Thought Horses by Rachel Bush.
Wellington: VUP (2016).
Reviewed by Olivia Macassey.
Thought Horses is the fourth book of poetry from the late Nelson poet Rachel Bush; it follows Nice Pretty Things (VUP, 2011), The Unfortunate Singer (VUP, 2002), and The Hungry Woman (VUP, 1997). Bush graduated in 1996 from Bill Manhire’s first MA in Creative Writing course, and her work subsequently appeared in magazines including takahē, Landfall and Sport.
To read Rachel Bush is, for me, to feel at once on familiar and unfamiliar ground. This book deals with subjects from everyday life, such as a garden, or a shopping trip, or a person about to fall asleep, but not in a humdrum manner. The poems in this collection have a mysterious, often luminous quality – well matched by the cover, featuring a detail from a Serephine Pick painting. The titular “thought horses” are a good example of Bush’s familiar-strangeness: ‘until the thought horses ride over and look at you and/ you turn to them with their big protruding eyes and you forget/ about the movement of your breath’ (p 10). This is an arresting metaphor for the interplay between thinking and sleep, and subtly conjures the uncanny by inverting the quotidian motif of horses being ridden, to one of horses themselves riding something.
Thought Horses consists of 45 poems, most of which are one or two pages long; some of the longer poems are in discrete sections. This format emphasises the cumulative effect of the poet’s layering of subject matter. For example, “Four Elephants” presents four vignettes from different perspectives and ranges from early childhood ‘still I think of Jumbo who was blue/ and stuffed and felt and mine when I was/ four in Timaru’, to a story about a missionary in the 1940s, and a general rumination on ‘whoever knew whatever moves/ through the unspeakable memory/ of an elephant.’ (p 18).
This stitching of the intimate and personal inner life of the speaker and cultural reference points is characteristic of this volume as a whole – it moves easily from children’s books to Beowulf. There are literary references too, particularly recurrent allusions to writers Anne Carson and Samuel Beckett, and echoes of the subject matter of Bush’s earlier work (for example, her grand-daughter’s imaginary boarding school). Bush has a light touch, often making playful use of poetic devices such as recurrent phrasing or irregular rhyme:
Maybe twenty birds, but their speedy,
tweedy appearances make it hard
to count. They move in jerks of flight in
darts of hop. I watch male and female birds,
and remember Doctor Doolittle. (p 34)
Another Bush characteristic is keen observation, as in “Appreciation” which describes the ‘poetry hum’,
a collective appreciative
of air. Voice boxes
engage but barely. (p 55)
Thought Horses was launched shortly after its author’s death at age 75, from lung cancer. It is the work of a mature, sure-footed poet, and is even more contemplative of mortality than her earlier books. In ‘All my feelings would have been of common things’, which takes its title from a line in Waiting for Godot:
All those clothes it turned and churned, the lint
that is trapped in its door. I once thought
many things would make my life happier
and now one by one I will let them go. (p 30)
Again, “so many things accumulate” in the poem ‘Sourdough and Funeral Cakes’, as the subject matter turns from visitors for lunch to a methodist preacher’s titular cakes, until the poem finishes with the short, arresting stanzas:
It was easier when we had a mum and dad.
Easily we could blame them when we were less
than we desired.
Day after day after day after
night and then another night
until (p 60).
Many of the poems in this book may provoke unexpected emotions and even sudden tears, but at the same time readers are able to trust the voice which guides us: this writer is clever and sharp, and often wry, but she never manipulates our feelings to score cheap points. The emotional power of these poems is grounded in an understanding of human contingency and an enduring sense of gentle wonder. The great strength of Bush’s work, for me, lies in the undercurrents of connection between the interiority of the poetic voice and the exterior, everyday world.
And some morning seagulls fly
three or four over this house to say
something about grief and weather. (p 23)
Bush’s fans, and also those who are new to her poetry, will find much to appreciate in this thoughtful, accomplished collection.
Olivia Macassey‘s poetry has appeared in various places including Poetry NZ and Landfall. Her second collection, The Burnt Hotel, appeared in 2015, and she currently edits brief. Olivia also writes on cinema and history, and holds a PhD in Film and Media Studies from the University of Auckland.
First published takahe 87