Poets Who are Hurt into Poetry: Geoffrey Lehmann launches ‘Rupture’ by Susan Varga

Rupture by Susan Varga, UWAP 2016 was launched by Geoffrey Lehmann on 20 AUgust at Berkelouw Books in Paddington NSW

ruptureIt is my pleasure and honour to launch Susan Varga’s remarkable first book of poetry Rupture which is being published by one of Australia’s outstanding academic publishers, UWA Publishing. UWA Publishing is a division of the University of Western Australia and is led by the wonderful Terri-ann White. Before talking about Susan’s book and Susan herself I declare the book launched, as this is something that is easy to forget when you are making a launch speech.

Susan is the author of a classic memoir Heddy and Me which has rightly received international acclaim. Heddy and Me tells the story of Susan and her mother who was born in Budapest in 1916. This memoir has a trajectory from the closing days of the Austro-Hungarian empire through the Depression and World War II, during which Susan was born, and the Holocaust and on to the difficult adjustment of Heddy, her new husband and children as migrants in post-war Australia, that strange place where we all live, which is strange because it is not strange at all – or so it seems to us who live here. Susan has also written two novels, and with her partner Anne Coombs co-authored Broomtime, a book in which the two authors alternate in writing about their experience of living in Broome.

Rupture – the title may be an implicit word play, as subliminally you expect poetry to be about rapture not rupture – is remarkable in two ways: first for the quality of the poems themselves; and secondly the circumstances in which the poems have been written. I’ll deal with that now.

The standard way in which poets develop is to start writing poetry in their late childhood or early teens and write hundreds of poems, most of them very bad. In this way they learn their craft, rather like the way people learn to swim. We flounder about at first, and then if we are natural swimmers, which I’m not, acquire a stroke that’s neat and economical and gets us through the water at a brisk rate. The huge number of poems, much of it not very readable, in a Collected Poems of Shelley and Keats, both of whom died in their twenties, is evidence of the industrious nature of young poets.

The recent emergence of many not-so-good poems by Philip Larkin, whose published output was a modest number of perfect or near perfect poems, is evidence of how many poets go about writing. Start young, write like mad and learn from your mistakes. As you grow older, you will discover you have a personal style and have joined a particular religious order of poets. There are competing religious orders. Stay out of their quarrels if you can.

Susan is an exception to this rule. She began as a prose writer and received considerable acclaim and only quite late in life has come around to writing poetry. Why?
Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” wrote of how “mad Ireland hurt you into poetry”. I doubt whether Yeats needed anything to hurt him into poetry and this may be one of Auden’s many memorable exaggerations, but it is true that some poets are “hurt” into writing poetry. The great World War I poets, Wilfred Owen in particular, and Siegfried Sassoon are examples. The Australian Leon Gellert wrote some very fine short poems as the result of his experiences in that war, and Harley Matthews wrote two long rhymed narrative poems about his time in Gallipoli that are simply extraordinary.

War has hurt many into writing poetry. It is less common that a major illness is a wellspring for poetry, although in the case of Gwen Harwood the experience of cancer turned a very good poet into a great poet.

Susan and the American poet Mark O’Brien who spent almost an entire life in an iron lung (except, as he described in a poem, the minutes each day when he had to be cleaned up) are the only poets I know of hurt into poetry by a great life crisis or disability.

Human beings are moved to poetic language in extreme situations. In a crisis we turn to metaphors – the phrase “dire straits” is an example. This may be why when Susan had a stroke and struggled to get back to herself, she chose poetry and wrote the moving and extraordinarily frank poems in this book. Some of them are deeply confronting such as the title poem “Rupture” which I’ll now read. Written with a bare simplicity, you will notice each of the short lines is weighted with emotion.The poem deals with the shock of apparent rejection by a partner and trying to come to terms with that.

Rupture

Inasmuch as anyone
knows anyone
I thought I knew you –
my love
partner
true friend.

Not this she-devil
spitting hate.
Murderous contempt
in your turning back.

I can’t help what I have become,
a ruined woman
turned ruinous.
Can’t you see that?

Underneath this rubble,
it’s still me calling.
Can’t you hear that?

But maybe I’m
the spitting devil
furious beyond fury.
I see it in your
frightened
mirroring eyes.

This outstanding poem deals bravely with some difficult emotions. With its almost witty reversal of expectations in the last verse, the poet is able to stand outside her own pain – what she calls “this rubble” – and see herself and her partner with a piercing and sympathetic objectivity.

Poetry about suffering remains just that unless it can give us catharsis and some hope of redemption. The poem “Rupture” gives us that.

Susan is also able to give us a more tangible redemption in one of the other outstanding poems in this book. This poem is from a sequence of four poems about four beds in a hospital ward, “The Ward Quartet”. You will notice how each word is carefully chosen as the poem tells its story.

The Third Bed

She has the worst bed in the ward,
jammed against the only toilet.
So we lie closer together,
behind the curtains, she and I.

She is magnificent,
dark eyes black with suffering.
A hoarse whisper
produced with effort.

Showy flowers from friends
crowd her small space.
She is too sick to see visitors.

We hardly talk. No need.

She doesn’t complain,
even when her handsome daughters
bicker across her inert body.
But her shame sears the thin
curtain between us.

In the evenings her husband
comes to brush her teeth.
He does it gently, taking care.

In that moment
I feel their contentment –
as if this is the best thing
he has ever done for her.

The mood of the poem suddenly darkens:

Suddenly she’s worse.
Doctors, nurses, ward men,
wheel her in and out.

She endures, silent.
Yet behind the curtain
I almost touch her pain,
her fear.

The final verse, like the final bars of a piece of music, gives the reader a resolution, which is also Susan’s resolution. It also comes as a surprise. Good art should always try to surprise.

Months later I see her in Outpatients.
We smile deeply into each other’s eyes.
Bonded in life, she and I.

There are many other good poems which I shall leave you to discover in this book. Susan’s poetry is able to tell us something memorable, that we are all bonded with each other in life, and words are one of the ways in which we are bonded.

 – Geoffrey Lehmann


Rupture is available from http://uwap.uwa.edu.au/collections/susan-varga/products/rupture

Geoffrey Lehmann isone of Australia’s leading poets. His selected poems Poems 1957- 2013 was published by UWAP in 2015 and was reviewed in Rochford Street Review by Patrick McCauley https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2015/11/24/seeking-the-romantic-amongst-the-horror-of-the-civilized-patrick-mccauley-reviews-poems-1957-2013-by-geoffrey-lehmann/

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