The List of Last Remaining by Louise Nicholas. Five Island Press 2016
We choose to read books for all sorts of reasons, the covers, a good review, a recommendation from a friend, lecturer or taxi driver. In this case I came to Louise Nicholas latest collection because of its title – The List of Last Remaining. It’s a suggestive title, with an internal rhythm that suggests great things. I had never read Nicholas’ work before but I was immediately drawn in.
The List of Last Remaining is a carefully structured book. It starts and end with family, of parents and children. The opening poem, with the forbidding title ‘Coffin Bay’, relates a memory of when she thought her parents were feared lost at sea. Her fear in this poem is very real:
Then we walked along the the water’s edge as if it were
the edge of our lives, and gazed out to sea and thought
of killer whales that drape themselves in seaweed and lie in wait
for stray seals
but their parents do come back and normality returns:
And we ran along the beach and skimmed a few stones
and got back in time for tea.
The eleven poems in the first section are all about growing up, from young children skipping stones on the bay waiting for their lost parents and dinner to the awkwardness of adolescence. We are also introduced to Nicholas’ sense of humour in poems such as ‘Skittles’ where the poem itself is shaped like a skittle. The playfulness in this poem, however, isn’t restricted to its shape. The poet’s mother was a dressmaker in a small town and, as such, had access to measurements of most of the women in town – information that can prove useful to a schoolchild:
only I knew my grade seven teacher
was courting a ‘bust’ at all, let alone
38 inches of it squashed flat as two
trapped bundles of newborn naked-
ness by her buttoned-to-the-neck
blouses and double-breasted wool-
The other four sections in the collection continue this sense of playfulness, often at the same time as confronting quite serious or threatening situations. In a poem ‘Kibbutz Matzuva, Ulpan Class’, in the section ‘Israel 1972’ (1972 was the year of the Munich Olympic Games), Nicholas writes of a photo taken of a group of young international volunteers on a Kibbutz and remembers that the night before:
a bored kibbutz guard burst into our rooms
and threatened to kill us,
a situation that was only disarmed by Karen, who is first described as a “whining cockney” who simply said “Bugger off, I’m tired” and went back to sleep. While this is perhaps not the strongest poem in the collection, its structure does point to one of Nicholas’ strengths. The drama of the poem is announced within the first two lines and the poem then reverts to a everyday description of the people in the photograph before we return to the opening incident in the last few lines:
We, of the hot-to-trot, we, of the show-no-fear,
who, the night before, felt the great red pulsing muscle
of our hearts stopper up our throats like a fist…”
The emotions in this poem rise, fall, then rise again almost without noticing in the space of 16 lines.
Emotion is at the heart of some of the best poems in The List of Last Remainng which can be found in the middle section called‘….our little loves and commonplace deaths’. The poems here begin with the birth of the poet’s children and end with the death of her mother. These are finely crafted, intimate poems that stayed with me long after I read them. At times they almost seem a matter of fact, before a flash of Nicholas’ humour followed by a sudden turn of the screw. In the first poem, for example, the unexpected title, ‘ Rain, with a chance of miscarriage’, puts us immediately on edge, particularly when we read that it is dedicated to “Josh” who, we presume, is her son. The poem gets straight to the point:
One morning, you barely more than frogspawn,
I wake to rain and a trickle of blood.
After this initial shock the poem settles down to the regularity of a nighttime hospital:
In the middle of the night, my loss with nothing
left to lose and you still busy becoming,
But this is the maternity ward after all and there is the ongoing drama of childbirth, no doubt confronting for a first time mother facing the possibility of miscarriage:
a woman screams as if beaten and abused.
Words no mother taught her fall fully-formed
from her mouth
But then Nicholas’ laconic humour kicks in:
A baby cries. A heartbeat later, a man on the phone
…..in the corridor:
“Yeah it’s me, Darren … a girl, Melissa Jane …
seven pounds four ounces …
Nah, easy … coupla stitches but she’ll be right.”
The poem ends with the confidence that the immediate crisis is over:
I re-commit to raspberry-leaf tea,
yoga for ease of sliding you out.
There is another birth poem ‘Tunnelling into the Light’, this one dedicated to Zoe (presumably the poet’s daughter). This poem is full of the drama and movement of a second born announcing their intent to hit the ground running:
bracing………. the ram rod of………. your back ………. against
………. one wall ………. of my uterus ………. and pushing
………. ………. with your feet………. on the
The unexpected broken lines here add to the drama of the poem, the spaces suggesting the panting and the intake of breath necessary to brace for the next contraction.
These birth poems, and the poems of childhood which surrround them, are followed by a series of powerful poems about the poet’s mother’s death. These poems are perhaps even more powerful as we have already been introduced to her mother. She is the figure in the opening poem whom the young children fear has been lost at sea, she is the dressmaker in the poem ‘Skittles’. We have also, of course, just been through the drama of the poet herself becoming a mother.
Death is introduced gently in the poem ‘Family tree’. Here is the first recognition that the poet’s mother is moving away from the family she has been a part of for so long. She is no longer part of the “circle’, rather she is starting to stake her claim on the family tree:
………. ………. ………. ………. ………. ………. ………beside
her sister. Her parents are on the sheltering bough above,
she’ll save a place for her brother, tag it with her hand-bag
just in case.
and we are introduced to the cause
Her synapses have long struggled
to keep place with passing time. Now they fizzle
like a cooking pot plunged in cold water.
The poems that follow document her slow decent into death. They are, for the most part, beautifully crafted, sad poems which led to the inevitable conclusion
With finger and thumb, she held your eyes shut:
you were a child well past your bedtime
wanting to stay up for the rest of the show.
………. ………. ………. ‘On the day of your death’
The List of Last Remaining is a book that deserves to be read more than once. While it contains many very fine individual poems, its greatest strength is perhaps how well the poems work together, how each section creates a micro-climate of imagery, and how, the book as a whole brings this all together so that a reader is left with a feeling of completeness.
– Mark Roberts
Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He is the founding editor of Rochford Street Review and his latest collection of poetry, Concrete Flamingos, was published by Island Press in 2016. He occasionally blogs at https://printedshadows.wordpress.com/
The List of Last Remaining is available from http://fiveislandspress.com/catalogue/the-list-of-last-remaining-louise-nicholas