Mary Cresswell reviews The Weight of Light by Kristen Lang

Kristen Lang, The Weight of Light. Parkville: Five Islands Press, 2017. ISBN: 978-0-7340-5374-9. 88 pp.

 

Mary Cresswell

 

The weight of light is a most amazing variable: it measures bodies as they touch and release, landscapes and crowds, black and white, fullness and emptiness. It even helps eulogise the dog in Spanish. The poems in this collection have an extraordinary range of topic and of voice, all acting to link the lightness of  spirit with the heavy reality that we bump around in every day.

Sound and colour are tools for recording the weight of light. In the poem ‘Snow after fire (Parsons Track)’

We arrive on the plateau, climbing from the walls of rock, the coloured

gums, the mountain shrubs,

to where the only thing not blackened by the long summer’s fires,

perched in the Rorschach

 

of receding snow, is the sign …

(52)

Black and white are the only colours we see – and even they are an improvement on the awfulness of a landscape brutalised by fire. We remember what colour was and ‘how difficult it was up here, pushing into wind-toughened tips / of wood, of leaf edge … And in the noise of its stillness, // the hauntings, the flames all but visible. …’ (52).

The poem takes us though a rediscovery of the terrain, a relearning of the idea of height, until the speaker(s) return to a space where colour exists again – to children, children’s children, the world they hiked away from: ‘ … We are grateful. And more / for the stones themselves.’ (54).

A pattern throughout the collection was the variation in shapes of the poems. On my reading, it seems that the wide-format poems (mainly, longer lines and fewer stanza breaks) came from a different place than the narrow strings of (usually) triplets. I thought that the narrow poems were more intensely centred on  the ‘I’, where the broader ones expanded to ‘I in the wider world’, providing commentary as well as a statement.

For example, look at the two poems ‘We meet again’ (first stanza) and ‘Friend’ (first three stanzas):

The remnants I kept, the line of you, how you moved

a little behind the rough shield of your body,

how when you laughed, your unmasked self, woven

into the sound, seemed always more hopeful. How your eyes

would question your tongue but not your heart, and were blue

though I wanted them brown. This I packed, compressing you,

into a pinpoint coil amid the dust, almost forgetting you.

(80)

And on the page facing:

between your name

and my name – most of the ink

still in the bottle

 

all the songs

on the radio – softer

than your hum

 

in my head

a small you still visiting –

the sleep-over we have

while you are gone

(81)

‘These mountains – what the body cannot keep’ and ‘Poet’s daybook (II)’ (68–69) seem to me another call and response of the two styles – and there are other pairs. This is an impressive way of balancing the poet-in-the-world against the poet-in-her-own-brain – reading the poems in twos leaps over the messy grey area between the public self and the private self with an assured elegance I find one of the great charms of these poems.

Reading the book we drift through various stages of being without any noticeable jolt as we go from one space to another. Everything makes sense in its place.

Lang ends her collection with ‘Mexican wave’ – which I’ll quote in its entirety, not to demonstrate any critical point but simply because I think it’s lovely. And because I am so glad to have read this book.

The half-slipped wave of sleep around the Earth,

my arms up madly in the night and none awake

beside me. The sputtered sub-wave – milk vans,

night-cleaners, a nurse going home, and me,

subverting light in the kitchen. And from the rooms

still dark, filling the house – the soft weight of limbs,

the breathing. And as I pass, looking in, their sleep-

blinded eyes, each lidded gaze in mine, unbroken.

Look, I’d say – this hollow night, Earth’s

other side, this silence, where my lips move

but do not speak, and my eyes, on this edge, this

shade, refuse the familiar. But they do not stir.

The noise of them – sleep’s muted birds shuffling

in their branches. There, on a shoulder,

there, on a jut of chin. And I return, the kettle

boiling, and I am not alone but waiting –

a disjointed pulse, unsleeping, thrumming

between these walls, the fridge humming the hours,

and all the rock of Earth bearing their waking.

(88)

 

Mary Cresswell is from Los Angeles and lives on New Zealand’s Kapiti Coast. She is a retired science editor and volunteers at a nature reserve and at a women’s centre. Her most recent book is Field Notes (a satirical miscellany) from Makaro Press, Wellington, 2017.

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