Book Review: The Yield, by Sue Wootton

Available in bookshops nationwide. 
This book is a finalist in the Poetry category of the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

cv_the_yieldIn attempting to describe The Yield and my response to it, I found myself referring again and again to the poem Lingua incognita, which is quoted on the back of the book and is, if I was pushed to name it, probably my favourite poem in the collection.

Some words dwell in the bone, as yet
unassembled…

Down in the bone the word-strands glimmer and ascend
often disordered, often in dreams,

bone-knowledge beating a path through the body to the throat
labouring to enter the alphabet.

and sometimes the only word to assemble in the throat is Yes
and sometimes the only word to assemble in the throat is No.

The best word I can assemble to describe my feelings about this book is seen. I was casting metaphorical looks over my shoulder the whole time I read it. How very rude, I thought, and Please stop, and You don’t know me!

But of course, she does, at least in the way a poet knows an experience that transcends the individual, and can translate it so accurately.

I didn’t expect to enjoy The Yield. I’m ambivalent about the focus of New Zealand poetry on the New Zealand landscape, and more specifically the New Zealand backyard. But to call this book a book about nature would be to greatly underestimate it.

I read the first three words and thought, oh. Oh no. How very dare you? – outrage being my usual reaction when another poet displays their talent.

‘Measure my wild,’ the first poem invites, perhaps expanding the invitation to encompass everything to follow.

In the poem Wild, we’re invited to consider nature as doctor, which fascinated me and took me by surprise. I took pains to not read anything about Wootton’s life or this collection before opening it, so I wasn’t aware of her medical background or the role this would play in her work. As a sick poet, it is therefore unsurprising that I felt seen.

Examine my yearn, and treat it with trees.
Un-pane me. Wilden my outlook.

Having read the book, I consider my outlook wildened.

I generally do not like long poems. I am a harsh editor – if you give me a long poem, I will send it back cut in half. To me, the challenge and deep delight of poetry has always been in how much you can say with how little. I like denseness. I want one crucial word that does the work of ten.

Wootton has shown herself to be a master in this regard. There is not a single word in this book that does not need to be there.

I am in the habit of using cardboard gift tags to mark notable pages when reading books for review. Unfortunately, this scheme doesn’t prove so useful when you are sticking one in every second page.

This is not to say I liked every poem. I didn’t, and I’m not meant to. A collection will, hopefully, contain something for everyone. By extension that will mean there’s things that do not speak to me as loudly as others. In any case, I am more in the habit of falling in love with individual lines than entire poems, and in this way Wootton has rendered me something of a nymphomaniac.

For all the emotion explored here, there is little heaviness. In fact, another reviewer used the term ‘exuberance,’ and I would add ‘exultant.’ There is a worship occurring; of the world around us, and of our bodies and the many things they are capable of. The poem The needlework, the polishing opens:

‘I like an empty church, forgive me…’

The line echoed in my head for days, like a refrain from a choir. And, to finish:

‘The kneeling rail. I kneel. I quietly rail.’

<insert deep exhalation from the reviewer> The religious imagery at play here spoke to me profoundly. As someone whose illness has given them a complex relationship with spirituality, I felt at home in this poem. It was interesting to come inside, from that other, wild church we worship throughout the book. To come inside, to kneel, to express grief and anger in a such a very contained way.

The poem Pray revisits a difficult relationship with god, one which could find its answer in ‘A treatise of the benefits of moonbathing’, where science offers medical impetus for a centuries-old communion. The moon, the poem suggests – its feminine iconography a counterpoint to the male-lead religion in other parts of the book – could cure insomnia if consumed appropriately.

… two thousand feet above worry level with the moon’s smile sailing over the fence
Mare Frigoris
A moonbath in spring is a spritz to the hibernated soul.
One skips back, freshly rinsed
with sparkling thoughts like moonwash gilds us all the same, O our beautiful bones!

I could go on – the multitude of gift tags mock me – but it’s important to recognise the futility of doing an entire collection justice in 1000 words. So I will finish with the final lines from ‘Graveyard poem,’ which etched itself neatly inside my ribs.

… all the children with their terrifying ages engraved stark against bewilderment –
it’s right to be so afraid
of love.

and the angels dip their wingtips to our occasionally touching palms
and the leaves rustle underfoot: risk it, risk it.

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

The Yield
by Sue Wootton
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9780947522483

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