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.
(Review copy courtesy the author)