At almost 90, Christchurch poet, lifelong environmentalist, tramper and gardener, and former Eastbourne mayor Elaine Jakobsson (pen name Helen Jacobs) has published a new poetry collection with the wonderful title Withstanding.
There are a multitude of ways to stand, all of which nourish the theme of the collection: age. Withstanding takes a clear-eyed look at the joys and difficulties of standing up, standing down, standing with, standing for, taking a stand, longstanding, understanding and, most of all, how to stand it.
Writing poems, for me, is a way of thinking about my life and interpreting it, summarising it, and as I age so my poetry takes on different themes, which might or might not be relevant to others who are also aging … I am always delighted when others find something in them.” Elaine Jakobsson (aka Helen Jacobs)
On the land, autumn is the most poignant season. It’s a time of rich harvest, yet simultaneously a time of retreat rather than expansion, and it’s the season of harbingers – intimations of the winter to come. So too, autumn in the body. The poems in Withstanding are rooted in this tender paradox:
Plenitude, you think / but it has its own asceticism /autumn, /and warning signs – red for the sap receding, /a reduction to bone.” (“Signs.“)
But a poem like “Shrink-wrap” supplies the counter-melody of joy and celebration which wends through the collection:
Even as space and time close in, / embrace what is offering daily … “
Withstanding might be described as a close examination of the effect of age-induced mobility loss on perceptions of space and time. In the poem “Fragment in wind”, for example, an old woman “floats” in her chair, all senses open, remembering. Crafted with beautiful accuracy, these poems call attention to changes in the relationship of the personal self to space (shrinking from landscape to street to garden to room) and time. Calendar time is represented, as is memory, but even more fundamentally the work is infused with a deep sense of planetary time, which moves the poetry in quiet but insistent rhythms. Behind the particular poem is always the sense of its place in a cycle of seasons, tides, gain and loss, light and dark. Very often the result is a crystalline focus on the here and now:
It is something / to show my friend / the new clematis / springing up the trellis, / catching on, / blatant in white.” (“Making a go of it.”)
Many of the poems speak of coming to know the body differently in old age. In “Legs”, for example, Jacobs traces the forging of a new relationship with her once strong, now untrustworthy, legs.
There is a memory of the agility of legs;
the recent rhythmic walks we took
on coast roads and through bush.
I go back to the tumble times of childhood
and all the running, sliding, dancing
and skipping; to the city pavements,
to sand walks, to the the glide through waves.
I used to kneel to weed, and stamp
on the spade.
I trusted them, my legs, on a bicycle,
over hills, anywhere.
It is now my turn to care for them,
coax them to slow progress, give them aids,
endear them back for a little longer.
Age may have limited Jacob’s ability to roam by foot, but her inner terrain is wide, interesting and well worth visiting. I recommend a stroll through the “mindlight” of this vivid, nimble collection.
Sue Wootton is co-editor of Corpus.