Katherine E. Seppings. When Embers Dance. Melbourne: Melbourne Poets Union, 2015. ISBN 978-0-9925020-3-4
Poetry of witness can come from other than battlefield trenches, blood and bombs. Katherine Seppings’ chapbook begins with horrific climate, both a heatwave and a firestorm:
When embers dance wildest,
enter vulnerable gaps, press against,
up, down, under, into the heart of homes
when a mother picks burning cinders
from her children’s hair
forces them screaming into the car … (“Firestorm”, 2)
As heat and fire take over, all moisture disappears, and all life suffers from the drought. A roan mare, trapped for hours, is dragged to safety … but only for a while.
Then, there were no words left
to explain the endless searing sun
or why she couldn’t stand. […]
Tears, silent as the lack of rain, fell
until I knew how it felt
to reach the end, tethered. (“The Drought”, 5)
The poems move on, taking in more of the animal world (sheep in “Animal Liberation”, 8-9) and geographical space (“Avebury”, 11).
But it is not all a matter of temperature or climate. “Seville” brings people back into the equation (the kindness of strangers, when “All I could say was ‘gracias’”, 12) , followed by “Boat People” (“Who would come in a boat to these shores / girt by shark nets?”, 13).
By these two poems, presented one after the other, we are reminded that poetry of witness is a poetry of tension and of intolerable contrasts, not only wet versus dry but also what we pretend versus what we do:
we still need laws to end slavery
racism, sexism obscenity
hating each other insanity (“Human Catastrophe”, 15)
And at even closer quarters,
No one hears my shallow breathing
fear of taking a deep breath, existing.
Out in the world they think I am shy. (“Family Violence”, 17)
We are given a bit of hope by the possibility of faith:
Faith was a sixpence
wrapped in the corner of my handkerchief
Faith came to me
in the confetti of plum blossom,
Faith had taken root in the body of earth. (“Faith”, 18)
But faith here comes in very small pieces and at best is only a root, not a whole tree big enough to shelter under. We hope, and we have faith – and we write poems as we wander in wasted lands:
cannot be named
that sets fire to the past
in need of light.
This landscape of truth
lava-flowed on journeys
through blood-kin conflict
across borders, toward tenderness
where I am bound
for the home
that does not break. (“Where Poetry Resides”, 23-24)
Although this is Seppings’ first poetry collection, she has published poems widely and is an accomplished photographer. Her website, www.katherineseppings.com, gives ample and vivid evidence to her commitment as a witness – not only with photographs, but also with words, as this chapbook so ably shows.
Mary Cresswell is from Los Angeles and lives on New Zealand’s Kapiti Coast. Her collection of ghazals and glosas, Fish Stories, was published by Canterbury University Press in 2015. When she is not reading or writing, she volunteers at a bird sanctuary. See also: http://www.bookcouncil.org.nz/writers/cresswellmary.html