Are Friends Electric? by Helen Heath – poetry review

by Nicholas Reid / 18 August, 2018

Helen Heath's new collection probes some big questions.

Helen Heath’s first collection of poetry, Graft, showed her to be somebody who engaged with the physical world, and not only with subjective states. One of her best features was her rational understanding of science. Her new collection, Are Friends Electric?, has the same qualities of clear-headedness and precise imagery, but this time with a more confessional tone.

A section of “found poems” finds her deftly transforming other people’s words by putting them into new contexts. The science finds its way into the sequence Strandbeests, an engrossing reflection on human-made concepts and imagined evolutionary processes. Even more telling is the prose poem The Anthropocene, with its dense reflection on how evolution relates us to birds. Throughout the collection, a consistent train of images links us human beings to the cyber world and to artificial intelligence, implicitly questioning how unique human consciousness is.

So are friends really electric?

The more confessional tone of this collection is found in the section called “Reprogramming the Heart". Most of its poems are in the first person, dealing with pregnancy, birth, motherhood and widowhood, among other things. Once again, Heath’s style is polished and her expression is clear, with few words wasted. The whole tragedy of bereavement is pushed into the 12 terse lines of the poem That’s It, very typical of Heath’s tone at her best – matter-of-fact, apparently objective, but leading to a major revelation, an emotional abyss.

ARE FRIENDS ELECTRIC? by Helen Heath (Victoria University Press, $25)

This article was first published in the August 18, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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