Cold Water Cure by Claire Orchard.
Wellington: VUP (2016).
Reviewed by Catherine Fitchett.
The centre section of this lively first collection, Cold Water Cure by Claire Orchard, focuses on the scientific and domestic life of Charles Darwin. Orchard has made a close study of Darwin’s letters and papers. From them she has crafted an engaging account, first of his travels and then of his life as he settles near Cambridge, marrying and raising a large family, of whom he was obviously very fond.
The two sections which bookend the Darwin poems are well-peopled with a wide range of characters, observed with a light touch. Orchard brings us children with all their freshness and energy, then moves to adolescence and adulthood. Her sympathies
are obviously with the young. Both in the Darwin sequence and in the other two sections, often as not, the adults in her poems appear in relation to children. In “In which his crisis arrives unannounced” a man stands at a lounge room window observing teenage sailors:
but Philip found he could not speak for watching
those young sailors, their arms straining,
their faces in the dark becoming bright, oval disks (p 97)
Orchard’s children are boisterous – in “Truth to power” a five-year-old declares
we weren’t fighting. We were just deciding
who’s the boss (p 18)
In the Darwin section, “Battle of the vegetables” recounts
today the children, bless them
have been rampaging all morning
along the hallway outside my study door
waging war. (p 79)
We learn in the copious notes (placed at the start of the collection, not at the end as is more usual) that this poem takes its title from a picture drawn by one of Darwin’s children on the reverse side of a draft of “On the Origin of Species”. The delightful cover pages of the book are also from one of these drawings, “Birds and Butterfly” by his son Francis.
If the children in these poems have their darker impulses, so too do the adults, although these are kept for the most part under control. In “Bombing the National Gallery of Australia” Orchard contemplates the ease of the enterprise:
But a handbag raises no eyebrows, especially
a bright orange one tucked under the arm
of a middle-aged woman. (p 103)
Orchard has a sharp eye for language which she uses extensively in the form of the found poem, particularly in the Darwin sequence. “Voyages” is a poem in seventeen sections, each of which contrasts an excerpt from Darwin’s “The Voyage of the Beagle” on the left-hand side of the page with a stanza of the poet’s own on the right-hand side. Thus for instance, Darwin observes a gaucho sharpening his knife on the back of an armadillo while Orchard corrals a spider found in her salad on the edge of hers. While some of the side by side contrasts are looser than others, overall they produce an effective sequence. Another found poem, a quote from All Black Ali Williams titled “Hang On” makes a witty start to the collection. There is a nod to the staples of creative writing classes, the pantoum and the villanelle. Of these, “This time it is you have left me behind” is the most successful:
My first girl, my good girl,
running late, stumbling the length of the hall
calling on me please to wait, that you are coming (p 77)
The pantoum “The unravelling” which describes Darwin killing pigeons to make a comparative study of the bones, is less effective. This is a form whose repetition can produce a laboured effect, and here the doubling up of the lines does not seem to serve any useful poetic purpose.
The final poem of the collection “Delivery suite” brings us a birth. This is, of course, that of a baby, but also, it seems, makes a fitting end to a collection which marks the birth of a promising new voice in New Zealand poetry.
Catherine Fitchett is a Christchurch poet. Her work has been published in various magazines and anthologies, most recently in Leaving the Red Zone: Poems from the Canterbury Earthquakes (Clerestory Press, 2016).
First published takahe 88