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How to Live by Helen Rickerby

There are fifteen pieces in this collection, ranging in size from a third of a page to a twenty-five page life of the writer George Eliot. A deconstructed life – more of that later. The primary subjects are women; women’s writing and women’s thinking.

We begin with ‘Notes on the unsilent women’ all about Hipparchia of Maroneia, who was born in 350BC and was that rare object, a female philosopher. One section states ‘What we have left of what Hipparchia wrote:’ and is followed by half a page of empty space. The whole poem has fifty-eight numbered paragraphs, ranging from the names of exceptional women writers to comments like ’38. Women who speak have always been monstrous. That twisty sphinx, those tempting sirens; better plug your ears with wax, boys.’

This sets the tone for the whole collection, other writers, random thoughts, archaic laws and personal observations, all jumbled together. For example: “Perhaps I should ban ‘perhaps’. It is a shrinking word. An ensmallening word, when I feel that it is probably my feminist duty to use big, bold words. To be definite. ‘Probably’ is probably another of those words.”

There are plenty of other historical characters in this collection; Sei Shōnagon writer of ‘The Pillow Book’, Ben Zhao, Hans Christian Andersen. That brings me back to the piece on George Eliot. I love the combination of history, fact, personal reflection and just plain fun. George Eliot was a pseudonym, and Rickerby has lots of fun with the writer’s other names; Mary Anne Evans who becomes Marian and then when she started living with George Lewes, she becomes Mary Evans Lewes, although he called her Polly. Her grave stone has her called Mary Ann Cross, having married John Cross just seven months before her death. As you can see, the deconstructed life is full of random information. Random and fascinating. George Eliot, it seems, was famously ugly. Henry James described her thus: “She is magnificently ugly – deliciously hideous.” But he goes on to redeem the comment by saying “Now in the vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end up as I ended, in falling in love with her.”

Rickerby provides us with a great guide to Eliot’s books, with a series of one line summaries:

‘Adam Bede, 1859. Nice girl gets the guy, bad girls get transported – if they’re lucky.’

‘Mill on the Floss, 1860. Girl is smarter than her brother and it all ends in tears.’

‘Silas Marner, The Weaver of Raveloe, 1861. Hermity weaver gets gold, loses gold, gets golden-haired-girl-child instead, thus losing hermityness, but then gets gold back again.’

‘Middlemarch, 1871-1872. Idealistic young wealthy woman and idealistic young impecunious doctor get married, but not to each other.’

And so it goes on. I loved these thumbnail sketches, but if that list wasn’t enough, we also get a list of the places George Eliot lived. From a small farmhouse near Nuneaton in Warwickshire, to bigger houses, to schools in Coventry, then to Geneva and then The Strand in London, on the Germany, to Richmond, Wandsworth and Marylebone. Each location is home for just a year or two until we reach Regent’s Park in London, which was home for seventeen years, while she and George Lewes also had a country house in Surrey. Her final home was on the Embankment in Chelsea in which she and her husband John Cross spent only three weeks before her death. From lists of homes we move to lists of friends. Rickerby then goes on to question herself about why she is writing all this, given that she doesn’t even like England. “I had no claim on this place, this land, this culture that had colonized my life with stories.” As we talk about the author, I particularly liked this observation: “Sometimes my friend A talks about a ‘writer’s crack’, much like a builder’s crack – “Excuse me, your id is showing’ – meaning they’ve revealed more about themselves than they probably realised, and it is a little bit awkward for everyone concerned.”

For a real piece of fun, I have to point to a poem called ‘Forks’ in which Rickerby identifies two types of fork contained within her cutlery drawer. Specifically, the forks she does not like and will not use. “The first are like ordinary forks, but thinner. Anaemic. Flimsy. Like forks that have not eaten a hearty meal or seen the sunshine or gone for a walk for quite some time, if ever in their lives.”

The obvious question follows. Why not get rid of these forks you do not like and will not use? Because then there will not be enough forks. So, why not buy forks that you do like? “Ah, now you’re getting to the big questions that drive the heart if my inadequacies. Questions for which I have no justifiable answers.” I love that. That is real life, right there.

The title piece of the collection “How to Live” is another long piece of indented prose. The outside margin of every page carries various names. From each one of these people there is a quote, italicised in the text. Those lines are seamlessly slotted into the text, no fanfare and so understated that you really wouldn’t notice them at all, were it not for the italics. Philosophers, mystics, musicians and writers. Some. I have heard of, others I haven’t. Lots of interesting words.

‘How to Live’ is a great collection. It bills itself as poetry, but to me it feels like a book of poetry that has no poems. Instead we are constantly pushing the boundary as to what is a poem, what is prose and what is an essay. What isn’t in any doubt is just how enjoyable this all is.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Auckland University Press, RRP $24.99


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