Book Review: The Blue Voyage and Other Poems, by Anne French

Available on 30 November in bookshops nationwide.

“How your face lit up, explaining
the blue voyage to me”cv_the_blue_voyage

Bookended by a short collection of poems by William Butler “Bill” Smith and some translations of Korean poet Han Yong-un’s work, Anne French’s new poetry collection, The Blue Voyage and Other Poems, settles itself into a context spanning oceans. From Bill and New Zealand, to the coasts of Turkey, and to Yong-un’s Korea, French writes alongside her fellow poets and the history of the idea of the blue voyage along the south-western Turkish coast.

Bill’s poetry anchors itself in the familiar, not venturing too far out from the New Zealand shoreline. It is a good starting point for this collection, as his experience feels like home, and his writing invites the reader into a conversation that slowly leads towards French and her poetry. He moves from the home, slowly towards the front porch and out into the water that sits on the edge of the blue voyage, from the kitchen and physical love of “Hot bread shop” to the dinghy and thoughts of the past in “Fishing at the Noises.”

French’s poems follow on from those of Bill and slowly move themselves out from the shore and into the waters of the Turkish coast. It takes a couple of poems to get ready for the blue voyage, and we see a carefully considered creation of the world of a seafarer. But it is the title poem that stretches out its characters and places in vivid detail. The words ebb and flow, the unknown resurfaces again and again, the Turkish faces and words, the wildflowers in Datҫa, the cats in Palamutbükü, until finally she turns towards England and asks How can I leave all this? / The roses, the oleander, / the sunshine, the mountains, / the water full of little fish, / the perfect sailing breeze. But leave she does, towards other places documented by her poetry. She takes others with her, like C.K. Stead (El Faro) and Geoff Park (Black notebook and On the way), and pays tribute to poetry, to sailing, and to love and life.

In the final section, “Going to Gwangju,” French makes her way to Korea and the tragic history of Gwangju. She recognises herself as an outsider and comes to understand the personal history, Only now I understand / the words you didn’t say. / ‘Gwangju’ means massacre. This poem highlights a point in Korean history that is met with sadness, and with silence. French’s sijo builds on this further, “Now silent on Achasan, your voice carries clearly across the century.”

It is interesting then to turn the page to the translations of the Korean poet, Han Yong-un. Silence is here also, but it is The Silence of Love. These love poems, echoing those of Bill Smith and those of Anne French earlier on in the collection, bring the book to a neat close, until finally, Waiting / for the ringing of the bells announcing daybreak, / I put down my brush.

Reviewed by Matthias Metzler

The Blue Voyage and Other Poems
by Anne French
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408428

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