Helen Jacobs’ memories and words are strongly focused within the landscape around her. In Withstanding, she writes poems describing her memories of journeying across these landscapes; she considers this against her own life in the present, where in her old age, these journeys are no longer so easy.
Jacobs’ outlook of nature is a unique one that contemplates each object in relation to everything else, including the stretch of buildings and her own human presence. A shrub becomes “a conversation piece” for another plant, a vine, before Jacobs expands to the image of city centres and shop fronts. Not one piece of the landscape loses its significance when seen in relation to another.
Eastbourne is a beautiful poem that creates a vivid snapshot of nature in this Wellington suburb. The land itself doesn’t change, but the place as a whole develops with each moment: the sky darkens, the waves move, the wind flurries. Jacobs’ only choice is to stay and watch it unfold; enraptured, she ‘cannot gather / all this into imagination’.
Evidently, nature is one of the loves of Jacob’s life and she finds solace in the plot of her garden, where ‘clematis stems / up the trellis / to a gentler air’. It is the broader landscapes of nature that she can no longer reach, and therefore can only look on with longing. She thinks about how she was once able to walk ‘over all the contours of the slopes’, describing the dips of the outdoors in a beautiful way. In the present, however, she is stuck to the safety of level ground and a small garden that can only offer the birds so little.
Despite this loss of experience, Jacobs still finds flickers of light in her life. A good day describes small moments that bring happiness to her daily life. The smile of a woman and a baby may be a small gesture from strangers but it is also an unexpected source of comfort. In this way, Jacobs can still find beauty in the world, where spaces are still ‘opening large and green’ even if they are not expanses that she can journey through anymore.
And, although she cannot walk through these landscapes, Jacobs can still write about them, even if her writing ‘operates in the past tense now’. The tender way Jacobs writes about her own body is a touching representation of learning to love the inevitable flaws that come with old age. In the poem Legs, she writes about how much she trusted her body to bring her through anything, whether it be through a bush or on a bike. However, now it is her job to care for them and ‘endear them back for a little longer’.
Even in her old age, Jacobs is a withstanding presence in the landscape. She still finds comfort in looking across at the world she loves, and manages to find sparks of happiness while finding new ‘vistas to step into’. Although she downsizes from bush to garden, both landscapes bring comfort to her life. In this way, Jacobs reminisces a love of journeying through nature that once came so readily to her, recognising that it is something beautiful even if reduced to a memory.
Reviewed by Emma Shi
by Helen Jacobs
Published by Makaro Press