Lonely Earth by MaryJane Thomson.
Wellington: HeadworX (2015)
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.
MaryJane Thomson, a Wellington writer, artist and photographer, is the author of the memoir Sarah Vaughan is Not my Mother (2013). Lonely Earth is her second poetry collection: her debut collection being Fallen Grace (2014).
Lonely Earth is an accomplished, finely wrought gem of a book. It contains poems that pull you into them quickly, and then as you proceed through the book you are struck by contemporary issues like care of the environment, humanity, war and consumerism. Restoration and wrecking are two constant pulses that beat through the book, each viewed from different angles each time they are approached.
Love, too, is constant and in “Without love” we read “dreams / are shattered”, “Without love there’s no weight on / your heart” and “without love you drown from the / weight”.
Thomson works with histories that are known and history that she takes and reshapes. She uses this material – for example in “Looks like communism” – in a way that makes you believe a poet can reach into the past and change things. As she says, it “seems like everyone believes what a / revolution may bring.” Seen through a different prism and given more life, more light, is the poem “Adidas”: “Just show people what to do / and they’ll do it,” says the poet optimistically. This is not easy to do, but Thomson does it with a lightness of touch, an assurance that is quite astonishing.
Each poem in the collection is carefully paced and carefully placed. The poems vary in length from the 3-line “Kill joy” to “Concrete path” with six stanzas. Knowing the variety of the poems doesn’t convey the subtlety of Thomson’s language or the ways in which her poems are so beautifully in possession of their forms. They occupy the bodies of themselves as well as the page, and this confidence maps the way any woman can become part of the fashionable world, as we see in these lines from “High resolution”:
Sound good to yourself,
you wonder if your soul’s there
you don’t care what it looks like,
so long as your body’s a high
resolution, perfect picture.
Like a Vogue magazine.
Thomson knows and uses form, with its sometimes regular, sometimes ragged verse forms as in “Neighbours”, with its two stanzas in four lines and two in three lines and its occasional indented lines, as in this example:
It’s just the neighbourhood
get an alarm,
but the alarm won’t work.
But he’s so tall, he walks, leans his
head under the door frame,
like he’s never been there before.
And she can delight and surprise when she sprinkles her poems with staccato images, as in “Orator”, with words such as ‘replicate’, ‘rhetoric’, ‘unplugged’ and civilization’.
One of the longest poems in the collection, “Holding out and holding on”, is one of the finest in the book, typical of Thomson’s cultivated sense of closure, which avoids the cheap punch line. It also stems from her grounded observation and understanding of humanity. The poem ends:
Life taking you for the ride,
people, people, there’s always people,
holding out and holding on.
Get on their bus, lose your ticket,
this is a life time concession.
But hell, you ain’t the only one.
“Midnight sun” begins with the enduring scene of “Something orange glaring out”. However, the image changes to “a black sun”, movingly described,
it is torn,
here and there like scattered leaves
floating through a sieve
into shattered bits of pepper,
devoured in the air
so you can see the orange in there.
Another long poem, “Worry about the rest later”, expresses the idea that
it’s someone else’s time,
you have shone, now you play another’s song,
but you have sung, you were ignored,
while you looked to a tweeting bird mulling over
whether or not it’s all absurd,
The poem, “Spinning around” explores the theme of time, suggesting that no matter how hard human understanding tries to crack an obsession, the mystery of things can never fully be understood:
Spinning round, recurring time,
conscience on and off again,
telling you the same thought over,
recurring in a cycle,
A similar sense of awe is suggestion in the poem “Separate”. Here the speaker wisely keeps her thoughts private, but “You put it out on paper not to reap / rewards of a published piece, / just to find some levity.” She is overwhelmed by “this transience, vibrating entities, / moving violently” and decides – “No – you’ll Google earth it.”
In Lonely Earth MaryJane Thomson ‘plays’ her poetry as a virtuoso musician plays an instrument with a crisp, authoritative, confident touch that never leaves the reader in doubt. Whether intoning images of the self, a neighbour, nature or time – even everyday life raised to eternal truths – hers is a vigorous poetry, free verse at its best, expertly tuned to the deeply personal in which every word is the ‘note juste’ in the melodic, harmonic and contrapuntal whole. A poetry that richly satisfies ear, mind and heart.
Patricia Prime, besides being a regular contributor to takahē, is co-editor of Kokako and assistant editor of Haibun Today. Patricia’s primary interest is Japanese short form poetry: haiku, tanka, haibun and tanka prose and she has published a book of collaborative tanka sequences called Shizuka (2015).