By Paula Green
AUP, $25 | Reviewed by Amy Brown

THIS COLLECTION is evidence that illness can sharpen the senses. While bedridden, Paula Green decided to write a poetic autobiography ‘in the light of art’. Due to having a painter partner and artist relatives, it makes sense for Green’s aesthetic memories to be as vivid and valid as those which are ordinarily seen as more “real”. For instance, the poem, ‘The Hills of Toss Woollaston are in my Family Tree’, demonstrates clearly how a painting can become entwined with family events; whether these family events are Green’s or Frances Hodgkins’ is sometimes (deliberately) ambiguous. By weaving her own autobiography with snippets of Hodgkins’, Green finds (familiar, but still interesting) parallels between poetry and painting, and poets and artists: a foundation on which she skillfully builds a strong collection.

Split into five sections, the order of the poems is only loosely chronological, in the sense that it seems to progress away from Green’s illness. Section one, comprised of five poems linked by their incantatory quality, reveals sensitivity to very specific images. This appears to be characteristic of the bedridden (the same attribute is apparent in Jenny Bornholdt’s poems written about her time in hospital, also in Stephanie de Montalk’s). The specific images in Green’s opening poems (“Our garden is on the edge/ of falling, plunging away from us/ in this moment of departure”) apply both the potential and the restrictions of painting – colour, perspective, light – to her words. This elucidation of the visual (painting) through a – mostly – aural medium (poetry), is done extremely well.

In section two, the comparisons between the life of the poet and the painter become more explicit. ‘A History of Words’, shows in only five lines how well the two mediums can cooperate.

       Hark to the nuance of the anchor,
       I will take hold of my family tree
       and let it drip stanza by stanza
       in oil watercolour gouache and clay
       into the hungry mouth of the homespun sea.

‘In the Open Air’ and ‘After Modernism’ achieve a similar effect more playfully. ‘Semiblindness’, the collection’s best “list”, cleverly uses wordplay to translate the issues of point of view in painting to poetry. The arc of the words across the page in this poem accentuates its compulsive rhythm.

As is all autobiographies, the most interesting bits tend to be when the subject describes interactions with her friends and acquaintances. Many of the poems in last two sections serve this purpose. “Letters” and dedications to poets and other artists, such as Jenny Bornholdt, Michele Leggott, Sophie Calle, Ann Hamilton, Deborah Smith (whose art is the cover image) and Anne Kennedy (to whom the collection is dedicated) allow for confessions and conversations which wouldn’t have suited the earlier, stylistically tighter, poems in the collection.

The closing lines of the final poem, ‘Letter to Anne Kennedy’, provide a strong conclusion to the collection’s enveloping idea of the similarities between poetry and painting (the space in poems and the sounds in paintings), and hark back to the setting, the poet’s illness, in which the idea was conceived.

       . . . The months of long dreams and inactivity
       and you open The Time of the Giants you turn

       the pages and you hide between the lines
       and let the immense beautiful spaces become a refuge.

With this collection, Green displays her versatility, intelligence and enthusiasm for art in its many mediums. While this book will appeal to readers of contemporary New Zealand poetry, it will be of particular interest to those who are also keen on modern and contemporary New Zealand art.