Susan Varga, a writer of fiction and nonfiction, turns her hand to poetry in this collection documenting her recovery from a stroke. Rupture is divided into six sections. The first, “Masterstroke”, is undoubtedly the strongest. The poems here demonstrate a poetic sense of the shifting meanings of words – one that seems particularly poignant given how the stroke unsettles the poet’s grasp on language.
“Different Strokes”, for instance, begins with the lines: “A stroke of luck. / Someone was there / to help.” In Emergency, the medical staff “stroke / my right arm”. Undergoing rehabilitation, the poet strokes “weakly through / tepid water in the Rehab pool”. Home again, the poet strokes her dogs, even though her “right hand can’t / feel their fine fur”.
In “Afterstroke”, we read how the stroke has “blasted a hole in my brain. / Sounds, words, sentences / disappear like tumbleweed.” The poet angrily reflects: “With a stroke of the pen / my writer’s life erased.”
Another standout poem in this first section is “The Ward Quartet”, comprising striking and unsentimental portraits of other patients. There is the woman, with “hair dressed, make-up perfected, / china-blue eyes”, attended to by her boyfriend, who is “pushing eighty” and “old school”. Admitted for minor strokes, she “holds court” in the dining room with her “blonded hair, / blue dressing-gown refulgent / among the broken-down blokes / waiting for the midday meal”. By the end “she has stopped speaking” and lies in her bed “waiting to be disposed of”.
These poems are brutal but also moving in their images of human frailty. However, most of the others in this collection are far less compelling and less well crafted, sometimes even resembling diaristic jottings. The opening lines of “Going Home” – “Home, so familiar. / So strange. / Home hasn’t changed. / I have.” – are far from hard won. The character sketch “Michael” follows the stereotypical path of adjectives: “Garrulous, morose, / brilliant, learned, / loveable.” The riddle-like “What is it?” concludes by destroying reflection: “It’s called Fear. / That’s what it’s called. / Fear.” “Sarah’s Dilemma” anthropomorphises a dog in a facile manner: “The smells at every tree, post / corner, the pats of passers by. / Everything new, everything exciting!”
These poems, prosaic and accessible, will appeal to some readers. However, lovers of more rigorous poetry might find much of Varga’s collection wanting. KN
UWA Publishing, 104pp, $22.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 3, 2016 as "Susan Varga, Rupture". Subscribe here.