Book Review: There’s a Medical Name for This, by Kerrin P. Sharpe

Available now in bookstores nationwide. 

Kerrin P. Sharpe was born in Wellington and now lives in Christchurch where she is a cv_theres_a_medical_name_for_thispoet and teacher of creative writing. Her her first collection Three Days in a Wishing Well was published by VUP in 2012. As with her debut collection, the poems in There’s a Medical Name for This are distilled, spare, and arresting. Sharpe has a clear and unmistakable voice – her poems are often surreal and haunting, but she can also be funny. For example, in one memorable poem a deer builds a Portaloo! The world Sharpe creates in the surreal poems sits comfortably beside the ‘pilgrim poems’ in this collection, which explore the equally strange experience of loss and how we move forward.

One of the most successful aspects of the collection is the way Sharpe moves the reader – almost seamlessly – through time and location. In one poem we’re on a World War One battlefield; in another a man gets money out of an ATM before an earthquake in Christchurch. Sharpe’s characters are many: Antarctic explorers, a woman shopping, and Japanese rice planter in 1953. While this could easily make the collection feel disjointed, Sharpe’s consistent voice and purposefully limited palette of images pulls the collection together. We return to the same theme: we live in an uncertain world.

While Sharpe’s imagery is beautifully rendered, very little in this collection is literal or straight-forward. When first reading a poem I would often ask myself what it was about. This elusive quality is entirely intentional: it allows the poems to slowly reveal their themes, and through that revelation, be all the more powerful. One example is ‘the dictator’:

the brother of birds
smokes feathers

sucks a collar
of small black tunes

coaxes thick slices
of red berries
into his bunker

preorders gasoline
shoots his dog

crushes tiny skulls
of poison for his wife

persuades his gun to talk

Sharpe’s poems often have a fable-like quality which allows her to blend her own family history with broader events in world history. Being able to read her stories within this wider context is one of the strengths of the collection, and poems often bounce off each other. Many of the poems in the collection come in bunches, which gradually creates a story. For example, poems about snow appear together, as do a series of poems about horses (these are not the horses you’d expect, though. In one poem a ‘thesaurus horse’ joins the speaker’s father ‘by the fire // both of them searching / for the right word’.) The most heartbreaking series of the collection is about miscarriage, which I am assuming stems from Sharpe’s own family history. From the collection’s title poem:

she builds a baby
from steam and feather
from early snow

she cannot remember
who is still born
herself or her son

she lines a box
with pinus radiata wings
a scarf of grey sky

While I am still puzzling over a few of the poems, this is a moving and singular collection.

Reviewed by Sarah Jane Barnett 

There’s a Medical Name for This 
by Kerrin P. Sharpe
Victoria University Press, 2014
RRP $25.00, 68 pp.
ISBN 9780864739308