Book review: The Baker’s Thumbprint by Paula Green

cv_the_bakers_thumbprintThis book is in bookstores now

The Baker’s Thumbprint is Paula Green’s sixth collection of poetry for adults. While Green is well known and respected for her poetry, she has also published books for children, and last year edited the best seller, Dear Heart: 150 New Zealand Love Poems (Random, 2012).

The Baker’s Thumbprint is Green’s first book to be published by Wellington boutique publisher, Seraph Press.

Green’s writing is interesting and challenging because, in part, each collection tries something different. The voice of this collection has a light touch, and is full of play and whimsy. At the Wellington launch of the book, Green said she writes from love, and the idea can be seen in the poems’ many descriptions of making and sharing food, and the people she celebrates and admires. While Green’s last book was about her battle with breast cancer, this collection feels more personal; there is less distance between the poet and the reader. One poem states, “A poem should not be mean,” and none of these are; they document what the poet loves.

What you’ll notice immediately when reading The Baker’s Thumbprint is that historical figures pop in and out the poems. The poet picnics with Gertrude Stein, has sandwiches with Florence Nightingale, and cooks with Copernicus. In later poems she travels to New York with Copernicus and Simone de Beauvoir. While such poems could easily go wrong, Green balances the ‘big names’ by placing them in every-day domestic scenes (the idea of domestic routines and relationships being a common theme for Green). The appearance of Plato at Sunday lunch seems natural and unremarkable. Would he like a cup of tea? Of course!

These ‘historical figure’ poems are addictive to read, and certainly take advantage of my desire for wish-fulfillment. I also want to hang out with Plato and Jane Austen. But, on reading, it also becomes clear that Green wants to show how people and places become part our imaginative lives. Other poems in the collection (for example, those about Green’s childhood) also suggest what I believe is the central idea of the book: the power of imagination.

While the book travels to different locations (New York, ancient Athens, and Rome), it also places itself firmly in New Zealand. In one poem we find ourselves at a “New World supermarket,” and another in Auckland in the 1970s. The poems also mention New Zealand writers such as Baxter, Bornholdt, Frame, and Sargeson. In this way, the collection has great reach, and shows that poets can write both locally and globally (and that it doesn’t have to be one or the other).

Those readers familiar with Green’s poems will recognise her poetic traits. For example, the collection includes short poems, instructional poems, list poems, and surreal poems (which are probably my favourite). Many poems feature repetition—a constant of Green’s voice. For example, from “Ode to Vegetables”:

All the birds fade.
Simone de Beauvoir fades.
The grass that needs cutting fades.
The water tank half empty fades.
The television channels on replay fade.
Firefly on DVD fades.
The long evenings fade.
The cold beer on the tongue fades.
The mosquitoes that buzz in the night fade.

Copernicus opens a book of local odes
and recognises the beauty that bursts
from the autumn heart.

The many themes and locations of the collection made me, as a reader, feel less guided than with previous books. I also felt a handful of poems, such as those at the beginning of section three on early New Zealand life, and war, felt like they belonged to another collection, as did the poem on learning Te Reo.

The book’s title – The Baker’s Thumbprint – suggests the impressions we leave behind; the idea of artistry and mark making. This is certainly a beautiful and genuine collection. Maybe these poems are Green’s way of showing where her artistry comes from, both in terms of her physical home, but also the home of her imagination.

Reviewed by Sarah Jane Barnett

The Baker’s Thumbprint
by Paula Green
Published by Seraph Press, 2013
ISBN 9780473236311

98 pp. $25 RRP