Susan Varga, Rupture. Perth, Western Australia: UWA Publishing 2016. RRP: $22.99, 104pp. ISBN: 9781742589091
Rupture is the first book of poems from the award-winning writer Susan Varga. It was written in the aftermath of a debilitating stroke, and many of the poems foreground Varga’s recovery. Also included are meditations on love and friendship, on nature, and on notions of home and memory. There is a persistent questioning of identity throughout and in particular, how a writer’s identity is challenged when she loses her ability to marshal language. As she asks in the collection’s second poem, ‘Different Strokes’: ‘Where are words? / If they are gone for good / who am I?’ Later in the same poem, on her return to hospital following a home visit, we learn that:
Back in the hospital I write
this for the therapist:
Dogs – Sasah, Boidie, Gi–gr
See new house – galde
A day big’
Varga’s aphasia was real—the language dysfunction was caused by the harm done to her brain during the stroke—and it is moving to see her inarticulacy presented on the page for what it is. One can only imagine the enormous effort required to speak and to write anything at all, let alone to begin again to form comprehensible sentences. But the writer does not wish ‘simply’ to be comprehended: she wants to make sense of the world. From the poem ‘Afterstroke’:
My stroke – own it –
blasted a hole in my brain.
Sounds, words, sentences
disappear like tumbleweed.
multi-syli-babble words –
now baleful enemies
Tiny connections making sense
of the world, and myself,
Clearly ‘Afterstroke’ was written some way into the recovery, or was revised at such time that command of language had returned, but it is no less an affecting, candid poem for that. Varga’s first poem following her stroke, dated December 30, 2011, was ‘First Poem’, here quoted in full:
An old garden seat,
a new bed of plants
flowering into the New Year.
Old fears, new fears.
Small shoots of thought
Help me words –
you always have.
In the context of the book the ‘(s)mall shoots of thought’ is a terrific line: thought has continued after the stroke, but only now are its shoots pushing up through darkness, into the world, as words and sentences; a sense of dormancy, of deep frustration at having been ‘locked-in’ is now breaking. Elsewhere in Rupture, words are invoked as ‘weapons’. For example in ‘Enemy’, a poem addressed to her pain, Varga writes: ‘By day I hold up words / like crosses – my holy weapons’. The importance of making sense—and of parcelling sense making into poems—is everywhere apparent in the collection.
Varga writes free verse, employing a variety of line lengths. My preference is for her shorter, sparer line where the image seems more distilled, the effect more powerful. In a ‘View from the Study’, a poem reminiscent of William Carlos Williams’ ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ for example, the image of the ‘thing itself’ settles quickly in the reader’s mind, and resonates there. Again it is short enough to quote in full:
in the foreground.
An old tree cascades
In the home paddock
a day-old calf
In the chook yard
five new eggs!
My only reservation here would be the exclamation mark, which is redundant: the poem has done its work already.
On occasion Varga’s longer line misses the compression evidenced above. For example, in ‘Refuge’, though a poem ranging through important content, the language lags behind:
Forty years ago, we slept on the floor
of a small fibro house scrounged
from the Housing Commission.
We called it Bonnie’s
for the first desperate women
to fall in the door, trailing kids.
The content is of interest, and remains so throughout the poem’s three parts, but it would not have been significantly different had it been laid out in prose; the form seems arbitrary.
Finally, I want briefly to mention the generosity in Varga’s work. She writes of friends and animals—especially dogs—with affection, and mostly a clear eye. ‘The Ward Quartet’, which appears early in the book, shows how quickly after her stroke she turned her attention, and her curiosity, to the fate of others; it is the writer’s brain, seemingly indomitable, moving into gear.
When a writer can no longer use language we lose her unique, practised perspective from the world. Susan Varga has been to that place, but she did not stay there. In some ways, Rupture is the report written on behalf of grateful readers, such as me, who hope not to visit this particular misfortune for themselves. It is a rewarding, brave, and insightful collection of poems.
Craig Billingham’s poems, stories and reviews have appeared widely, including in Meanjin, Australian Book Review, Southerly, and most recently on Verity La. A collection of poems, Storytelling, was published in 2007. He is a Doctor of Arts candidate at the University of Sydney.