Saturday, April 20, 2013

Dreamtigers: i.m. Sarah Broom

[Sarah Broom (2012)]

I heard some really bad news yesterday.

I got an email from her husband Michael Gleissner saying that my friend Sarah Broom had died on Thursday, finally losing her long battle with cancer.

It's not that the news was unexpected. Sarah's struggle with the disease had been protracted and courageous, but - though none of us really wanted to admit it - there was never any real prospect of a cure. Month after month, year after year, we received emails telling us of the latest experimental program she was on, the latest series of flights overseas to try one more wonder drug.

As a young mother, Sarah knew that every moment with her children and family was precious. She never faltered or flagged in that duty, tempting though it must have seemed at times just to give up and let go. She never did.

[Sarah Broom: Contemporary British and Irish Poetry
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2006)]

I first met Sarah about ten years or so ago, when she came to take up a Post-doctoral fellowship at Massey Albany. She'd just finished the PhD research which would eventually become her first book, Contemporary British and Irish Poetry: An Introduction (2006), and I suppose I was one of the few people there who'd even heard of some of the poets she'd been studying. We shared a love of craggy British poet Peter Reading - it was, however, she who converted me to the great and powerful Paul Muldoon.

She left to take up a lectureship in English at Otago University, but gave it up after a year. I must confess that it wasn't till then that I understood that, while literary-critical research was important to her - and she was indeed a very fine critic, as I said in my Poetry New Zealand review of her book (reprinted here) - what she wanted above all to be was a published poet in her own right.

[Sarah Broom: Tigers at Awhitu (Auckland: AUP, 2010)]

I remember her showing me the initial drafts of what would become Tigers at Awhitu (2010), and my slightly ambivalent reaction to it. Her poems seemed - I have to admit it - a bit old-fashioned to me, a bit well-behaved, well-rounded, British. By the time the book eventually appeared, though, it was a very different proposition. Quite a few of those earlier poems remained, but they had been supplemented by a section of poems about her disease - wilder, stranger poems, culminating in the title piece "Tigers at Awhitu":

tiger, why do you hide?

my fur is matted
and mangy, my face
is raw, there's red
under my claws

tiger, have you killed?

no, not for weeks
of stony days
and vagrant nights

tiger, why do you cry?

I cannot say

I think my heart
was left unwatched
and opened,
secretly, rashly,
like a flower in the night

sleep, tiger, sleep
sleep and let it be

tiger hearts can take a lot

of love


Is the tiger cancer? No, nothing as simple and reductionist as that - but it is (perhaps) a symbol of the unpredictable forces of nature: those which smile or frown on us seemingly at whim. The power of the poem lies in its suggestiveness, its unpredictability: "And when I have found enough wildness / I lie down right inside it / and sleep" [p.69].

I saw Sarah last at the Korero exhibition last year. Twenty poets had been matched with twenty artists, each of them taking inspiration from a single poem. The artist Sarah had been paired with chose "Tigers at Awhitu," and - as I recall - produced a very beautiful driftwood sculpture to evoke its magnificent setting at the head of the Manukau Harbour.

We had a nice chat about that; about, also, the great success of her book, both here and in the UK, where it had been published simultaneously by Carcanet Press (characteristically, Sarah asked me if I'd like a copy of the British edition to go with the New Zealand one - she knew that with my bibliographic obsessiveness, I'd like to have both versions on my shelves: and so I do):

[Sarah Broom: Tigers at Awhitu (Manchester: Carcanet, 2010)]

  1. Broom, Sarah. Contemporary British and Irish Poetry: An Introduction. Houndsmill, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
  2. Broom, Sarah. Tigers at Awhitu. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2010.
  3. Broom, Sarah. Tigers at Awhitu. 2010. Oxford Poets. Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010.

I remember also, shortly before her collection appeared, when it had been accepted by both publishers, but was still in that limbo that poetry books inhabit before they come bursting out on the scene like phoenixes, I invited Sarah to take part in a poetry reading at Massey Albany.

The reading was for our stage one Creative Writing class (the other readers were Jen Crawford, Thérèse Lloyd, Lee Posna and Michael Steven). Sarah admitted to me that it was her first formal poetry reading, which should give you some idea of how long she'd been waiting for her work to be recognised. She must have got a lot more habituated to poetry readings after that - from 2010 onwards, the name Sarah Broom was on every list of up-and-coming young poets in New Zealand.

I'll never forget what she did on that first occasion, though. She started off by reading Stevie Smith's famous poem "Not Waving But Drowning", then segued into her own response to the poem, "All my life" (now available on the Tuesday Poem website). It seems somehow terribly apposite now, more even than it did at the time:

and yes he was
drowning, not waving, now we know,
and isn’t it hard to tell?

[Sarah Broom]
[photograph: Shane Wenzlick (2010)]

In Memory of
SARAH BROOM (1972-2013)

Wife of Michael

Mother of
Daniel, Christopher & Amelia

Author of
Contemporary British and Irish Poetry: An Introduction (2006)
Tigers at Awhitu (2010)
& (hopefully forthcoming soon):
Gleam (2013)

Rest in peace, Sarah:

sleep, tiger, sleep
sleep and let it be

Sarah Broom - St Lukes, Remuera
(23rd April 2013)