Michel Faber's Undying and Jenny Bornholdt's Selected Poems - poetry review

by Tim Upperton / 23 September, 2016
The words of Michel Faber, who turned to poetry for solace, will be a comfort to others.
Novelist Michel Faber. Photo/Getty Images
Novelist Michel Faber. Photo/Getty Images

Michel Faber’s collection of poems, Undying: A Love Story, reminded me of Ted Hughes’ final book, Birthday Letters, addressed to Hughes’ long-dead wife, Sylvia Plath. Birthday Letters demonstrates Hughes’ late-career faults – redundancy, prosiness – combined with a kind of portentousness and a self-defensive posture.

The poems have a split vision: they hark back to specific episodes in Hughes’ life with Plath, recalling them in vivid detail, but also in the knowledge of what came after, Plath’s suicide. Every such recalled episode thus foreshadows the last, lethal one, with “Little did I know that …” formulations scattered throughout. The effect is to suggest that Plath was fated to kill herself and that Hughes was a helpless bystander as her tragic fate unfolded.

Faber’s collection of poems also addresses a dead wife (his wife, Eva, died of cancer in 2014), and although they aren’t self-defensive, they do the same kind of foreshadowing double-take:

In late ’88, not knowing how lucky I was,
I met a woman who would die of cancer.

I looked into her eyes, and did not see

the dark blood that would fill them when
the platelets were all spent.

Born in Holland, now living in Scotland, Faber is a novelist, and this is his first book of poetry. He’s more at home with the sentence than with the line, and his poems, like Hughes’, have a prosiness about them.

When he uses a poetic device, such as rhyme, he is deaf to tone: in the same poem, he writes how “I thrilled to the laugh that pain would quell,/admired the slender neck before it swelled.” In these poems, you sense the rawness of the emotion in spite of the clunkiness of its expression. This is the work, I think, of someone who has turned to poetry at a time of extremity, and it will offer comfort to readers who are similarly afflicted.

LS3616_54_SUP_Undying-A-Love-StoryJenny Bornholdt’s Selected Poems is a very different book, although it includes its fair share of affliction. Drawn from nine previous collections, this handsome hardback is a fine survey of her writing career. From this book it is clear that Bornholdt’s sureness of touch and her distinctive way of seeing and saying were evident from the beginning. It’s there in the first poem, Scrub cut:

Here it is, here I am
grinning out at you from
this big face.

Lots of poets mimic the speaking voice, but few capture it as exactly as Bornholdt does. In Women and men, for instance:

… – don’t go away, Sharon
I’ll be right back
after checking on Louise.

Of course, it’s not just speech: “Sharon” refers to Sharon Thesen’s book of poems, A Pair of Scissors; “Louise” is the louise cake baking in the oven.

Art and domesticity are recurring themes. Here are the long, expansive narrative poems, such as Big minty nose, from my favourite collection of Bornholdt’s, The Rocky Shore, and here, too, are the little gem-like distillations that remind me of the minimalist work of Lydia Davis, poems such as My mouth was singing, My heart was worrying, which reads, in its entirety:

O deceptive mouth
covering up
for the heart like that.

UNDYING: A LOVE STORY, by Michel Faber (Allen & Unwin, $27.99);

SELECTED POEMS, by Jenny Bornholdt (Victoria University Press, $40)

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