By Charlotte Simmonds
VUP, NZ$25 | Reviewed by Sarah Jane Barnett

THE OPENING page of The World’s Fastest Flower tells me the Canadian Bunchberry Dogwood opens in 0.4 milliseconds and, because of its speed, has only been discovered since technology managed to catch up with nature. It would be easy to read Simmond's book with the same haste. The ninety pages are filled with lyric poems that build racing and addictive narratives. There are no sections to this book, no breaks or breathers for the reader and I wonder, if I ever have dinner with the author, if the evening would be spent in silent but rapt attention.

It would be too simple to just say Simmond’s poems are direct, energetic, confessional and confronting because that would do a disservice to the carefully crafted world she has created for her readers. Many of the poems combine speech, inner monologues and quirky and unexpected description to surprise and intrigue. There is a noticeable arc to the book, the beginning focusing on lighter themes, building to longer and more serious poems at the end. The reader is taken through the ups and downs of mental illness, relationships with friends, family, men and a system that is not willing to accept difference as normal. I can only assume that the poems are autobiographical.

It is very easy when confronted by such candour to only hear the freshness of the voice and enjoy the voyeurism of entering another person’s world, especially when they are not afraid to be vulgar, irreverent and obtuse on the page. Writing this way is a risky business because some readers may feel the poems are childish. But I would suggest that interpretation of the book would have more to do with the reader’s expectations of poetry than Simmond’s poems themselves. On my second reading Simmond’s ability to balance her energy and slang-filled prose with structure, pace, formal (at times almost old fashioned) language and repetition became apparent. She nudges the reader gently to where she wants them to be. From ‘Inheritance’:

       My mother would say, ‘We must do starjumps!’
       (she was bulimic)
       and we would say, ‘We are so frightfully worried about our weight!’
       (we did not know she was bulimic)
       and we would all spring in the air together like starfish!
       (Just like starfish)

Although most of the poems are in the first person, the seemingly casual language provides a way for the reader to experience the poems as if they were their own. This is very liberating. Suzanne: I Never Hated You, I Just Didn’t Get You is a conversation between the subject and her therapist, but it could be between any subordinate and authority figure. The poem opens:

       I hated you the moment I saw you.

before continuing to reveal the things the speaker could never say at the time – in turn allowing the reader to be part of that freedom:

       I told you you would never understand.
       You told me this was typical borderline behaviour and said if I could
       just stick it out for one year, another would easily follow.
       You told me you were recommending two years and that I was a dire
       case.
       Your dead-cow sofa. Your fashionable jewellery. Your overpriced
       artworks. The Klee in the hallway.

Freedom is a theme that runs throughout the book: freedom to be an individual, to be imperfect and honest. While the poems deal with some hard issues, by the end of the book I felt optimistic. The final poem, ‘Thin as a Rake’, is my favourite and it tells of the subject’s relationship with the apathetic, television-addicted Andrew. It is funny, sad and surreal, a poem I will read again. This is a challenging book but well worth it and I will watch for Simmond’s work in the future with interest.