By Rae Varcoe
VUP, $25 | Reviewed by Simon Sweetman

RAE VARCOE works as a blood diseases physician at Auckland City Hospital. This book of poetry (80 pages), likely triggered by the completion of the MA course at Victoria University in 1997, collects a handful of poems that have appeared previously (in the likes of Sport, New Zealand Books and, fittingly, Annals Of Internal Medicine) as well as many appearing in print for the first time.

My first thoughts when approaching this volume was that I would not enjoy these poems. I was wrong. Instantly. Varcoe’s back-cover announcement that “like other doctor poets” she is particularly interested in “exploring the deep and complex relationships between medicine and poetry” had me worried; but fear not, this is an accessible, enjoyable read – a range of poems that builds on personal experience. If there’s a theme (and not every single poem is set in a hospital) it is the idea of making sense of things, of gathering everything you hold dear and sorting it, appreciating it, cataloguing it – and the clinical detachment of a role within medicine comes in to play here, often, crossing with ordinary life and emotional situations.

The poem ‘Inventory’, one of the final in this cycle, is a list of possessions and experiences, of things to be marked off, stock to be checked. It concludes: “this is my bed/this is my body/this is my life/these are my letters”.

This deceptively simple idea/l is systemic to the work as a whole, to every poem collected in Tributary. These are pieces that Varcoe clearly wanted to write, she felt they had to be written, as opposed to clever snatches of wordplay dashed off to justify another page in another book of obfuscated verse. I like the fact that I understand these poems. There are moments of humour, confusion and sadness – often all arriving in the same poem. We get to feel Varcoe’s detachment, but it’s a need to want to understand things, to create order, to apply some understanding that was learned in one area to a new area in life.

The book begins with “Inscription”, which comes close to replicating the feel of Bob Dylan’s bardic early-1960s flowing approach: “for: the newly dead, the book unread/the vicious, the vacant, the complacent…” From there we are taken through a trip that involves geographic and emotional displacement. Obscure epigrams pop up within poems (“surgically speaking: while eyes are windows/of the soul the brain is accessed/through the nose”) before the second section of the book (following on from “Inscription II”) takes us – full on, headlong – in to the medicinal world; in to the soulless, sterile life of the hospital. The place that gives life and tries to save lives, but seems devoid of any real warmth – beyond the necessary compassion of the workers; and we’re reminded, at times, that they are just there to do jobs. Often very thankless tasks (as the trio of poems “Leukaemia Rounds”, “The Cancer Cells Sum Up” and “How Can I Tell You This In 30 Minutes?” all grimly attest).

I like the fact that Varcoe’s world is honest – her written word/world is very much the real world according to her, a world she is moving through. She stops off to offer advice from time to time (“A Wish List For Melissa At 21”) but mostly (“Signs”) she assures us that she’s no surer than anyone else – unless of course it is something she has studied and can successfully apply to a particular case, and/or a particular poem.

Some of the poems work better than others; none feel superfluous – and that in itself is an impressive achievement in this time of too many poetry books by too many people sure they can write (often with a degree or diploma to apparently back up their claim).

I really enjoyed this book. And I hope you do too. Hey, and William Carlos Williams was a poet. Wrote a lot of his work in between seeing patients, apparently. And I always liked his stuff. So Rae Varcoe may well be in very good company.