Tuesday, December 18, 2012

"All my life" by Sarah Broom

So we sat, and the waves
crashed in like gifts, or insults,
and the children played,
digging trenches to defend
against the sea, and then a head
bobbed up and down
in the waves, a bit too far out,
and an arm waved, and again,
and a friend walked the beach,
waving the head in, and we sat
and said to each other
do you know that Stevie Smith
poem, not waving but drowning –
yes, and why is it still so hard to tell,
and then we stood and watched
as the inscrutable head bobbed up
and down and the arm still waved
and the children still dug, bodies
roughcast with sunscreen and sand,
and we thought about getting the
lifeguards, but surely the friend
should know, and we thought
about how there should be a sign,
you know, two punches in the air,
or something like that, yes,
then a surfer came and paddled
him in on his board, and the friend
helped him walk, and yes he was
drowning, not waving, now we know,
and isn’t it hard to tell?

© Sarah Broom, 2010

From: Tigers at Awhitu by Sarah Broom, Auckland University Press, 2010
Reproduced on The Tuesday Poem Hub with permission.
Every year or so I encounter a few "standout" poetry collections, and Tigers at Awhitu was one of my personal favourites of 2010—because of the subtlety and keen-ness of the poetic observation, and the beauty and delight of the language employed, for example in lines like:

"So we sat, and the waves
crashed in like gifts, or insults..."

I found the collection both powerful and moving; it is also one that has "stayed with me" since that first reading.

Emma Neale described the poems as "sophisticated and intelligent … full of bittersweet, piercingly true contradictions" and I feel her words encapsulate today's poem, "All my life". The power of the poem creeps up on you, as the reader, because it is deceptive, disguised in the almost inconsequential conversation of the "we" on the beach, observing the "head//that bobbed up and down//in the waves, a bit too far out." The same "we" that continues to stand and watch and discuss until it becomes clear that the swimmer is in difficulty—and together, we are brought to the final realization:

"…and yes he was
drowning, not waving, now we know,
and isn’t it hard to tell?"

The "voice" remains conversational, but the ending on that final question works at several levels. There is the simple, surface understanding that "we" could have stood watching and speculating until the swimmer drowned.

But I feel the poem also picks up on that uncertainty we feel, an unease even, when something may be a-miss, but because we are unsure we hesitate to take action, to step into what may be deep water. "But surely," we tell ourselves, exactly like the "we" at the heart of the poem, "the friend should know." Someone better fitted than ourselves should know, should act…

Yet I also feel there is another layer again to this poem, one hinted at by the title, "All my life." It points to the poem as an extended metaphor for life itself, in which we are all both the head bobbing up and down in the waves, and the watchers on the shore; always caught up in that duality of drowning and waving, in which often "we know" too late—and isn't it always so hard to tell?

Sarah Broom’s first poetry collection, Tigers at Awhitu, was published by Auckland University Press (AUP) in 2010, and simultaneously by Carcanet Press in the UK.  She has also written Contemporary British and Irish Poetry: An Introduction, which was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2006. Her second collection, Gleam, will be published by AUP in July next year.  She lives in Auckland with her husband and three children.

To hear Sarah read from and discuss Tigers at Awhitu, click on the following Scottish Poetry Library podcast interview: Sarah Broom

This week's editor, Helen Lowe is a novelist, poet, interviewer, and a 2012 Ursula Bethell Writer-in-Residence at the University of Canterbury. She emerged onto the NZ poetry scene in 2003 as an inaugural Robbie Burns Award winner and has since had over fifty poems published and anthologized, both in NZ and overseas. The Gathering of the Lost, the second novel in her The Wall of Night series, was published internationally in April, and she recently won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012 for the first-in-series, The Heir of Night. Helen posts every day on her Helen Lowe on Anything, Really blog and is a regular Tuesday Poem contributor. You can also follow her on Twitter: @helenl0we

Enjoy more wonderful poems from our Tuesday Poem contributors by navigating the left side bar.

A message from co-curators Mary McCallum and Claire Beynon: Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year to everyone who contributes to Tuesday Poem and everyone who supports and comes to visit,  especially our regulars. We are grateful to you all for helping keep this wonderful poetry community vigorous, challenging and satisfying. What treats we've had this year - poems from all over and insightful personal commentaries that have shed new light on them. Based in New Zealand as we are, we are taking a summer holiday break until Tuesday January 22.  See you then!


Becky Cavender said...

Beautiful, chilling poem.

And a good reminder: it is hard to tell if someone is waving or drowning...

Helen Lowe said...

Glad you enjoyed, Becky.

Helen McKinlay said...

I particularly like the low key build up of observation,until the conclusion is reached that 'yes he was drowning.' Sarah has captured the atmosphere of lazy summer days at the beach, so well. And yes the layers...Thank you Sarah. Stay well. And thank you Helen for this great choice.

Helen Lowe said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Helen.

Mary McCallum said...

The strangest thing about this poem for me is that just last night an old friend told me a story about how she saved a man in the sea who looked like he was waving (with a flutterboard) but was in fact in danger of drowning. She was out swimming too - realised something wasn't right, and being trained as a lifeguard - swam over, tucked him under her arm pit and swam him in to shore, no doubt saving his life. Then, oddly again, today I was out walking with the dog who is a ratbag with other dogs, and I saw a loose yappy little terrier coming along so I gestured to the two women to put their dog on the lead (please) like mine was, but they did nothing. At the last minute they thrust the lead on the dog. As they passed by one of them said, 'we couldn't see you very well at that distance, thought you were waving.' Maybe we should all learn semaphore...

Great poem choice, Helen. And thanks to Sarah Broom for allowing TP to share it.

Harvey Molloy said...

Good choice Helen. The poem's really quite unsettling. I like the way the poem has the rhythms of a causal conversation.

Helen Lowe said...

It is unsettling, isn't it, Harvey? But in such a gentle, gradual build of a way, a little like the way the sea itself can surprise you...

Mary, love your anecdotes re the beach--and having had a similar experience to your friend as a teen (replete with all my life saving badges :D )when saw a kid, not exactly waving but I could 'just tell' he was in trouble -- anyway, did as your friend did & brought him in, much to his great relief, poor little kid--but had to promise "not to tell Mum and Dad" who were sitting on the beach all along! Anyway, kind of underlined to me both how quickly things can gang awry and also how hard it can be to know, for sure.

Penelope said...

A timely choice indeed, Helen. The sea has no interest at all in our needs or words.

Ripping poem.

Helen Lowe said...

Thanks, Penelope.

Play angry Birds said...

Wish you happy new year to you and your family..Nice post..

Deepak Kripal said...

hey Hellen.. that's a wonderful poem.. a different one i would say.. runs like a casual conversation.. i thoroughly enjoyed going through it..

good one..


Unknown said...

Great poem!
This made me think of how sometimes we have people in our lives that we think may need our help but arent sure how to go about doing so.

Rethabile said...

Brilliant poem. Very saddened by news of her passing.

Tim Upperton said...

I think the title is an allusion to the line in the Stevie Smith poem: "I was much too far out all my life..."