This is the first book by Nikki-Lee Birdsey, and it is a brilliant collection of poetry.
What I find particularly unusual is that at the end of the book there are twenty pages of Commentary. Called ‘These Lives’ they are the creative non-fiction element to the book, the explanations, partial biography, literary references, with maps and photos. It is not necessary to read these to enjoy the poems, but I found it satisfying to read the poem, then the commentary and then go back and read the poem again with a slightly different, and better, understanding. The Commentary brought an extra depth and insight into the way that the poet works, thinks and creates.
Nikki-Lee Birdsey has travelled and lived widely around the world and the Commentary has abbreviations at the start of each note which places the poems in NZ or NYC, NJ for New Jersey, LA, Iowa, Maryland or Australia. Many have more than one place of origin, some as many as five, showing the complexity of composition and memories. There is a bibliography at the end of the book too, taking in such variety as Keats, John Berger, Samuel Butler, W G Sebald and Susan Sontag.
The poems themselves are in three sections, called Naturalisation, Objects (Roses des Vents) and Cartographic Life. Roses des Vents or ‘wind roses’, I learned from the Commentary is an artwork by the New York artist Joseph Cornell, who never left New York and lived his whole life in the same wooden house. The piece is a wooden box containing several compasses and has maps set on the underside the lid. Below the compasses are various items and maps pasted into the box. It is a great title for the poems which explore a lifetime of travels and experiences. Each of the poems is simply numbered Objects one to twelve. In ‘Object 3’ the poet talks about her sister Eloise:
everytime she had fallen and gotten stitched up,
my sister’s inexplicable Frenchness; her name,
silhouette, pout. Moor-walker,
mist-seller, Persian-hearted dreamer,
lace-wearer reading in leftover
orange streetlight right now
in my upside-down morning.”
It is also a poem about Stendhal Syndrome, a psychosomatic disorder that occurs when a person has an experience of great personal significance, especially when viewing art. I love the way that I am reading, listening and learning from these poems all at the same time.
The poems are so dense in their references and their symbolism that they almost need to be studied in order to winkle out their many meanings and hidden layers. Just like Cornell’s wooden boxes.
I am off to read the poems again, and I expect to find even more this time to surprise and delight me.
Reviewer: Marcus Hobson
Victoria University Press, RRP $30