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Review of Sarah Broom's Tigers at Awhitu - Ronald Schiefer, World Literature Today Feb 2010

Tigers at Awhitu is, appropriately for New Zealand poetry, a collection engaged with the sea and with water altogether. The poems here are profoundly engaged with the landscape of New Zealand and use that watery landscape to explore relationships, motherhood, and illness. ‘So we sat,’ one poem says, ‘and the waves / crashed in like gifts, or insults, / and the children played, / digging trenches to defend / against the sea.’ In another poem, ‘the windows are sheets of water / you could put your hand through / to feel the night.’ Even echoes of mortality are figured as ‘a slow clear trickle / into pools of dark water’, and luck itself is captured in ‘the smell of rain in the air’. Throughout, Sarah Broom’s recent collection presents a watery world, quotidian in its happenings, domestic in its concerns, lovely and moving in its language and effect.

What is most moving is its kindness in the face of death – death that comes ‘like a trapdoor opening / under your feet / and a sickening drop’. A sense of foreboding is present right at the beginning of the collection, when some unspecified information is blurted out to husband and children in the snow, ‘news that slipped / out like a necklace from sleeves, / not meant for the kids, not meant for here’. The second part of the volume opens with incoherent news from doctors claiming ‘BUT WE CAN GIVE YOU TIME’, but even before those poems, there are dark omens from a bird with ‘eyes black / as the rotting leaves, and at its throat / a hurtled scrap of sky’ or coughing that presages a cold winter.

Yet even in the face of death - even in their darkest figures, so remarkably captured in their striking figures - these poems offer the kindness not only of their joyous and accomplished language but the kindness of love in the face of desolation. The volume’s most poignant poem, ‘because the world can do that to you’, is addressed to children in the possibility that the world ‘took me from you, before the time / was true and right and before we all had time / to see the things and do the things and tell / the things we need to tell, to see, to do’. This poem, like the tiger in ‘Tigers at Awhitu’, is awash in the desire and articulation of life’s bounty, ‘greedy for sun / like bread dough left out to rise.’ ‘Don’t let this go’, the title poem admonished, and throughout this book the bounty and, often, the kindness of landscape, people, and poetry itself shine through.
Next review of 'Tigers at Awhitu'... To the Sarah Broom page... To the 'Tigers at Awhitu' page...
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