time to sing before the dark by Helen Bascand
Christchurch: The Caxton Press (2018)
RRP: $24.95. Pb, 94pp
Reviewed by Tim Jones
Skilled, precise, calm, humane, memorious. The work of a well-stocked mind with many years of thought, experience and compassion behind it. Serious. Intelligent. Controlled.
time to sing before the dark, the fifth poetry collection by Helen Bascand, is all of these things and more. It is a credit both to the poet, who began work on the manuscript before her death in 2015, and to Joanna Preston, her literary executor, who completed the task of choosing and polishing Helen’s poems for this collection.
The Caxton Press is the perfect publisher for time to sing before the dark. The press and the production team have done an excellent job: a striking cover, an elegant design, and a format – larger than is usual for poetry collections – that suits the length of these poems very well, enabling the reader to see most of these poems in the span of one or two pages, giving them the breathing room they deserve.
Some poetry collections, for better or worse, reach out and clutch at the reader’s arm; others lay on the easy smiles and point encouragingly to a well-upholstered chair. I found neither to be true of time to sing before the dark. These poems have a reserved, though not unfriendly, quality that appeals to me: there is nothing obscure about them, but the reader needs to make an initial effort to engage with them.
The rewards are many. Seriousness doesn’t preclude touches of dry humour, as in this brief extract from one of my favourite poems in the collection, ‘Shifting’, where the everyday both emphasises and undercuts the profound:
Inchworms loop over the leaf
if we stand in Cathedral Square for a year
we move forty millimetres
plus miss the bus (p. 20)
A number of the poems in this collection allude to religious faith. I was raised Methodist, and a little research showed me that Helen Bascand was, too, and that Methodism remained important in her life. So I responded to the choice of imagery and language in these poems in a way which felt very familiar. They are undogmatic – at least, I did not find them so – and moving:
… It was neglected
but we took our delight
where we could find it,
hacked our naked way in,
stood in the muddle of forgotten
planting…. ( p. 47)
Short excerpts don’t do full justice to these poems: there is a great deal of subtlety which takes time to emerge. A number of the longer and more complex poems refer to mythology, such as ‘Persephone – currently, alongside ‘Shifting’, my favourite poem in this collection. Lies, half-truths, promises, regrets:
just a simple descent, he said,
through layers of old seasons – down
into a winter of desire and lust clinging to her skin.
Persephone in the dark night, shuffles fragile memories
like used playing cards – this crumpled picture, a woman
in a paddock of clover – tears burning where they fall. (p. 52)
Persephone is alone in the dark at the end, remembering:
A cold shiver of something like fear wells up in the dark.
Persephone lifts her hands towards an imagined sun,
remembers Demeter then,
that other love. (53)
An essay by Joanna Preston, explaining how she came to edit this book and how she went about that task, is an excellent capstone to this collection, in which the poems are capable of standing sturdily by themselves, but fit seamlessly together.
Tim Jones (b 1959) has had one novel, two short story collections and four poetry collections published – most recently, New Sea Land (Mākaro Press, 2016) – and has co-edited two poetry anthologies. He was guest poet in takahē 89 (April 2017).