Monday, May 07, 2012

Launch of Helen Heath’s 'Graft’.

Unity Books was packed with a friendly crowd on Thursday night for the launch of Helen Heath’s first full collection of poetry - ‘Graft’.
Some extracts from Harry Ricketts’ heart-felt speech follow:

Sometimes launchers of first collections find themselves in a tricky position. You can tell by the odd telltale twitch, by a general air of unease. They like a few of the poems, maybe; they want to be encouraging, certainly; but they clearly wish they’d never agreed to the whole damn thing and that, like Bilbo Baggins at the start of The Lord of the Rings, they could just put on a magic ring and disappear. That’s not the case with me. I think I’m really lucky to be here speaking about Graft. It’s a terrific, handsomely produced collection, full of memorable poems which are constantly shining a light on each other and on the world…

Helen, as some of you will know, is currently doing a PhD in creative writing at the IIML at Victoria, working on poetry and science. So, it’s fitting that several of the poems in ‘Spiral Arms’, the first section of Graft, are about scientists: Isaac Newton, David Brewster, Beatrice Tinsley, Rosalind Franklin, Marie Curie. These poems beautifully, subtly, reflect on the scientists themselves and capture something distinctive about them…

As Helen’s note points out, the word ’graft’ is linked etymologically to Old Norse and Old German words for ‘digging’, and hence to our word ‘grave’. But the reader is also expected, I think, to link ‘graft’ horticulturally to ‘a shoot’ or ‘cutting’. In this sense we are all ‘grafts’ or ‘shoots’ of our parents and ancestors. And poems themselves might be thought of as ‘grafts’ because they are ‘grafted’ onto or out of other poems and language structures. And, in a different sense again, writing poems is often ‘hard graft’, hard work, a test of craft, though that kind of ‘graft’ often doesn’t, and perhaps shouldn’t, be obvious in the final version, and isn’t here.

The third section, ‘Truth & Fiction’, as its title implies mixes the real and the fictive, also the homely and the dangerous, carving out spaces where, to quote from ‘Making tea in the universe’: “There is no apron to stand behind.” At the moment one of my favourites in this section is ‘Ripple’. I can’t think of a poem which so poignantly and unself-dramatisingly suggests the vertiginous, world-swinging topsyturviness of early motherhood. The poem is all one sentence with brilliant line-breaks, and I hope Helen won’t mind if I read it:

The floor has a ripple
in it, which is funny
because the carpet is blue
like the sea and the baby
is pulling and chewing
on my nipple so hard
that it bleeds
and her little legs kick-
kick me, her hands find
my hair and pull hard
and there‘s a roaring
in my ears that might
be the sea and they ask
me if I’m blue and
I say I just need
some sleep then everything
will be all right but now
the floor has a ripple in it.

Last year I was lucky enough to have Helen in my creative non-fiction class at the IIML, and the domestic pieces she wrote then share a good deal of the emotional territory and emotional power of the domestic poems in Graft. One particularly goosebumpy prose poem Helen did as an exercise was called ‘O Brother’, and I was pleased to see it show up again here as ‘Fairytale iv: O Brother’ - having lost none of its frisson. Before I read Graft, I still had hopes that Helen might be lured back to non-fiction, but these poems are so compelling and engaging that I don’t think that will be any time soon. So, congratulations to Helen.

Buy this book; get Helen to sign it; carry it around with you; live with the poems; you won’t be sorry.
Thank you.
Harry Ricketts

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