Review of Breaking the Surface

I’m delighted with Will Yeoman’s review of my book of poems Breaking the Surface, which he describes as “a beautiful, sad, funny and technically dazzling collection.” The full review appears on Writing WA’s Substack, and I gratefully reproduce most of it here:

Perth-based author and poet Ian Reid writes of his fine new collection Breaking the Surface (Ginninderra Press), “This volume celebrates my return to the genre of poetry after a decade-long deviation into fiction, which included five novels along with numerous short stories.”

Readers familiar with Reid’s fiction will know that a deviation does not mean a forsaking of the poetic faculty, with novels such as The End of Longing (UWA Publishing) exhibiting a keen sense of rhythm and a marked tendency towards lyrical outbursts amongst the desiccations and depredations of history.

In one sense, then, Breaking the Surface represents a resurfacing of sorts; and indeed, notions of liminality and of the sublimated and the subliminal, of psychic thresholds, are given concrete expression in bodies of water, bodies of land, and, of course, the bodies of living creatures.

All such potentially weighty subjects are borne aloft by witty wordplay (puns aplenty!), amusing aphoristic utterances and a discreet musicality.

The poems are grouped into six generous sections. Take the first, Ruffled Edges: itself an ocean teeming with memories, reveries, losses personal and environmental, intimations of mortality and embodiment as a way of doing philosophy. Listen to this final stanza of Long after landfall:

You paddle over pebbles, bones of contentment

sucked at by sea lip: gleaming, outlandish

till waves withdraw, leave them to sun and sand.

Lustre drains away. They are dingy stones.

Belonging is an elementary matter.

Longing is what’s left. It’s on the ebb.

Shades of Shakespeare via Prufrock, alliteration and half-rhymes (“paddle over pebbles” has both for the price of one!), insistent caesurae… there’s a lot going on here. And the last line is a killer.

Compare this with the opening lines of the hilarious (but not) All thumbs from a later section, Filial Shadows:

The cleverest human features

come in pairs

like eyes and ears

like testicles and breasts

and so too with opposable digits

supposed to be the most

definitive trick of our species

a smart device that assists

fine motor skills and brings

precision to our fidgets

A lovely use of two- and three-beat lines and the full-and-half-rhyme line endings of digits/assists/fidgets underscores the comedy and the tragedy. The poem ends with Reid watching his grandchildren, “the first generation ever/to write with both of their thumbs.”

The collection’s first poem Wherever the body is and one of the last, The cat’s whiskers, are very different poems and yet equally heartbreaking. As, indeed, is the very last, De profundis, which for those who know WA Museum Boola Bardip’s Blue Whale will take on even greater resonance. Here’s the first stanza:

Some beings can’t long survive

above the surface.

Some singing belongs in the depths,

spreading and sinking fathoms down.

But it could also serve as Reid’s Ars Poetica. Either way, it’s a fitting close to a beautiful, sad, funny and technically dazzling collection.

2 thoughts on “Review of Breaking the Surface

  1. Thank you, Denise. Very few reviews of poetry get published nowadays, and those that do appear are often perfunctory, so I’m particularly pleased that Will Yeoman’s comments are so attentive to details of language.

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