Poetry Shelf review: Simone Kaho’s Heal!

Heal! Simone Kaho, Saufo’i Press, 2022

If you read the blurb, you will discover Simone Kaho’s new poetry collection, Heal!, comes with guidance: the poetry navigates sexual violence, assault, PTSD, self harm, suicide. The blurb also offers terrific reactions from three esteemed poets: Karlo Mila, Anne Kennedy and essa may ranapiri. Karlo writes: “I read this book in one sitting. Paralysed by the beauty, purpose and pungency of the writing.” I don’t usually read blurbs or reviews before I read a book, but when the book recently missed out on a longlist placing in the NZ Book Awards, to the surprise and consternation of many readers, I found I had absorbed traces of the book before I started reading it.

I am holding the book close before I begin reading and it raises questions. How do we write the unspeakable, the unsayable, the unutterable? Sometimes, somehow, someone finds a way to do so because they must, no matter how difficult it might be. And that becomes a gift for us as readers. For any number of private or public reasons.

Simone’s extraordinary collection begins with a smell, an unidentifiable smell, it is “somewhere between a food and flower smell. The source is not clear. It’s not the dash of orange flowers whose nectaries are nice to suck, not the yellow poison berries that broke up one of her mother’s children’s parties.” After listing the things the smell is not, the poet achingly concludes:

You see how life goes on?

The entire collection is alive to smell, to sight and touch. It is rugged terrain and it is hoed ground, it is dead bird and tended insect, it is wound and it is self care. Like Karlo, I am reading Heal! in one sitting, then I sit with the door wide open, hearing a crescendo of autumn crickets, wondering how I will write my reading experience.

Simone guides us into the intimate revelations of a traumatic event, to the acute ripples etching skin and heart, and the afterwards (afterwords) needing to carry on as if life is normal. She moves back and forward, in this house and that house, from this treasured father memory to that treasured father memory, from this partner to this friend. She’s releasing spiky revelations and then turning her eye to a thing of beauty, think  smashed face with sunglasses to sweetly scented flower. I am reminded of the exclamation mark that accompanies the title of the book, and the way my eye moves from flower petal to beloved bee, to wound to scar to a mother’s bedtime stories.

In every photo I’ve taken of spring blossoms the sky behind is blue.
But I’ve seen blossomed trees in storms.
Afterwards, I go look at the battered litter of colour.
New flowery faces thrust out of twigs as if bearing no relation to the fallen below.
Sex is a natural thing, like a river or tree.

The writing inhabits the page in various settings, forms, movements, fluencies, just like thinking might do, especially thinking about hard subject matter. Thinking about traumatic and tough experience involves different patterns of thought, feelings, reckonings. I enter the open, the half closed, the hidden, a need to be safe. At one point the poet remembers planting kūmara with her father, and it gets me musing that Simone’s writing is a way of planting self in the ground, in the soil of living.

There is mint in this garden, comfrey, dandelion, silverbeet, puha. In this garden.
However, there are more weeds than anything else.

His eyes are the colour of soil, hers are too.

This morning she sees herself, arms crossed on her chest, round and complete as
a kūmara, earth embracing her, eyes closed, growing, her breath slow as light
moving across the field, drawn through nutrients in soil, held in her lungs, so
rich, sweet at the back of her throat, seeping onto her tongue, nerves above her
soul prickle, how complete a leaf is, and she, all to herself, in soil soft as clouds,
soft as sea, soft as sky.

Some reading paths might suggest Heal! is a catalogue of pain, and to a degree it is, but it is also a planting of precious life in the abundant detail, both sweet and sour, of living. It considers the who and how of self, whether writer, friend, lover, daughter, woman. Simone’s exquisite artwork adds a piquant visual layer. The cover so very striking, is a poem in its own making. This is a book that is facet rich, like a diamond striking you with light and edge, full of beauty and ache. I have barely touched its surface or depths, but I love it dearly. Thank you for sending Heal! into the world Simone, we are so very grateful.

Simone Kaho is a Tongan and Pākehā poet, creative non-fiction writer, and director. Her first poetry collection Lucky Punch was published in 2016. She has a master’s degree in poetry from Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) and was awarded the IIML 2022 Emerging Pasifika writer in residence. Simone directed the 2019 web series ‘Conversations’ for E-Tangata and now works as a writer/director for Tagata Pasifika. She is an active voice in Alison Mau’s #metooNZ project.

Saufo’i Press page

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