I read this book sprawled on my bed, straight off a six-hour-long bus ride, back in my flat in the big city after a week away: tired, sunsick, and homesick already. I raced through them, loving them. Then I had to go back and read the poems again. Everyone knows you shouldn’t rush poetry (I couldn’t help it; the words were comforting, the voice fresh but strangely familiar).
First to note is the title, time to sing before the dark – words scrawled on a page found in Helen Bascand’s papers by her friend and writing partner, Joanna Preston, who edited this posthumous collection. The title acknowledges the poet’s death; however, the sense is not of stillness or ending, but vitality:
when you hear the birds’ urgent evening chatter
then you know it’s time to sing before the dark
These are the last words said, the last poems published, the final performance. While fear works its way in between the lines, the poet does not despair but rather opens up.
Bascand writes in a graceful free verse that does not feel at all fusty, but has an immediacy and the boldness of real life – recounting teaching her young husband to hang a towel. The poems address painting, history, and myth. We see the earth shifting, hear the voice of the moon. Poems which recreate myths bring their characters close – Bascand’s Leda is not victim; she embraces lust. The poem Persephone retells the ancient myth in a voice that is tangible and tactile:
just a simple descent, he said,
through layers of old seasons – down
into a winter of desire and lust clinging to her skin.
Persephone in the dark night, shuffles fragile memories
like used playing cards – this crumpled picture, a woman
in a paddock of clover – tears burning where they fall.
Many of these poems can be illuminated by their mythic origins, but they read fluently without this knowledge, speaking on a human level. There is a sense of rebellion simmering, especially in the poems which treat on women – Bascand writes of reaching into the tree’s branches to shake the snake coiled on the fruit (Thought).
‘The dancing language (for my sister)’ is one of my favourite poems, as the poet watches her sister dance on the blue coffee house carpet. These do not read like the poems of an old woman, but a woman in the midst of life. They move from childhood to courtship to age. There are enchanting, intimate moments. Bascand has a knack of making memories come alive:
Orion stood on his head
in December’s sky, and the stars
were as close as magic, as if
we stood on a virgin ridge
and stretched up
to pluck them. (Ring out wild bells)
Ordinary moments are received perceptively: words weave meaning. They theorise on trees, while in the poem The weight of words:
Outside the window, the pear tree simply
stands within the gravity of pears
and their letting go.
Perhaps why I found the collection so comforting was its appearance of simplicity, its elegant truths. This apt piece comes from within the poem ‘Shifting’:
towards the new house
into the street, the front door,
unpack supplies, make a bed,
a flower for the jam jar
boil an egg, the jug –
At the same time, it would be a mistake to call these poems simple. There are the wild moments which take breath away. In ‘Reading the night’ the poet states:
It was the wind that did it,
tore through the butterfly-wings of meaning,
left a tattered gap, wide enough for moonlight,
but too fragile to climb through – as you might
over a sill before jumping to freedom –
Not only are the poems beautiful in themselves, but in the way these have been arranged beneath the marbled blue and white jacket with its single bird still singing by the light of the moon. Most touching is the titular phrase reproduced in a handwritten scrawl on the back cover. This is a book undertaken with delicacy and thought. My feeling about posthumous collections is that while they are the author’s work, they inevitably carry something of the editor with them as well – they are not, cannot be the book as the author would have made it. There is a tenderness in time to sing’s arrangement that shows the strength of the friendship between the editor and the writer.
Reviewed by Susannah Whaley
Time to sing before the dark
by Helen Bascand
Published by The Caxton Press
ISBN: 978 0 473 45128 8