This Change in Light by Fiona Kidman.
Auckland: Random House NZ, Godwit (2016).
Reviewed by Olivia Macassey.
With its golden, mosaic dust jacket, satiny red ribbon, small size and satisfying thickness – 125 sturdy pages – the phrase which immediately sprang to my mind at first sight of Dame Fiona Kidman’s new book of poetry, This Change in the Light, was “this is like a present”. Of course, as our grandmothers reminded us, to judge a book one has to look further than the cover, but on reading this one, my first impression was well and truly confirmed. Although better known as a fiction writer, Kidman is also a very proficient poet. A personal, autobiographical collection, this is her sixth book of poetry, and in both subject matter and presentation, it is a sequel to her previous book Where Your Left Hand Rests (Godwit, 2010). As such, it can also be seen as a supplement to the author’s two works of memoir, At the End of Darwin Road (Vintage, 2008) and Beside the Dark Pool (Vintage, 2009).
This Change in the Light is divided into four unequal sections: the first, ‘The way it is’ is the largest, and encompasses the poet’s daily life; the second, ‘How I saw her’ consists of a sequence of sonnets for the Kidman’s late mother; in the third section, ‘Abroad’, poems are engaged with distant settings and people. In the final section, ‘So far, for now’ four poems confront the mortality of loved ones and the poet’s own connection to them. Double-page photographs by Anna Kidman are interspersed through the book: close-ups of pottery mosaic and also scenes from a family wedding, some in colour, others black and white. The sonnet sequence is illustrated by old family photographs of the poet’s mother. These add to the intimate and domestic feel of the work, as do the dedications and references to friends and whānau in the poems themselves. They also convey a sense that this book is intended as a present to the poet’s friends and family, and in another sense, to her readers. There is a feeling of joy and grounding in human connection. In “The fifth son”,
dear lord or who
ever, how I love
of children, this
from his mother
into my arms
as he took
his first breaths,
this marvellous boy. (pp 48-49)
In “Mauve Moths”, a poem about Kidman’s daughter’s cancer, another aspect of that connection is movingly expressed:
say they would bear
pain if they could.
We would. We cannot.
My flesh my
beloved it will
is what we say. (p 109)
The poems in This Change in the Light carry strong traces of the confident, sharp-eyed style prevalent in Kidman’s prose; with well-observed descriptive passages and fluid shifts of subject matter as the poet’s voice moves from the concrete present to the past and into more abstract ground. ‘Must a poem/ be about anything in particular?’ one poem asks, ‘Can’t/ words just lead us from one place/ to another?’ While discursive details are pleasurably encountered – the butterfly chrysalis ‘clear apple green, / pure as old oriental jade’ (p 33) – these well-crafted poems are far from haphazard as they guide us to the places (physical, (emotional, psychological) which their author inhabits.
Kidman’s poetic voice is consistent, with a contemplative conversational tone, and the poems emphasise the presence of both the present and of the memories with which it entwines. That the latter are, for a writer in her mid-seventies, sometimes well-trammelled memories is something the poems themselves address. ‘This is a scene/ I’ve described a score or more/ times’ (p 22) she says in “Our Young Selves”, and ‘Oh, these people are characters in a story/ book’ (p 23). It is as if, in her seventy-sixth year, Kidman is turning them over again in her hands, to see them in the titular change of the light. The result is illuminating, honest, and tender – a present indeed.
Olivia Macassey‘s poetry has appeared in various publications including Poetry NZ, Landfall and Brief. Her second collection of poetry, The Burnt Hotel (Titus Books, 2015) was She also writes on cinema and history, and holds a PhD in Film, Television, and Media Studies from the University of Auckland.
First published takahe 88