Ish Doney packs love and longing into her first collection of poetry, Where the fish grow. Describing Doney’s own move from New Zealand to Scotland, her writing resonates deeply through its portrayal of how bittersweet it is to leave old memories behind while making new ones.
One painful aspect of departure is leaving loved ones behind, and Doney expresses this in her poem Family. She beautifully describes the process as ‘packing up / grey Christchuch days… Folding up streets and parks’. The restraint of her language results in a tone that is modest and almost shy. In this way, the final verse of the poem is heartbreaking yet subtle. Here, Doney spends her time ‘remembering what it was like… to lie on the lino… under a hospital bed / and listen to my brother cry’.
Similarly in the poem Miscarriage, Doney describes a different kind of leaving, and one that she can’t quite fathom. Unable to comprehend what has happened, she repeats her chances like a plea: ‘Five percent. / We should have been okay’. The precision of Doney’s writing portrays a deep yet intangible kind of loss with no flamboyance or excessive description. She is simply a poet capturing an event for what it is: a loss that leaves pools of emptiness rippling through her life.
The heart is placed obliquely in the chest, is another beautiful poem that describes the heart and all its emotions as a literal concept. Some hearts are ‘bent or partially broken… hence, fracture takes place more readily’, suggesting that constant leaving and settling results in small cracks in a person. The use of short and simple lines presents these observations as strong and sturdy structures for the rest of poem. However, in the end, ‘The substance of the heart / is uncertain’; its complexity is left inexplicable.
Doney finds a constant through the ritual of making tea, and she uses this to find that sense of home again. She describes the motion as a process similar to making mud pies, of ‘mixing the garden together / and covering it with petals’. This is her way of grounding herself: through the imagery of the earth. Tea reappears throughout the collection and so does the sea; it is where the tang of salty air and fish becomes a prevalent memory for Doney. In the final poem, Seaside, she imagines ‘collecting the ocean / in coffee cups’, of being able to bring bits of home with her wherever she goes. It is an innocent way of making the unfamiliar seem familiar, of adjusting a new home in relation to the old.
Where the fish grow portrays the many of emotions of departure when home is so close to someone’s heart. The heart is a complex and difficult thing and Doney’s attempt to understand it is through the description of a magical world, a world where the smell of tea brings back certain memories and the tide brings in layers and layers of the past. Where The Fish Grow is an enjoyable poetry collection that captures both the wonder of the new and the bittersweet feeling that comes with leaving the old.
Reviewed by Emma Shi
Where The Fish Grow
by Ish Doney
Published by Makaro Press (Part of the Hoopla series)