SHIRLEY MARAIS is delighted by Hailey Gaunt’s debut poetry collection.
The cover of My Life on Legs — featuring a delicate etymological plate by Andrew Breitenberg, beautifully positioned on a background of palest “mint-moss green” (Morning walk) — give a sense of the poems and themes inside this collection: detailed, in-the-moment, idiosyncratic insights into Gaunt’s relationships with friends and family, and her relationship to the natural world, filtered through the stained-glass wings of her poetic mind.
The collection takes its name from a line in Morning walk, which ends with a picture that makes you draw your breath in, quite literally:
I want to shed my clothes, shoes,
my life on legs,
throw my body back,
leave the whole shell of it behind
shoot across the wave in one wet line.
I am struck how Gaunt quite naturally and easily uses phrases and lines like ‘magical happenstance’ (The beginning), ‘effulgent runway’ (A pledge) and ‘playing at rumbunctious games’ (At the pool) without ever being pretentious or ostentatious, because she is so consistent – and so consistently and beautifully precise – in her careful stitching of these poems. Her consummate use of language serves the intricacy and detail of her narrative imagery, adding bright points of light, rather than weighing her work down.
Her relationship with her world, and the people in it, is so intriguingly detailed and reverent, as to invite unselfconscious participation from the reader, even in her most intimate poems:
And I tell you something else —
part apology, declaration, pact:
“I’m willing to start over
as many times as we have to.”
This poet is not afraid of intimacy, but never jolts the reader, except very gently – I am thinking particularly of the line ‘rude and kind as a tongue’ (from Patronage), which speaks of her father’s habit of pushing a roll of banknotes into her hand as he says goodbye, and the last stanza of Caress:
And I’d slip between each adult embrace,
minnow my hands in a parting prayer –
it was around that time I prayed
the small, stiff buds back into my chest.
Although gentle, Gaunt’s work is neither bland nor predictable. Each carefully crafted poem holds the reader to the end and makes one want to go back later and read it again. The narratives are full of surprises and pictures that turn the everyday into the extraordinary, as in For the first time (second and third stanzas):
Turning it over,
I stare through the shell and soft wall
to a place within,
and somehow I’ve slipped
into terrifying territory – and yet,
my body softens.
I see a tiny hand
spread like a star
and all over as delicate
as the traces
of a nail’s paper rim:
Gaunt’s work is proof that being strongly rooted in ordinary ‘middle-class’ life and sound, loving relationships – so apparent from the many poems about her lover and her father (the ‘great-big fix-anything move-the-earth father’ in He can’t hear) – can also be fertile ground for beautiful poetry.
The exchange is one of my favourite pieces in this collection. Like many of Gaunt’s poems, it is so rich in both inner and outer detail that it plays out like a densely woven art nouveau movie in miniature. Here is the final stanza of the poem:
She says nothing but her free hand
sweeps my wrist in a gesture so succinct,
barely perceptible and without a name.
I turn back to the bookstore and cover my wrist.
Now I am bursting, burning full of words –
oh, but I would give them up!
I certainly hope it will not be Gaunt’s last collection of poetry. I find myself constantly returning to the book to look again for a phrase, a word, an image, that I want to re-meet and re-explore. I hope she will continue to burn and burst with words, and give them up – to paper.
My Life on Legs is published by Aerial Publishing.