A Man Runs Into A Woman, by Sarah Jane Barnett (Hue And Cry Press). Graft, by Helen Heath (Victoria University Press).


The Archaeologist and The Runner


Graft is a short but freighted word. In horticulture, it’s a shoot joined to the stock of an older plant; in medicine, it’s transplanted tissue. It’s also a deceit, a swindle, and the opposite: honest, hard labour. The etymology of the word goes back to Ancient Greek: graphein, to carve, to dig, to inscribe – to write. These various meanings surface and commingle in Helen Heath’s first collection of poems.

Poetry has always told lies as a means to getting at the truth:  representation is always a distortion, an invention, a way of seeing rather than the thing seen. This is explicitly acknowledged in the third, final section of Heath’s collection, “Truth & Fiction.” Writing a poem, too, as anyone who has ever written one knows, is difficult work; part of the lie, as Yeats says in “Adam’s Curse,” is in making it look easy:

“I said: ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.’”

Or, as another speaker has it in the same poem,

“’To be born woman is to know –

Although they do not talk of it at school –

we must labour to be beautiful.”

Heath also conceals her craft, her graft, in poems that often concern work, and women working. The beauty of science is a recurring subject – the work that lies behind the discoveries, and the human cost. The physicist and chemist, Marie Curie, features here; so do the astronomer, Beatrice Tinsley, and the biophysicist Rosalind Franklin, both of whom were under-recognized for their scientific contributions, and died young. Science and poetry have often been pitted against each other, with scientists, on the one hand, dismissing poetry as an entertainment at best, and poets, on the other, perceiving science and reason as inimical to the imagination. William Blake’s Newton crouches at the bottom of the sea, dividing and divining the world: reason, to Blake, is so reductive as to be a kind of madness. Heath’s poems show reason and the imagination as complementary, not antithetical: in the poem that begins this book, Newton the scientist cannot distinguish between “the moment of first light / or the last of the night’s magic.” The poet and the scientist may pursue different kinds of enquiry, but they are united by a sense of wonder at the way things are.

Among these science-oriented poems in the first section are poems cast as fairytales, and poems of a girl growing up – a young woman’s relationships with her father, her mother, and the loss of the latter. These have an insouciant, Plath-like sensibility, both playful and crystalline. The father is both idolized and found wanting (quoting Plath directly, one poem ends: “Daddy, you do not do”). The dead, absent mother – the trope of so many fairytales – relates also to the women scientists mentioned above, who struggled in their personal and professional lives in the context of pervasive sexism: Tinsley, for instance, eventually left her husband and children to take up a position at Yale.

The second section of the book, “Ithaca,” recalls in its title the birthplace of Ulysses and also Cavafy’s famous poem, “Ithaka.” Both The Odyssey and Cavafy’s poem concern homecoming, only to find that home is not what one thought it was: the true home remains in the mind, and it is the journeying that matters. Heath’s speaker, too, seeks in vain. Asked what it is she is looking for, she can answer only in glib phrases:

I say – My mother’s family came

from here. I don’t know

I just wanted to see, I don’t know.

Maybe if I know my past

I’ll know my future.

Her interlocutor seizes on the word “past” and responds: “Archaeologist! You come to dig?!” This speaker seeks to understand her past, yet struggles to be understood. But dig she does, discovering an old tunnel (“I think you find Hades / says Georgio”) leading to a cave opening on to a beach, with the sun coming up – an illumination of sorts, if not the one she was looking for.

In the third section, the poems are more miscellaneous, but the same subjects surface: motherhood, physics, Greece, the concept of home, the mortality of the body. As a whole, this collection gleams with intelligence and insight.

The central, riveting sequence of poems in Sarah Jane Barnett’s first collection also concerns mortality: it recreates the final moments in the lives of murderers about to be executed. The official records of their crimes are juxtaposed with their final words of apology, justification, defiance, acceptance. Barnett deliberately treads an uneasy line between voyeurism and empathy in these remarkable poems, some of which are little short stories, with tiny arcs of narrative. The back cover is a photographic portrait of the author, with what might be a smile, and a level, challenging gaze. It’s a visual analogue of the effect of these unsettling poems: Barnett seems to anticipate your reaction, and is there before you.

The title represents a collision, and these poems explore what happens when different people collide: murderers and their victims; lovers; a transgender father and his/her daughter. These collisions are moments of connection, but also disjunction, “the space between people,” as one poem has it – running into and running away.

Running, literal and metaphorical, is a recurring theme. Collisions can also be transformations, blurrings, mergings, as colours run together. These poems tend to break down polarities, oppositions: even those spaces between people can be meeting spaces. The final, long poem, “Marathon Men,” blurs genres, slipping from poetry and the power of the line-break to prose and back again. Barnett’s poems are difficult to categorize, to pin down, and her subjects are likewise elusive, on the move. Some poems capture life in a kind of freeze-frame, and the price paid for close observation is a kind of stasis. Barnett’s poems are different: they run alongside, into and away from their subjects, as if both observer and observed are in motion. I’ve never met her, but I’d bet money she’s a runner. Each of these debut collections demonstrates a singular vision, an assurance, and a technical facility that are deeply impressive.


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Tim Tweets