Review: Francesca Haig's 'Bodies of Water'
Five Islands Press, 2006
Francesca Haig’s first collection of poetry is published in New Poets Series Eleven by Five Islands Press. Each year, six poets have been selected for Chapbook size publication in the Series. With the departure of Ron Pretty from Five Islands Press, the series is no longer and one can only hope the new management of Five Islands Press will be able to reinstate it later down the track.
Haig’s collection has been awarded a highly commended in the 2007 Anne Elder Award for a first book of poetry. She was born in 1981 and grew up in Hobart. Some of her poetry is included in journals Overland, Famous Reporter and Blue Dog. She is completing her PhD in Creative Arts at the University of Melbourne. Philip Salom says of her work on the cover blurb, "This is quiet poetry but it is also very impressive."
I found the poems clear, the content suggestive of newly gained maturity. Some of the poems offer almost Zen-like acceptance of the world of emotional highs and lows. From the opening poem, The Greek Woman which explores her own interpretation of interactions between mortals and gods;
I am not / so much a woman / as a coin slot.
We know that if we enter hope, / like entering Hades, /
there will be no coming back.
Ask me whatever you like: / wood’s answer to everything / is wood.
Haig incorporates the progress and experiences of her life in several poems such as Villanelle for a pregnancy test and Villanelle and these poems seemed more contrived as a result of attention to a strict form. In the sequence Rock-climbing poems she advances through the stages of the climb, "the rope between us / becomes a string stretched’; and the climb becomes the metaphor for her relationship with the other, ‘let’s have a look at you’.
Love is her subject matter here and throughout the other poems, whether she is focused on love in its sensual mode or love in its familial mode. Of particular note are the poems about her sister, which focus on the condition anorexia and its impact on the poet as the involved observer. These are strong poems with imagery and tensions poised and confident. Haig uses a spare, yet curious approach to what matters, as this sequence crosses narrative with a very subtle plan. The result is poetry unexpectedly free of clutter or lumpy clinical explanations.
Lying on your back next to me,
your hip bones are the fins
of two sharks circling closely.
Your ribs are the ridged edge
of a stack of plates.
How close we are
(Koonya, Tasman Peninsula)
After seven months of her silence
we learnt a new word: aphonia
to place next to anorexia.
She was addicted to bones.
I hope she’s preparing
a harvest of new things:
in the two soapstone boxes next to her diary,
she is growing
two small breasts.
Two poems that delight, depict the innocence of young lovers abroad; Paris bells ‘In the belly of my mouth, / full of secrets, / I am heavy // with waiting for you’ and St Sulpice, France ‘Squinting, drunk with sun we / go down to the river, our bodies / like a still-vibrating drum, resonate’. With these poems Haig offers us a micro world of sensual delight. The poems act as small and perfectly sounded notes prior to the darker poems on love and life concluding her collection.
The poet demonstrates the unraveling so very quietly in; Love is hard on poets and in Artefacts ‘Depression is another country; / I cannot, and I will not, take you there.’; ‘Needing proof, I am my own vulture: / I pick my own bones clean.’
Haig seems to prefer the lyric and narrative modes of presentation with no indication that her interests might extend towards other post modern/avant or more experimental language modes. What does distinguish her work from much other lyric poetry on offer is the freshness of her eye and the ability she has to find images from the edges of the story lines, possibilities many poets might pass by or shy away from. She concludes this collection with a wonderful sequence, the title poem for her collection.
In 'Bodies of water' a sequence of nine poems Haig seems to step out entirely into a clear space, where she works within a known and somewhat mastered sensibility to transcend loss. By recalling and catching all the usual, yet relevant details, her insights gain momentum.
Where words abandon you
shifting and joining
finding the same level.
You taught me how we thirst.
the phone on the hook
after you leave
Haig’s confrontation with loss is not a bitter place but it is a dark place at times. Yet the poet maintains a sure and clear direction as she keeps her balance. This sequence concludes with a cautious sense of hope evident in Haig’s closing lines;
Time passes with only the sound that dew makes.
I leave my words behind me
like clothes on a beach
step into silence.
Francesca Haig has managed a remarkable first collection well worthy of praise and for all the brevity of Chapbook size collections, I think they offer a poet of Haig’s abilities an opportunity to put related material forward in a very special way. I’m sure she will continue to explore poetry with fresh and honest observations.