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Taking My Mother to the Opera isn’t just a series of poems; it feels like a whole story in its own right, collating the history of the poet and her family. Each poem follows on smoothly from the one before in a way that doesn’t shy away from tragedy, but is still subtle in its modest tone.
The collection begins with the narrator’s parents and their carefree lives. It is a sweet memory, but from the snags in description it is obvious that their untroubled lives will not last forever. In a beautiful piece of description, Diane Brown describes her innocent childlike belief that she can fly, thinking that “the sky is full / of clouds, but no one / is riding them, perhaps / it’s forbidden.” The poet inevitably understands that flying is the thing of dreams and this realisation is a marker of her growing up. Amongst this change, she wonders whether “Mum and Dad will lie on the sand, / holding hands like they used to”.
It also covers the complexities of family—the push and pull of expectation and want. You Can’t Eat Poems portrays the well-known story of the struggle between parent and child on career choice. The subtle direction of the narrator’s mother to push the poet away from her art adds complexity to both characters. The poet herself recognises that she must “hold my tongue and dig my poems in for winter” to make her mother happy. It explores what it means to be a daughter and the difficulty of aligning your own dreams to making others proud.
And there is the familiarity that comes with family too. There is the smell of home-baked scones and the taste of eating them with jam and cream. There is the string of words “I love you… like coming across / New Zealand mentioned in a foreign / newspaper when you’re homesick” and how we falter without these little reminders. Listening to My Father Read is a poem that tugs at the heartstrings and explores these things that are lost with age. As time passes, the family does not feel as strong as secure as it used to be, and the poet feels unstable without this support. In a heartbreaking moment, the poet’s father declares “You’re the light of my life… she’s (the mother) is the love; you’re the light.”
The many layers of history and background were at a depth that is not often found in poetry. I developed a real attachment to the poet and her life; the transition from the innocent child at the beginning blends into the grown woman at the end so smoothly. It explores the truth that comes from tragedy and how environment shapes our own responses later in life. A belief in flying may disappear with adulthood but Taking My Mother to the Opera proves that you don’t need to be in the clouds to see the light; there are sparks of love in the poet and her family even on solid ground.
Reviewed by Emma Shi
Taking my Mother to the Opera
by Diane Brown
Published by Otago University Press