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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

Because a Woman’s Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean by Sugar Magnolia Wilson

This is a very different collection of poetry, not least because of the different sections of the book. They divide the work into three discreet parts. We start with ‘Dear Sister’, nine separate letters to a sister. Then there are a range of different poems, reflections on a relationship, moving through different stages, and out of the other side. Finally, in ‘Pen pal’, there are fifteen letters addressed to a pen pal who seems disinclined to respond to all that is being said.

All three sections are very different moods and voices within the collection.

In the ‘Dear sister’ poems, much of the symbolism is rural and pastoral. Sometimes I feel that the writer is a child and at other times she is talking adult to adult with her sister. The writer is gifted a horse, which at first she will not name. She describes the gift as follows; “I think the theory presented her by this gifted horse is; you can’t take the wild from the heart of the girl, but maybe you can put the wild girl upon a horse and teach her to master some of her own wild hysteria. I am expected to ride her and learn to hold my tongue.” Then, in the shortest of the letters, all we get is “I have named the horse. She is Lilith.” In the letter after the girl leaves the house in the night to go riding on the horse.

“The night is a strange tune. Past the hustle of elm, and there she is, Lilith, far from the Red Sea, a night creature without capacity for fear. A breeder of demons? No. She gives me strength. We ride out fast and I hear someone out there, some trickster, some two-faced she-Pan, deep in the forest luring me, daring me. Her voice appears as those of songsters; corncrakes, nightjars, the reed and sedge warbler, and it takes a different kind of listening to hear the way. And we hunt for her, furiously, Lilith and I, but we are home, stabled and in bed before the new day reminds the robin and the redstart they exist. It is secret work we do.” I love all the imagery here, and I am surprised by the choices of the birds that are named, ones that you would find in a European summer, but never in New Zealand.

In the middle section of twenty-eight poems, there are some lovely contrasts in ‘Conversations with my boyfriend’, one from English to Korean the other Korean to English, allowing both sides to interpret the same events and put their own spin on what happens, how important rice is and why the nick-name Flower-Piglet is used. In the poem ‘Heat Wave’ one short beautiful verse especially caught my attention:

“We battled our way home, valiant on our drunkenness as

men waved radishes in our faces and old women elbowed our sides

and the moon was just another grubby lamp on a

night-coloured pole.”

This is a wonderful collection. It deserves to be read many times to absorb the smells and flavours, to feel the wind and sense the different landscapes.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Auckland University Press RRP $24.99


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