Winter Gold by Barbara Stapleton, Tone River Press, 2020, was launched by Liana Joy Christensen at the Perth Poetry Club, Moon Café, Northbridge, October 17th, 2020.
As poets we are very familiar with chapbooks. This kind of publication began in the 16th century when the printing press made it possible for written texts to be made for ordinary people. Chapbooks might contain poems, or ballads or even prayers. They were a kind of secular kin to the more lavishly illustrated Book of Hours, another small, medieval text tailored for personal devotions. Rainer Maria Rilke embodied both the poetic and devotional histories in his collection: A Book of Hours: Love Letters to God.
Barbara Stapleton’s new chapbook, Winter Gold, addresses common and uncommon aspects of ordinary Australian social history in a clear, unsentimental voice. It is from a far different century and country than medieval Europe, but there is a lineage to be traced. This collection is for and about ordinary people. Yet at moments, to use the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Stapleton’s lines “flame out, like shining from shook foil”. For these reasons, I thought a good way into the poems would be to offer four short meditations on Winter Gold’s themes. Each of them begins with an epigraph from Rilke’s Book of Hours.
Meditation One: Seasons
I would rather sense you
as the earth senses you.
In my ripening
ripens what you are.
In Western traditions winter is the fallow season, a time of barrenness. Yet we meet here today on Noongar Boodjar. And there is much we have yet to learn from the First Nations people. The Noongar word for the first part of winter is Makuru and in contrast to Western notions, this season of severe cold and rains is also known to be the season of fertility and abundance. Thus, in the depths of winter, all can see golden wattle shine. This collection is from a poet who has reached her winter season, making her debut in her ninth decade. It is the harvest of a full life lived and written here on this continent. Winter Gold is, indeed, rich, fertile and abundant.
Meditation Two: Memory and Time
I love the dark hours of my being.
My mind deepens into them.
There I can find, as in old letters,
the days of my life, already lived,
and held like a legend, and understood.
For First Nations people the experience of past, present and future are not strung out like beads on a chain. Rather all these aspects of time continuously dance together in interlinking circles. Poets are perhaps the people most able to come close to an intuitive understanding of such a concept. An important function of poetry is to subvert the linearity of time. Barbara’s poems do this very well. How strange, how calm this day/How time stretches itself to accommodate. The people and experiences that populate this collection looked at from one perspective could be seen as part of an earlier era, yet in no way are they rendered as lifeless and past. The poems are vessels through which people and events remain vividly part of the present and future.
Meditation Three: Women
She who reconciles the ill-matched threads of her life and weaves them gratefully into a single cloth— it’s she who drives the loudmouths from the hall and clears it for a different celebration where the one guest is you.
Like the colours that refract through the cover image, Barbara’s poems contain a complete spectrum of women’s lived experience. In this short collection we meet so many private and historical women: the indelibly Australian domestic violence survivor, Mrs Sweeney, in ‘War Bride’: she’s taken him to court the bastard! The Biblical ‘Exodus Journey’ that voices the yearning of all refugee women:
Remembering the soft colours of cushions
Of tassels hanging from the curtains.
It’s the small things we miss.
Flowers for one thing
Bunches of poppies
Their crushed amber-gold petals
Slowly unfolding themselves.
And, in a lighter tone, my particular favourite is the small anonymous group of crones delighting in their celebration of postmenopausal freedom in the poem ‘Sunday Morning’.
Meditation Four: The Secular-Sacred
If we surrendered
to earth’s intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.
Unlike First Nations people, most of us have forgotten the wisdom of surrendering to earth’s intelligence. It is a matter of urgency that we begin to regain this eclipsed wisdom. A central aspect of this is rediscovering that the secular and sacred are indivisible. Several of the poems in Winter Gold wrestle with this theme. The unexpected nature of grace in ‘Turning Around’:
Now in the afternoon of life
My Dear design
The poignancy of “Lament”:
And in the fruitless fields I’ve sown
Let all the wilful foxes play
And birds trim little nests all day
and children grow.
The paradox is that we can only approach a sense of the Divine by letting go and living in the day as it unfolds.
Barbara is a poet who is particularly good at capturing the beauty of the every day, and I’ve chosen one poem to demonstrate this capacity.
When the case of oranges arrived
we’d push to see who’d be the one to choose the first great golden globe
to feel the hands wet with pungent bruises from the sweating skin.
You could eat them a dozen ways
cut into segments and then sucked dry
the peel stuffed across the mouth,
or make a small round hole just large enough to siphon juice into the throat.
You could pummel and squeeze the flaccid skin like an old bag
until your hands got tired
you could gently peel away the warm skin dissect the fruit into neat arcs
delicately bite into the veins and tissues tucked inside their membrane skins.
I saw them served with knife and fork
in restaurants in Europe.
The peel cut civilly
flesh scalpelled into neat rectangulars, fastidiously speared
while a puddle of the precious juice
swished helplessly around the bottom of the plate
I invite you to join the long and honourable tradition of people collecting and reading chapbooks. I now declare Winter Gold launched.
– Liana Joy Christensen
Liana Joy Christensen is a poet, author and poetry editor. Her work is widely published in Australia and internationally, including The Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry, Prosopisia, Once Wild, Veils, Halos and Shackles, and The Enchanting Verses Literary Review. She has won the Peter Cowan Writers Centre Patron’s Prize for poetry, as well as being shortlisted for the Newcastle Poetry Prize in 2014. For seven years she was the MC of Fremantle’s Voicebox, Western Australia’s longest-established poetry reading.
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