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The title of Mary McCallum’s poetry collection, XYZ of Happiness, explains just what this book is about: those feelings of happiness that colour our lives. Each letter of the alphabet is used as the first letter of each poem. The first poem is titled, After reading Auden, the second, Bee story, the third, C, and on the poems go in alphabetical order until the final piece, Zambia.
The poem After Reading Auden won the Caselberg International Poetry Prize and it’s a wonderful start to the sequence. Happiness here is found in the midst of nature. McCallum describes the force
of the river’s intimacy, its deep
soundless need—not sour,
not shiftless, but lucid, expressive,
It seems the river is something full of power and emotion, yet still carries a softness. She goes on to describe the sensation of being in the river and falling into all that beauty:
we, the girls
and I, dissolving
And we dissolve with her into the bliss of the moment.
The poem Things they don’t tell you on Food TV was one of my favourites in the collection. In the piece, McCallum shows how food is a great conjurer of happy memories. McCallum talks about the
sun blooming in a bowl, and spooning
yoghurt and honey into a hungry mouth
on whitewashed steps with a turquoise sea
and a donkey crowing and someone calling
kalimera into the bleaching light is just like
scooping up the sun and eating it.
As I read the poem, I was instantly in Greece. The things that McCallum highlights in this poem are beautiful moments that I remember from my time there too. The combination of yoghurt and honey is a wonderful image, and her description of eating the sun and swallowing up that light perfectly describes how heart-warming such a scene can to be. As McCallum states, these memories are things that they don’t tell you on Food TV. They are personal stories.
The danger of writing with such a deep focus on happiness is that it can seem excessive and overdone. Some poems tipped a little to this side. In her poem Just Happiness, McCallum talks about a shop selling ‘Happiness Bowls’ and the image feels overwrought.
But for the most part, McCallum presents happiness in a subtle way. There are poems about when happiness is missing too, and when it’s something that’s being searched for. In the poem C, McCallum talks about a tender subject. The second part of the piece is titled 2. CHEMOTHERAPY. Here, she describes a body
young enough to smell of milk
in the morning, one the mother must
return to sit beside and stand over
McCallum shows a scene of vulnerability and presents the protection that the mother brings. Part of this section’s title is in bold for a reason. Chemotherapy, mother. And from here, McCallum highlights a great little wordplay within the word:
How could we not see it? Listen closely
now for the rest, say the word with soft
mouth lest you miss them: first and last
and barely there, but holding mother like
ribs, the key to (almost) happy.
It leaves you rolling the word chemotherapy in your mouth. She’s right, the mother is always there. Trying to hold things together like ribs, trying to create safe spaces of contentment. Complex poems that explore the different kinds of satisfaction we can feel and create, like this one, gave a true depth to the collection beyond simple bliss.
Reviewed by Emma Shi
XYZ of Happiness
by Mary McCallum
Published by Mākaro Press