When Ross asked me to launch his third poetry collection “How To Sleep with Strangers” I was faced with a dilemma. His two earlier self-help books, “The Gentle Art of Rotting” and “Pretending to be Dead” had failed to deliver on their promise to help me rot with dignity, or fake my own death.
I was reminded of that great man for all seasons, Homer Simpson who said: “Books are useless! I only ever read one book, ‘To Kill A Mockingbird,’ and it gave me absolutely no insight on how to kill mockingbirds! Sure it taught me not to judge a man by the color of his skin… but what good does that do me?”
So it was with some reluctance I agreed to read “How To Sleep With Strangers” and judge for myself if there was anything worth learning contained within its covers.
Let’s start with the cover. The lettering in bold red, announcing the title to the world. The image, from a painting by Ross’ brother Paul, abstract (or is it a mosquito?) unsettling, hinting at uncomfortable intimacies that refuse to be kept at arm’s length. On the back, further warnings from Iggy McGovern & Elizabeth Knox. “Minefield of human relations…” “…something terribly sad and shocking.” Even before opening it or reading a single poem we know this book may, in the words of Heaney “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”
The book is dedicated to Sarah Lundberg. Many here remember Sarah and the tireless work she did within the artistic community. Her presence and absence stay with us. Her company 7Towers published 23 books in eight years, and Ross was one of those privileged to have her creative support and encouragement. She was his mentor and she was his friend. She is everywhere in the collection.
There are 44 poems in here, all very Ross-like. What do I mean by Ross-like? Well, there are puns and word play and tankas galore. Lines are typically very short, and there’s no messing about with superfluous descriptions, though he does like a bit of repetition evey now and then. But it’s always to the point. Ross always keeps to the point.
The poems cover a wide range of subjects, from a compost heap-
(‘..the endless love gifts
of peeled skin:
potato and parsnip,
carrot and banana
and apple and orange.
All the fossils of caring.’)
… to the inside of the poet’s eyes-
(‘..Sometimes I see
behind my eyelids,….
….There are many rooms
in the house of my eyelids.’)
….from an abandoned coalmine at Arigna-
(‘The best time
to go to a coalmine
is in the winter.
Just to see
how it was
to do this job
in the dark
in the cold…’)
…to speculative physics (that one’s five pages of Ross letting a knitting pun lose the run of itself. It’s a ripping yarn.)
…from shopping for poetry ingredients,
(‘..value pack clichès
…one litre pathos, sugar free’)
…to an amazing cluster or colony of tanka poems that all riff on Paua as power. A paua is a large shellfish that is very popular in NZ, both as food and as decoration. So we have “At the Paua table,” “The Paua of Love” and “The Paua and the Glory”, to name but a few. There are eight in all. Those of you now throwing your eyes up to heaven or panicking at the thought of Ross losing the pun of himself, I feel your pain, but fear not. The sequnce is quite brilliant and can handle the pun.
There are also two poems tucked into the collection that display a disturbing lack of respect for the national treasure that is WB Yeats. Tsk.Tsk.
And then there are the poems about love, life, and loss; those scary, arkward, intimate themes that demand and hold our attention, ultimately giving this collection its beating heart, its unique resonance and timbre.
(‘This is not about
that’s a rational fact,
as well to fear the sky.
This is grief,
pure and clear.
I can’t put it away
and bring it out for Christmas’)
So what would Homer Simpson have made of ‘How To Sleep With Strangers’? What insight would he have learned?
Well, nothing and everything. If he were looking for tips on how to score at Copperface Jacks, he would need to head to another section of the book shop. But if he dared to see the stranger as himself, see that no matter how intimately he thinks he knows himself (“You wake up to realise/ there is someone in the bed/ who you don’t know, /no matter how long they have been there”) this book will shed light on the art of learning how to live with a self that is both familiar and strange, both intimate and distant, both grieving for what is lost, and embracing what has been given.
(‘… But something now
is calling us back,
with no need
to fear need,
no known advantage.
and too hard
This tumbledown communion
calling us home.’)
Thank you Ross for the privilege of launching your wonderful collection, and a huge shout out to Liz McSkeane and Turas Press. It takes courage to write a book, and it takes courage to publish one too.
I’ll leave one of my favourite poems in the collection to have the last word: “All The Things That Stay.”
Irish Writers’ Centre, September 4th, 2017