So we sat, and the waves
crashed in like gifts, or insults,
and the children played,
digging trenches to defend
against the sea, and then a head
bobbed up and down
in the waves, a bit too far out,
and an arm waved, and again,
and a friend walked the beach,
waving the head in, and we sat
and said to each other
do you know that Stevie Smith
poem, not waving but drowning –
yes, and why is it still so hard to tell,
and then we stood and watched
as the inscrutable head bobbed up
and down and the arm still waved
and the children still dug, bodies
roughcast with sunscreen and sand,
and we thought about getting the
lifeguards, but surely the friend
should know, and we thought
about how there should be a sign,
you know, two punches in the air,
or something like that, yes,
then a surfer came and paddled
him in on his board, and the friend
helped him walk, and yes he was
drowning, not waving, now we know,
and isn’t it hard to tell?
© Sarah Broom, 2010
From: Tigers at Awhitu by Sarah Broom, Auckland University Press, 2010
Reproduced on The Tuesday Poem Hub with permission.
"So we sat, and the waves
crashed in like gifts, or insults..."
I found the collection both powerful and moving; it is also one that has "stayed with me" since that first reading.
Emma Neale described the poems as "sophisticated and intelligent … full of bittersweet, piercingly true contradictions" and I feel her words encapsulate today's poem, "All my life". The power of the poem creeps up on you, as the reader, because it is deceptive, disguised in the almost inconsequential conversation of the "we" on the beach, observing the "head//that bobbed up and down//in the waves, a bit too far out." The same "we" that continues to stand and watch and discuss until it becomes clear that the swimmer is in difficulty—and together, we are brought to the final realization:
"…and yes he was
drowning, not waving, now we know,
and isn’t it hard to tell?"
The "voice" remains conversational, but the ending on that final question works at several levels. There is the simple, surface understanding that "we" could have stood watching and speculating until the swimmer drowned.
But I feel the poem also picks up on that uncertainty we feel, an unease even, when something may be a-miss, but because we are unsure we hesitate to take action, to step into what may be deep water. "But surely," we tell ourselves, exactly like the "we" at the heart of the poem, "the friend should know." Someone better fitted than ourselves should know, should act…
Yet I also feel there is another layer again to this poem, one hinted at by the title, "All my life." It points to the poem as an extended metaphor for life itself, in which we are all both the head bobbing up and down in the waves, and the watchers on the shore; always caught up in that duality of drowning and waving, in which often "we know" too late—and isn't it always so hard to tell?
Sarah Broom’s first poetry collection, Tigers at Awhitu, was published by Auckland University Press (AUP) in 2010, and simultaneously by Carcanet Press in the UK. She has also written Contemporary British and Irish Poetry: An Introduction, which was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2006. Her second collection, Gleam, will be published by AUP in July next year. She lives in Auckland with her husband and three children.
To hear Sarah read from and discuss Tigers at Awhitu, click on the following Scottish Poetry Library podcast interview: Sarah Broom
This week's editor, Helen Lowe is a novelist,
poet, interviewer, and a 2012 Ursula Bethell Writer-in-Residence at
the University of Canterbury. She emerged onto the NZ poetry scene
in 2003 as an inaugural Robbie Burns Award winner and has since had
over fifty poems published and anthologized, both in NZ and
overseas. The Gathering of the Lost, the second
novel in her The Wall of Night series, was
published internationally in April, and she recently won the Gemmell
Morningstar Award 2012 for the first-in-series, The Heir of
Night. Helen posts every day on her Helen Lowe on Anything, Really
blog and is a regular Tuesday Poem contributor. You can also
follow her on Twitter: @helenl0we
Enjoy more wonderful poems from our Tuesday Poem contributors by navigating the left side bar.
A message from co-curators Mary McCallum and Claire Beynon: Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year to everyone who contributes to Tuesday Poem and everyone who supports and comes to visit, especially our regulars. We are grateful to you all for helping keep this wonderful poetry community vigorous, challenging and satisfying. What treats we've had this year - poems from all over and insightful personal commentaries that have shed new light on them. Based in New Zealand as we are, we are taking a summer holiday break until Tuesday January 22. See you then!