Reading the Water by Paul Schimmel.
Wellington: Steele Roberts Aotearoa (2016).
Reviewed by Siobhan Harvey.
Paul Schimmel is a New-Plymouth–born psychoanalyst and writer based in Sydney. I first encountered Schimmel’s work when I was honoured to be Poetry Editor of takahē. Tight, lyrical, linguistically muscular, the poems he sent me grabbed the attention. Now, his first collection, Reading the Water, has just appeared and I’m delighted to see it’s a stunning, well-crafted book.
In Jungian psychoanalysis, water represents the unconscious, the source and flow of life. In Reading the Water, the author teases these meanings out in poems which are all tension and taut imagery. Take the opening, titular poem, for instance, which begins:
The pool drift
of surface tension
of a trout rising
in the riffle, light
ripples over stones
a wind chiming
crystals and spoons
in the water
another, the stone
in the stream …
we are always
reading the water
longing to recover
language before words (p 9).
Water runs everywhere through the poems which follow, most notably in the section ‘Six River Poems’. Here water offers picturesque portraits, richly imagistic; as exemplified by “Shag River”:
A shaft of sunlight
in the shadow world
a molten trout
emerging (p 23).
Elsewhere in this section, water is also a ‘portal’, ‘spores of war’, and a ‘boat for words’. Water, then, becomes a transformative agent, a concept which flows through other sections too. “What If”, “Matapouri Bay”, “Tapora dunes” and the penultimate poem, “World without end”: here are just a few of the remaining poems which, buoyed by words and images, push the identity and meaning of water into the substance of adventure, memory and life. Used as subtext in this manner, aqua holds together Reading the Water’s six sections. In doing so, the reader is permitted movement across the entire collection, charting, for instance, the author’s experiences of migration in the section, “Return of a native” and of wider historical and geographic events in the section, ‘Deus ex machina’.
Fluidity, thematic and linguistic, is also apparent in a wonderful section of poems and translations in the book, ‘La Noche Triste’.
At the close of the book, water once again returns us safely to familiar shores with the collection’s final section, ‘Coda’ which is really a single poem, ‘The river’, whose end is rich with symbolic import:
All the world was the river, sliding
faster and faster to the tail of the pool. (p 67).
Reading the Water is a richly woven collection which capably showcases Schimmel’s love of language, symbolism and poetic craft.
Siobhan Harvey is the author of Kathleen Grattan Award for Poetry winner, Cloudboy (OUP, 2014) and, as co-editor, Essential New Zealand Poems (2014). She is Lecturer in Creative Writing at AUT, She also won 2016 Write Well Award (Fiction; US).
First published takahe 89