On Edge by Damian Ruth.
Wellington: HeadworX (2017).
RRP: $30. Pb, 130pp.
Reviewed by Mary Cresswell.
These poems by Damian Ruth are very much On Edge – knees jiggling, fingers drumming on the table, the collection is ready to jump from New Zealand to South Africa, from indoors to outdoors, within poems as well as between them.
“Driftwood”, his opening poem, places the ‘edgy cartographer’ on:
… this forever littered strip
between the Tasman and Tararuas …
matching, as best he can
given broken rhythms,
the white grey green
of this place with that place
of golden sands and turquoise sheen
orange sun and purple mountains
and the spaces in between. (p 11).
The next two poems are of “African trees” and “Imagining Africa”:
Africa crucifies. (p 15).
Ruth’s own history bounces back and forth between South Africa, Ireland, and New Zealand, beginning with his parents’ immigration from England to South Africa. In many ways this collection reads like a belated diary – written long after the fact but with a still-vivid sense of immediacy and urgency.
I came through the arse-end of this city
at the worst time of year – by train
beginning of December, freezing wind and rain,
into a mouldy doss-house fleecing foreigners. (“Galway” p 30).
Part Two of the book, the long sequence “A boy on a bicycle”, is a passionate confession of guilt, not for deeds committed but for being conscious in a world which lets shit happen:
Save us from our history, save us from our fate
save us from our twisted loves and just as twisted hate,
saves us from our senses and save us from our skins
save us from the mannequins and their grins.
They are dancing in the windows. (“VII” p 74).
I turn to the helmsman and peeling my skin off
take arms against the twittering steel birds
but the wiser boatman bids me stay
to reap the benefits of being discovered
with the red tide rising in my throat. … (“X” p 81).
The poet is constantly unable to settle in a world of spiritual and physical turmoil, regardless of what geographical place he is in. It is “Winter solstice at Wainui Stream Mouth, Paekakariki” and the his turmoil (incorporating that which he sees reflected in his partner) echoes the chaos of the sea:
Winter solstice. Slurp days, lick days, dribble days.
I have good days, bad days. You have flat days,
pursed lips days, big grin days, baring your teeth days,
broken teeth days, chapped lips days, fuzzy edged days,
misdirected, redirected, channelled and sent back days,
rubbish in the way days, logged-jammed dammit days,
and, according to the sign, watch out I’m full of shit days. (p 60).
These are wild and passionate poems, whether traced on the map or within the human spirit. The book jacket says that the author “was born in South Africa of immigrant parents and has left many times.” This, taken along with time in Ireland, leaves us wondering if the roiling is a product of Ruth’s location – or of his particular slice of the human condition. Perhaps future poems will give us further clues.
Mary Cresswell is from Los Angeles and lives on the Kapiti Coast. Fish Stories, a collection of ghazals and glosas, was published by Canterbury University Press in 2015 and Field Notes was published by Mākaro Press in 2017.