NATURAL) WORLD’, ‘(IM)MATERIAL WORLD’ and ‘OBJECT LESSONS’. I am following the poet, the museum maker, but the museum on offer is porous. It reaches out beyond walls and still life into the air we breathe, and with each poem I track twist unfold pursue peruse fold untwist. Just like I do on Ellis Island. Or in Roma. It is discovery and it is magical.

The poem ‘Climate Change’ proposes a change in perspective. Inventive in its start:

Since we are all made up of atoms and vibrations,
let’s rearrange ourselves.
You be a bird and I’ll be a buffalo,
stand on my back and off we go, carefully
stepping over our discard clothes

And utterly moving, when you reach the final stanza. I keep bouncing back to the poem’s title, just as I might switch and flick between museum diorama, museum label and someone else’s shoes:

From above, we watch travellers on the trails
tying and retying their loads to donkeys’ backs.
They take a few steps and the load slips again.
Over and over again, agreement can only come
when the bird in me bleats
to the buffalo in you.

Frances writes lightfootedly. It’s not just a matter of weight but a matter of luminosity. If the poems were written in ink, the ink would be imbued with a wonder that slips in and out of view. You need to read each poem whole to get the effect of fitting together, but certain lines stand out and settle on you, little talismans, little points of fascinations.

‘Rain is hole-punching its way in.’ from ‘Moonhopppers’

‘My friend wears a grass jumpsuit / teeming with ants and worms.’ from ‘Fashion’

‘A poet explodes at a kitchen table / taking everything else with her.’ from ‘Pottery’

‘The words are falling from him like seeds.’ from ‘Fast Forest’

‘If one hundred thousand leaves / can make a clean break every day / then what are you waiting for?’ from ‘Seed/Leaf/Tree’

In the first section/exhibition, you enter forests, mountains, deserts, fields, physical exhibition spaces. In the second section/exhibition space, the immaterial shifts my view on existence. Ghosts and trees jangle eyes. Things leap off the page, the canvas, out of the shadows, or from the anecdote, to gain provisional flesh, and you are back in the invigorating and mysterious air of the world.

And suddenly it’s a good thing
you extinguished your shoes
because now you are walking on air.
And when you are walking on air
you can go anywhere.

from ‘Exhibition (Shoes)

And then poet becomes mother, and the maternal role, reframed time and fatigue, chores and the tendering, are made visible. The mother is still of course poet, and the third section/exhibition refuses to keep the world confined in glass cases. The domestic enters and still the writing mind roves and creates and muses. In such an airy space, the wonder and discovery expands. For both reader and writer. In ‘Coin Rubbings’, the speaker finds buried civilisations and buried self elusive, so she tries this:

(…) So maybe it’s as easy
as placing the paper over your own face
and rubbing to see what impression
you are making on the world.

In each section/exhibition space, you turn upon notions of perspective, ways of absorbing and reacting, seeing and feeling. Your place(s) in the world comes into question, or into view, or dissolves, and you turn the page and keep reading. This sublime stanza appears in ‘The Kindness of Giants’ and appears in other guises or translations throughout the book.

Your feet are shod in cruise ships, and your eyes
look though spectacles made of frozen lakes.
Trapped fish obscure your vision.

When I first visited foreign museums in my twenties, I found them dead. Nothing jumped out and poked me in the eye or heart. Yet all these decades later, both poetry and museums are alive to me. I get to carry bits of humanity, song, epiphany, storytelling, dread, mystery, roadmaps, possibility atlases, the real, the unreal. The power of words, in both locations, along with the power of objects, get to sing in heart and mind. I finished France’s new collection and, how can I explain it, I was bursting with gladness and sadness. Maybe because instead of listening to the 11 am announcement on Covid changes yesterday, I read the book. I reread the collection today, writing this on one breath, on the wire of living, on the lightning rod of uncertain times, and as I put the book on my shelf, I am busting up with joy. That is what poetry can do. Read this book.

Inside your heart, a museum
and not the free-entry kind,
not the kind with a rollercoaster
and a cafe and a shop.

from ‘Museum Without an End’

Frances Samuel‘s first book was Sleeping on Horseback (VUP, 2014). Her poems have appeared in many print and online publications, including Sport, Best New Zealand Poems, Short Poems of New Zealand, and the National Library exhibition The Next Word: Contemporary New Zealand Poetry.

Te Herenga Waka University Press page

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