Finally, eight months after receiving Susan Varga’s poetry collection, Rupture, I’ve finished it. The delay had nothing to do with the quality of the book, but just with my ineffectiveness at keeping up with review books. I apologise to Susan Varga and all the other authors and publishers whose books I still have to get to!
Now, I have reviewed Susan Varga’s excellent award-winning memoir Heddy and me, and Varga, until recently, saw herself primarily as a prose writer. However, circumstances – indeed, those which drive this collection – led her to try her hand at poetry. These circumstances were her suffering a significant stroke, a “rupture” in her life, in other words.
And speaking of words, they are Varga’s raison d’être. In the early aftermath of her stroke “sounds, words, sentences/disappear like tumbleweed”. Devastated, she writes with bitter irony:
With a stroke of the pen
My writer’s life erased.
But, this is not a bitter book (reminding me a little of Dorothy Porter’s The bee hut). Rather, it’s a warm, accessible book about one woman’s experience of a debilitating illness, and of the life that follows, some of it the direct result of the stroke (such as having to move to a new house where she won’t have to struggle with “uneven ground, steep hills”) but some of it the experience of any older woman, or any person walking a dog, or any human being, really.
The collection is divided into 6 thematic sections, including “I Masterstroke”, “II The New House Poems” and “IV Alone in the City”. One of the themes that runs through them is the role of words and books in her life. She writes, in the opening poem of the second section:
Help me, words –
You always have.
(from “First poem”)
Then there’s the description of her library, “a dreamed-of space”, which any booklover could relate to:
The shelves are messy, random,
incomplete, much like a life.
Weighty classics still waiting,
faded Penguins, scribbled-over texts.
Small print I can’t read anymore
(from “The Library”)
But later, in the last section of the book, there’s the poem “Refuge”, which commemorates the 40th anniversary of a women’s refuge. In it she wonders about the value of words versus actions. She had always thought words mattered most, that they “enshrine action … trapping action beyond its brief life”. However, in the face of continued violence against women, she starts to question her faith in words, wondering whether it’s “Action … which truly transforms”. Eventually, though, she decides that the two work hand-in-hand, with words operating as “subterranean weapons/torpedoes, depth charges” which can erupt into action.
The poems range in tone from melancholic to humorous, and there’s a nice variety in form too, including a few haiku. Varga’s control of these more technical features – tone, style, form – help maintain the reader’s interest. The poems’ content is also diverse covering what is a pretty normal range of responses to serious illness – sadness for what’s happened and nostalgia for what’s been lost, fear for the future and anger too, but also hope and of course gratitude for those, particularly her partner Annie, who have helped.
There are also love poems to Annie; gentle, perhaps somewhat sentimental, odes to the dogs who weave themselves into one’s being; and more traditional but still gorgeous nature poems:
Delicate ears of coastal grevilleas dance,
lemon, gold, cream, every kind of red,
tiny antennae curled into the breeze.
(from “Spring in Brunswick Heads, 2013. To Julia Gillard”)
I’m sorry I took so long to read Rupture. It’s a warm, generous and intelligent read in which Varga shares the trauma of debilitating illness and the joys to be found in life, regardless. This is a collection about resilience, but it also shows that, in the end, words did not desert her, and that poetry is as much her domain as prose. Best though, that you see for yourself.
Rupture: Poems 2012-2015
Crawley: UWA Publishing, 2016
(Review copy courtesy the author)
25 thoughts on “Susan Varga, Rupture (#BookReview)”
Lovely review, Sue. I had the pleasure of attending a workshop with Susan Varga many moons ago during a three-year stint in Canberra. I love that shehas turned the ‘crisis’ of a stroke into an opportunity to write poetry.
Thanks Angela. She sounds like a lovely woman – but my what a tough time she’s had of it, eh?
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It’s a beautiful collection, Sue, and I’m so glad you’ve reviewed it, and so sensitively and intelligently at that. The book certainly deserves it, as does its author.
Thanks Sara, glad you liked my review, and the book. Would be great to see more people try reading poetry., wouldn’t it?
Go Sue! Go Susan! A sensitive review of a valuable book.
Thanks Lesley. It is a lovely book. I actually read the first couple of poems when I received it, and really liked them but then decided I had to be true to my policy and put it aside, but I knew I had something lovely in store.
Very well writen review about a very well writen collection of poems I must say. Loved reading this. Going to go read Susan now.
That’s lovely N. It’s a thrill when a review of a good book results in someone wanting to read it, particularly when it’s a book that has flown under the radar somewhat.
Oh good for you, Sue, this is a lovely review!
Thanks Lisa … took me long enough, eh?
Oh don’t feel bad, we’ve all got those neglected review copies, it’s just not possible to read everything in a timely manner.
Thanks Lisa, that’s reassuring, actually. You seem to get through so much I often feel very derelict in my duty! (Not that it’s duty exactly, but you know what I mean!)
Ah, but we do different things. I don’t write articles like you do, that involves all that demanding research. I just read books and waffle on about ’em!
More than waffle Lisa! And my, do you read books!
What a wonderful collection and how inspiring that she was able to find out in spite of all the trauma of a stroke, that she is a darn good poet.
Exactly, Stefanie. I hope she’s continued writing.
Thanks to Sue for her warm and perceptive review and to all who’ve left lovely comments. The encouragement is a huge lift for any writer.
Thanks Susan. And I second thanks to the commenters. I’ve always thought it means a lot to writers to see the comments (as much as the review itself, in a way, because we all love to to be part of engagement in literature rather than just talking into the ether.)
Another thought. I was interested that you picked the poem about Women’s Refuges, whereas another recent review, by Craig Billingham, in the Westerley, questioned whether it was a poem at all, even though it held his interest. Otherwise it was a lovely empathetic review but I did wonder whether one’s life experiences influences what one thinks is poetry. Anyone have thoughts on this?
Hmm, interesting question, Susan. I’ve just gone and looked at the review. If you actually did write that verse/stanza as prose, I think you’d find it did have the compression he feels is missing.
But I guess the question you are asking and that he is implying concerns what makes something a poem? He’s suggesting it’s compression and that this poem is not particularly compressed. It is a longer more narrative poem (but there are many of those) and it is more expansive perhaps in the way it presents its ideas than some poems, but to me part of what makes a poem is its rhythm and how the rhythm works to present the ideas. The poetic rhythm encourages or facilitates some compression, reduces the need for connecting sentences or phrases. Does that make sense?
It would be lovely to hear from others though regarding what they see as the defining characteristic of a poem.
I think you are on track. In prose, that subject would have taken me about 3 full pages to cover this lucidly. Mind you, I chose a prosaic form with only flashs of ‘fancy’…to suit the subject. No formulas for this thorny question ..
Exactly Susan. It is a more prosaic poem, but I’d still argue it’s a poem. And, anyhow, what’s in a name? How much does it matter what we call the form versus whether it says something interesting well?