Book Review: Photos of the Sky, by Saradha Koirala

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

screen-shot-2018-10-18-at-9-02-06-am.jpgPhotos of the Sky is Saradha Koirala’s third poetry collection. The Nepali/ Pākehā writer currently lives in Melbourne where she teaches English, literature and creative writing.

The collection is arranged in four sections or subheadings – Reach, Shift, Reach, This Time. It spans her move across the Tasman, the reaching for other times, places, people.

The attempts towards, the shifting of perspectives, the attempts again, the relief. I felt the image of a trapeze artist, swinging out to try to catch someone else’s hands, falling back, swinging again, and finally meeting.

I had no previous experience of Koirala’s work and enjoyed trying to get inside this collection. I flipped back and forth, interested in the placement of the poems in each section, the illumination of certain moments.

The first poem I bookmarked to come back to was Yard Duty, the third poem in the third section. Describing Koirala’s duties as a teacher, it follows her interactions with students in the classroom as they struggle to find the name of ‘that feeling like butterflies in your stomach, but not excitement?’ ‘”Anxiety” I tell them. “Anxiousness,” they say.’

The second stanza follows her on shooing students outside during lunchtime. But the third stanza, which pulls the previous two together, was the one to give me made me stop and go back.

Today a bird was trapped inside. There was a warm breeze
and the sun was out, but that bird was obsessed with the
unopenable window at the top of the stairs, wouldn’t
move from the windowsill, fluttered its wings like the
butterflies in our stomachs, oblivious to the door we’d
opened at the end of the empty hall.

I’ve been everyone in this poem – the teacher, the students, and the bird. So very often the bird.

Spaces between – stairways and wells, train stations, the heavy air inside an aeroplane – are known as liminal. Each poem seems to evoke this in its own way, none more so than (sub)Liminal, which falls early in the first section. ‘I’m a little bit in love with the world again today,’ it opens, then describing ‘this afternoon city of doors’ and how ‘Sent words map out wherever it is you are.’ The final stanza leaving us with saturated feeling of hope and in-between.

a little bit in love and a gallery of images
on trains, at stations: forever moving
or waiting to be moved again.

I happened to be out of town attending a funeral when I read the book the first time, so Tidal, the second poem in the section called Shift, was sadly appropriate. The poem, detailing the ‘ritual and effort’ a grandmother used to put into getting dressed up, and the passing of time since the grandfather’s passing on. The final stanzas drew a lump of recognition in my throat.

Five months since Grandma was last out, confused but pleased
to see us all, wishing Grandad could have lasted a few days
longer as if then he could have seen us all too.

As if we still would have come.

In Looking Up, we’re met again by the liminal, in a familiar scene that takes place on a moving train. ‘The optometrist prescribed looking up more / and I don’t blame her.’ The moment where we choose to ignore someone we sort-of know, or maybe once knew, in favour of keeping ‘eyes on that chunk of universe / floating just ahead.’

It always helps to know which station
is the one before yours

and which you’ll be at if you’ve gone too far.

And finally, honourable mention must go to Love Song – a rumination on whakapapa, and love poem about running into Taika Waititi while buying kitchenware a Wellington Warehouse.

The book’s epigraph, I feel, works just as well as a conclusion –

A light went on when he told me
not everything is a metaphor
some things are just as they seem

I sleep better with the light left on.

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

Photos of the Sky
by Saradha Koirala
Published by The Cuba Press
ISBN 9780995110748

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