Poetry Shelf review: Rose Collin’s My Thoughts Are All of Swimming

My Thoughts Are All of Swimming, Rose Collins, Sudden Valley Press, 2022

and after, in the streak-pale sun, the welcome,

liberated hunk of sky – a tangle and comb

of wasted boughs, and still to come

the hum of absence – the loss of blue-glazed cornicing

or the blush of cupped gumnuts icing

outstretched stems – a ghost-shape for the wind to sing

from “Felling the Eucalypt”

Rose Collin’s debut collection, My Thoughts Are All of Swimming, was chosen by Elizabeth Smither as the inaugural winner of the John O’Connor Award. In conjunction with the Canterbury Poets’ Collective, the award offers publication to the best first manuscript of a local poet.

Rose’s collection is both elegant and physically present. I jotted down key words as I read, and realised they formed a provisional map of why I love reading and writing poetry. To begin, musicality. Every word-note is pitch perfect and forms a musical score for the ear: “Alan hears the / tide’s shingle-clatter, and closer in, his old dog’s chuffing / sighs” (from “Alan Recuperating on a Bed of Rabbits”). And:

Composing in this crackling southern light –

clinker lines, sail split, the hemp-warp flapping –

while you spun the anchor wider than geography,

a green-oak branch weighted with a stone

from “Returning North”

Secondly, the collection promotes breathing space. There is the space on the page in which a poem nestles, the chance for poems to breathe, for readerly pause and pivot. The internal design heightens this effect, with generous line spacing and a decent sized font.

I can catch a finger-full of salt and rub

it in the cuts: the aim is to avoid stillness.

I move like a blind woman baking sorrow cake

blindfold, following the recipe

spooning in what’s lost.

from “The Kitchen”

Thirdly, and intricately tied to “breathing space”, is the use of understatement, where room is left for the reader to navigate ellipses, semantic clearings, things held back. There are poignant references, electric traces that signal illness, challenge, danger, and more illness.

I am on the trapeze of a new cycle of investigations – I

walked here from the hospital, skirting the rim of a volcano

for my flat white.

from “Lion in Chains Outside Circus Circus Cafe, Mt Eden”

Fourthly, and I am searching for the best word here, there is an inquisitiveness on the part of the poet, as she ranges wide and deep in her curiosity and engagements; touching upon fairy stories, other modes of writing such as William Burroughs cut-up practice, a Kafka aphorism, sculptural installations, a Lydia Davis short story, music, other poets, Robert Falcon Scott’s diary.

My fifth word, and my handful of ideas could extend to become a catalogue, to a more substantial map of possibilities in this sumptuous poetry, is intimacy. I am musing on how you are drawn deep into the writing; how it feels exquisitely intimate. It feels compellingly close, as people and places resonate: from son to brother to friends, from Lyttelton to Ireland.

you are light as steam right now

high frequency, cloud-high

but when you are here, this side

of security, oh the things I have to tell you –

how your letter is the most valuable

thing I carry

how we have built a tower for the chickens

to roost in – kānuka poles frame the ceiling

from “While the radios are tuned you write letters home”

Rose has produced a debut collection to celebrate. It moves you to muse and be nourished, to inhabit and settle in poetry clearings. To dawdle and drift as you read. Close your eyes and absorb the music as though you have put on an album, a breathtaking album you want on repeat. There is darkness and there is light, there is the particular and the intangible. My Thoughts Are All of Swimming is a joy to read.

Rose Collins, born in New Zealand and of Irish descent, is a poet and short fiction writer. She worked as a human rights lawyer before completing the MA in Creative Writing at the IIML in 2010. She won the 2022 John O’Connor Award and the 2020 Micro Madness Competition, and has been shortlisted for the UK Bare Fiction Prize (2016), the Bridport Prize (2020) and the takahē Monica Taylor Poetry Prize (2020). Rose was the 2018 Writer in Residence at Hagley College. She is a some-time litigation lawyer, a beekeeper and a mother of two. She lives in Te Whakaraupō Lyttelton Harbour with her family.

Sudden Valley Press page

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