Author(s): Ashleigh Young
In her latest poetry collection How I Get Ready, Ashleigh Young fails to learn to drive, vanishes from the fossil record, and finally finishes writing a book.
An Ashleigh Young poem is a world: hospitable, strange, a little off kilter. The poems in How I Get Ready bristle with humour and curiosity; they are idiosyncratically observant and keenly empathetic. That empathy is extended to the reader – the poems confide and beguile, providing access not just to the speaker’s travails but also to those of lives remote in history: the compulsive disorder of a sensitive young man living in the early 20th Century, for example, or the emotional anguish of the late medieval mystic, Margery Kempe.
Every time, when reading or when writing, that we come to the end of a sentence or, in poetry, a line, we come to a point at which our continuation, the continuation of the text, our continued inhabitation of the text or vice-versa, is suddenly less certain, less than certain, perhaps quite uncertain, there is a break, a space, a moment of hesitation or panic — or relief — before we continue, before the text continues, before we jolt back onto the rails of the text and hurtle on, or feel our way along, towards the next uncertainty. All text is, under all else that it is, an essay in the movement through time, an essay in the prolongment of the self, so to call it, an essay in continuation, a triumph of audacity over doubt. The poems in Ashleigh Young’s new collection can be read as hesitations arrayed upon racks of words. They often have unpunctuated breaks — spaces — within a line, in addition to line breaks, stanza breaks, full stops, commas and all the rest, creating almost a stammer, a poetry of hesitation, of feeling for the right word or phrase or sense or image to continue. “But he had / this way of talking, like his voice doesn’t quite know // how to come out of his face. Why does he have to stare / at the ground, when he is among friends? You can have patience / with someone’s struggles for a length of time / but not for much longer than one minute.” But it is, as well, despite and because of this, a poetry of continuation, of the overcoming of impediments and doubts. It is not for nothing that the image of Young riding — wriding — her bicycle appears in so many of these poems: the momentum of the riding/writing carries her and us on through the gaps under which yawn uncertainty and anxiety. We hesitate, take notice, and are carried on. As with Young’s memorable and subtle essay collection Can You Tolerate This? (>>read my review of this here), How I Get Ready touches, when passing, subjects that would just cause pain if approached head-on, and Young's humour is at once playful (has poeticism ever been more subtly satirised than with the words “the leaf-blowered path”?) and sensitively descriptive of the masses with which it avoids collision. The momentum of the poems also holds together — and sometimes only just holds together — the closely noticed image-fragments that comprise them, an experience like riding a bicycle over a scattering of acorns and noticing the tiny explosions as each one is crushed by the bicycle’s tyres (the ‘I’ of the poems is too close to see other than what she sees), and the poems, like the experiences they embody (whether they record them or induce them), are often precarious, just pulling together, or almost pulling apart. “Which one of you is going to / stand up / in full sentences / and which one is going to / do the helpless dance”. This precarity is sometimes perhaps due to the tendency of an internal state to overwhelm an external circumstance, even though this is often paradoxically experienced as an external circumstance threatening to overwhelm an internal state. This disjuncture between the ‘internal’ and the ‘external’ provides much of the vigorous tension in many of the poems — some of which intensify towards a panic which is left unresolved, unresolvable, but left behind — and it is Young’s frankness about the chaotic tendencies of images, of noticing, together with her awareness of the performative approaches that make life liveable, that point a hesitant way towards a poetry and a life that is both possible and authentic. The last and title poem of the book, ‘How I Get Ready’, deals with the “pure, bitter difficulty” of getting ready to go out into the world, of Young’s going-out clothes “ironed smooth, laid out like a disappearance.” Her continued existence in that world is uncertain: “I can see I am not getting ready at all; if anything / I am getting unready.”
Shortlisted for the Ockham NZ Book Awards - Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry 2020
Ashleigh Young is the author of the poetry collection Magnificent Moon (VUP, 2012), and the essay collection Can You Tolerate This? (VUP, 2016) which won a Windham-Campbell Prize from Yale University and the Royal Society Te Aparangi Award for General Non-Fiction in 2017. She works as an editor and lives in Wellington.