Other by Ruth Hanover
Lyttleton: Cold Hub Press (2019)
RRP: $19.95. Pb, 48pp
Reviewed by Patricia Prime
Ruth Hanover is one of those rare poets who writes honestly and from the heart. In Other she opens the reader to the world as she sees it and enables the reader to become more involved in what it means to be dispossessed. The poems share her observations of refugees, seekers of asylum and others, to share details of what it means to be stripped of one’s dignity. Hanover touches on Austerlitz, brutality, pain, borders and more. She does this with clarity, compassion and charity.
These poems are inspired by the poet’s understanding of atrocities, cultural shock, survival, and more. The poems focus on human behaviour, relationships and interactions. They are informed by nature and human nature and explore how humans behave and react in dire situations. She suggests that as humans we are not perfect but hopefully will progress intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. We may recognise ourselves among the protagonists we find here or connect with those we have touched or been touched by on our life’s journey.
Other begins with “Let me tell you” (p.10), a sequence about the struggle of refugees to cross the razor-wire that separates them from freedom:
Close to the wire
the guards on their side, we –
this handful of us dozing, sleeping —
Hanover proceeds with startlingly original poems, direct in their simple words and phrases, detailing in this section from the sequence “After Saturday comes Sunday” (p.20), fragments of the bombing of Paris in 2015 that make a resounding presence in the contemporary world. the poem begins:
It will be harder. They will have come to notice any accumulations of you
places where you gather in café, mosque or precinct, believe
you grow numerous on the open street.
They will pay attention. Heed, mark.
The next major poems are taken from ‘The Tent’ sequence. These are comprised of ‘On Waking’, ‘Ice Age’, and the lengthier poem ‘The Tent’. Hanover provides an interesting narrative which takes the reader from a refugee’s point of view of waking in the morning, being in retreat, alone, learning to hunt and make fire to the final poem in the sequence. ‘The Tent’ (p.25). In this poem, the refugee and his brother (who has not chosen to go with him, but lies within him), arrive at the tent city:
We learn, somewhere south of Lund,
we are to be housed in tents, Swedish army. Surplus.
Some are anxious, feel tricked – for we are
after all, removed –
and hardest of all,
is to trust.
.Hanover constructs an unbearable poignancy from all these poems about oppression, escape, the precariousness of the situation displaced persons find themselves in. Despite the sadness and futility of their lives, what remains is the remarkable power of the people. The poems, so precise in their detail, are surprising and unexpected. Finally, Hanover moves into the poem “On close reading” (p38), about Guantanamo Bay. The poem is characterised by its alternate short or lengthy lines, its italicised phrases and its jerky movement. It references the story of a prisoner who rejects freedom. The poem ends (p 43):
reversal. For it has come to pass that a Jew
even my Peter, had he lived . . .
has anything to do with the running of a camp
we would have lost it all
along the way. All notion.
The very blue-print
of how to be.
Here, Hanover details the horrors of the camp, maltreatment, shackles, sadism, waterboarding and more.
Ultimately, this is a collection of heart-rending poems fired by belief in the human and spiritual at a time when much in the world feels unreal and inhuman. These are poems of great force connecting us to those less fortunate, helping us stay alive to the world and stay true to ourselves. Usually if you say a book is ‘inspirational’ that means soft at the centre. This astonishingly original collection, by contrast, shows that what is edgy, authentic and provocative can also awaken the spirit and make its readers quick with consciousness. In these pages I discovered many vivid and memorable poems.
Patricia Prime is co-editor of Kokako, reviews/interviews editor of Haibun Today and a reviewer for Atlas Poetica, takahē and other journals. In 2020 she will be one of the editors of Contemporary Haibun Online. Besides reviewing, writing poetry and articles, she writes traditional verse, renga, linked verse, tanka prose, haibun, cherita and limericks.