The Hill of Wool by Jenny Bornholdt

by Sarah Quigley / 20 July, 2011
There’s a lovely poem by the Polish writer Wisława Szymborska called Some People Like Poetry. Its title swings straight into a wry qualification:

“Some people – /that means not every­one,/Not even most of them, only a few.”

I remembered this when I opened my letterbox to find a package containing The Hill of Wool. It’s always a red-letter day – if you’ll excuse the pun – when a new Jenny Bornholdt book appears. For if ever a writer could make not just some people but everyone like poetry, it would be Bornholdt.

From the first page, her new collection feels reassuringly familiar. Her writing voice – lyrical, intimate, direct – is instantly recognisable in the opening poem, Poetry:

I walk
and think, walk
and think …

Sometimes, then, I write a poem
made up of words like these …

The next poem, Castlepoint, starts in a similarly colloquial style: “Boys hurtle down/the dunes./There’s lemon cake/and a recipe for/pineapple.” Yet instantly the writing compresses into images so sharp they’re almost about language itself:

Night-long
nor-wester …

Sand fills the roof.
Wind, the ear.

An accessible style and a focus on small domestic details are vintage Bornholdt. But, as always, her apparently simple surfaces shift and part to reveal a world that’s rich, complex, and disturbing. Almost always, the familiar is rendered strange. Children wake “as animals – one/a lion, the other/its prey” (Colour Wheel). In the masterfully executed Undone, life becomes “an unfamiliar house/you live in”, while others “douse the flames”.
Bornholdt’s usual tenderness is present here; The Inner Life perfectly portrays the long-term intimacy of a good marriage. But blowing through the collection is a new wind of disquiet. Some poems are set in foreign countries, with unfamiliar language and “new kinds of cold”. Many of the poems express a sharp, aching awareness of life’s brevity. Seasons are captured in a few phrases, snow falls, spring thaws. Time is breathtaking in its simultaneous succinctness and breadth of vision:

Winter’s passed, like
last night’s hail
in the gin …

Sons grown to men.
One sister blown
away, two
here to stay.

Age-old themes, startlingly original imagery, precision of language: this is Bornholdt as we’ve always known her. The miracle is that with every collection she retains her voice, maintains her unique vision, sits steadfastly in her own poetic house – while always opening a new window and offering us a slightly different view.

THE HILL OF WOOL, by Jenny Bornholdt (VUP, $25); Bornholdt is appearing at Wellington’s Unity Books on National Poetry Day.

Sarah Quigley is a poet and writer whose novels include The Conductor.
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