Summer Grass by Ginny Sullivan.
Wellington: Steele Roberts Aotearoa.
RRP: $19.99. Softcover, 72pp.
Reviewed by Jessie Neilson.
The first stanza of Ginny Sullivan’s poem “You and the land” perfectly exemplifies some of the key concerns in her collection, Summer Grass:
When you told me part of your story
I wondered what it was
in the brown tussock lands
that touched and dusted you,
scattered you into a new shape
as bright and clear
as snow on the hills (p 53).
In these few lines Sullivan has combined her love for her partner as well as her intrigue towards her; the natural landscape; and a sense of awe and of seeing things anew. These themes recur in this collection, which draws on the poet’s home territory of New Zealand, as well as stretching to travels both in Italy, and, more predominantly, in Israel. The collection’s title, Summer Grass, hints at long days of enjoyment outside with family and friends, observing and rejoicing in being part of nature and the elemental.
Sullivan recognises familiar nurturing skills in animal life, as several poems featuring swans with their cygnets, amongst other birds, testify. She watches a family on the river, where the swan reigns supreme, elegant and controlled in “Swan maidens” and “Queen of the river”, the sight of which contrasts, in goodwill, to her own shortcomings in the eyes of her mother as outlined in “My mother and I”. According to her mother she would have been held in judgement for not aging gracefully, and who, instead of taking extreme care of her appearance would have been ‘walking/ with nowhere in mind/ but for me it’s a new direction’ (“My mother and I”, p 16).
Other animals she observes are dogs and other birds who have a fierce joy in their aloneness which is simply enough; a satisfaction and unselfconsciousness in the ‘warm blur of life’ (“Seeing a dog and seeing a bird”, p 13). She marvels at their everyday exploits where they expect nothing more, as she does of the prospect of glimpsing a whale, in “Whalesong”, where to be witness to such a creature is to be awestruck.
Of her own place in the landscape she writes of the pleasure of clearing the earth for a garden, the rank insistence of growth as she removes the convolvulus (“Bean teepee”, p 17) and tries to make the land over in a process of working, creating and giving. She writes of the upheaval of the land in “When the earthquake came” (p 38), yet still holds on to the beauty of things, marvelling at new lambs shakily standing, in a world that continues to form, over and over.
Sullivan’s respect towards and appreciation of nature is continually evident. She watches a kokako in the bush and thinks of ‘the completeness of you’ (“Kokako”, p 56).
An individual, whatever the animal, is part of the cycle of life. Sullivan turns towards simple images of domesticity, of a child making a place in the world, through learning, where a girl is washing eggs: ‘she took, one by one,/ the curved worlds of each smooth egg/ and washed it carefully’ (“Washing the eggs”, p 26). Other domestic images are of milking the cows, and of tending to the chickens. It is the simple things in life which add up to something meaningful.
Many of Sullivan’s poems evade a specific setting. However, a number open on the landscape of, and with characters in, Israel. She draws on nostalgic experiences there, of the ‘deep whiteness of the desert’ (“Haze across Judah”, p 27), and of people or essences appearing as angels (“Angels in Jerusalem”, p 30), of the ‘warm scent of rosemary and herbs’, the golden domes, and the fretwork of minarets (“Paper prayers”, p 42). These poems are evocative of a time long ago, and of her more recent memories, which nevertheless live on for Sullivan.
Some of Sullivan’s most piercing poems are those which take a turn towards darkness and confusion: the inability to know another person, or oneself, or to be able to pin down meaning. In “The long goodbye” she speaks of an absence, even in a substance: ‘when I looked into your/ eyes I couldn’t find you/ there,/you were far away like the receded sea/ on a stormy beach’ (p 9), or a pivoting off centre: ‘You fell from your centre and hid in the dark/ ashen, frail, lost’ (“Lost child”, p 48). There is a deep sadness in certain pieces of her writing: of a leaving of others and of having been left; of disappearance and loss, and grief.
“Map reading” carries on this theme of love and not ever being quite understood, or misunderstood: “I thought I could decode the cyphers” (p 10). Another, “To an absent friend”, is just that, to one who has passed on: ‘It is as if your shadow/ has dived through deep/ water leaving ripples,/ small bright bubbles on the surface,/ never again to come up for air’ (p 41). These pieces are poignant, full of the crippling emotion that we all at times share.
Yet, some pieces carry hope, in their beauty, of overcoming paralysis such as “A libation”. The object of the poem is finally able to beat down the demon or state of mind dogging them, which had chilled and numbed, by meeting ‘the perilous pitch/ of its dark black eyes/ and let its shadow/ fall/ slantwise/ across their heart’ (p 39).
Summer Grass is a thoughtful and enchanting collection, depicting the fragility of individuals in the world, and of natural conditions continually changing. Sullivan speaks from the heart, and whether her poetry is focused on the landscape, or on interactions, or observations, it carries a quiet dignity and kindness that is compelling.
Jessie Neilson studied English at Otago and also holds qualifications in the areas of second language teaching and library and information studies. She has taught international students here and abroad. Jessie is a regular reviewer for the Otago Daily Times and works in the University of Otago Central Library. She has broad interests in matters literary.