Book Review: Are Friends Electric? by Helen Heath

Available in bookshops nationwide. Are Friends Electric is launched at Te Auaha on Thursday 14th June from 5.30 – 7.30pm, with Helen in conversation with Maria McMillan. 

are_friends_electric.jpgI know, I know: don’t judge a book by its cover. But when they’re as hauntingly beautiful as this one, it’d be remiss of me not to acknowledge it. It is tonally perfect for the poems that follow.

Reading this, Helen Heath’s second collection, was easy. And I don’t mean to intimate that it’s simple, it is not. It’s more a sense that Heath has done the work so you don’t have to. She’s already cut the flesh from the bone. It’s up to you how you eat it.

She has the sort of surefooted style that makes it seem effortless – which is of course a clear indication that it has not been.

For something that marries science with love and grief, the work is never too cold, too clever, too clichéd, or too dark. Instead it weaves a story of questions. What does motherhood mean? Fatherhood? Personhood? What does it mean to create (a) life, and to lose it? Can we ever hope to recall what mortality claims from us?

The title of Part One, ‘Are friends electric?’ references the Gary Numan lyric – ‘You know I hate to ask… Only mine’s broke down / and now I’ve no one to love.’

That sets a pretty strong scene.

One of the things I found refreshing about the first half of the book was Heath’s use of footnotes, many describing a poem as found or remixed. She willingly ‘shows her workings’ – instead of jealously guarding her process, she proactively answers that ridiculous question; ‘Where do you get your ideas?’

The very first poem – Reproach – was my favourite of this section. Its footnote explains that it includes text from Plato’s Phaedrus, a dialogue between Phaedrus and Socrates on the invention of writing.

You. Poet. You’re hungry to be read
but your words just create forgetfulness.
This trust in the written strips memory
and selves. You aid only reminiscence
and a false truth…

The second half of the book, Reprogramming the heart, begins with another scene-setting epigraph, this one from Arthur C. Clarke.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is
indistinguishable from magic.

Reading this half of the book I couldn’t help but to think to myself, ‘Do androids dream of electric sheep?’ not so much a conjuring of the novel as a kneejerk neural leap to those particular words and that particular question.

Heath is asking her own questions. Can and should androids be created to love humans? Do we love or despise them? Is it ever possible for them to fully replace us?

This sense of both philosophical and scientific enquiry is mixed with social commentary and creates a backdrop for the real impact of the poems; in the exploration of parenthood, grief and loss.

The poem In this machine is a good example of these things pooling together:

This small object, held in his hand daily, has taken him
inside it. A dead man’s phone still receives text messages, still
has his favourite playlist to listen to. Don’t reply to messages,
don’t accidentally like a Facebook post using his phone. His
spirit is in this machine. His emails, his apps, his photos.
These are his mouth, his mind, his eyes. The screen he ran
his fingers over.

Just as I was finishing the book, Heath made a public post on Facebook. ‘I created a playlist for my book,’ she said. ‘It will be interesting to see if people make connections between the songs and poems. Some are more obvious than others! Some are just more of a mood.’ The eclectic list included Aqua’s Barbie Girl, Daft Punk, Gary Numan (of course), and Flight of The Conchords’ Robots.

I was happy to be transported by Heath, even into places that made me uncomfortable (see: Uncanny Valley), or sad. And the book’s final poem, while undoubtedly sad, ends on a note of hope.

Something inside me that
was once irretrievably small
is expanding.

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

Are Friends Electric?
by Helen Heath
Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561902

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