Erebus (2015)

Jack Ross, ed.: Poetry NZ Yearbook 2 [Issue #50] (November 2015)


Jane Summer. Erebus. ISBN 978-1-937420-90-1. Little Rock, Arkansas: Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014. RRP $US 24.95. 185 pp.

Jane Summer: Erebus (2014)

I suppose that it’s natural enough that I should have started off by regarding this book with a certain suspicion. Not only do most New Zealanders regard the Erebus tragedy as somehow “ours” – there’s also the fact that it’s already been written about at length in Bill Sewell’s Erebus: A Poem (1999).

I find myself coming back to that point from Robert Sullivan: “the need to represent one’s own stories” [from the interview on p.27 of this issue].

I’m glad to say, however, that I now feel that I was completely wrong in this case. Not only is American writer Jane Summer conscious of this need to establish the right to deal with such subject matter, but she handles the whole issue with a deftness and skill one can only envy.
A yankee, I’ve been

so out of it for so many years
I’m not even sure

if I lost Kay in that
crash or she lost me [p.19]
Her poem is, in essence, a love letter to a lost friend, a friend (and, as we gradually intuit, lover) killed in the Erebus disaster.

She ties together the various knots of her narrative with intricate precision: a “three-month junket / to Australia and New Zealand – / bush vigor, tainted colonialism” [p.23] (I love that description of us: is it the Australians who have the vigour, and we the taint? Or do both pertain to both?) in 1990 fails to spark any memories of Kay’s death in 1979, and even an “Awful dream: X dies in Alps crash / + I say maybe they’ll find her / preserved by the cold but everyone / says I’m fooling myself + my loss / feels inconsolable” [p.30] does not remind her of it.

Why not? Well, there’s the rub. I could tell you, but you’d miss the best part of her story, her gradually unfolding life-lies and comforting delusions. For once, I think I won’t issue a spoiler alert, but simply recommend you to the book itself.

Allen Ginsberg’s great poem Kaddish (1961), a howl of grief for his dead mother Naomi, or Paul Muldoon’s “Incantata,” (from his 1994 book The Annals of Chile) for his ex-lover, the artist Mary Farl Powers, are the kind of company Erebus keeps. Nor does Summer have anything to fear from the comparison.

Both Ginsberg and Muldoon innovate technically with a kind of desperate, heart-felt intensity, transcending any suspicion of too much interest in the machinery of their poems.

So, too, in Summer’s book, the collaging of log books, the interspersed witness testimonies, the long passages of straightforward verse narrative, never strain our compassion or test our patience.

It’s hard to imagine a reader who couldn’t empathise with the sheer power of Summer’s bereavement: the life that she could have had, the wound so deep it’s taken this long even to begin to deal with it.

I feel this is a book I’ll keep going back to, and recommend to many friends. It’s true; it’s unpretentious; it’s written with a casual precision that belies the skill behind it. It is, in short, I firmly believe, something of a wonder.


Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2 [Issue #50]. ISSN 0114-5770 (2014): 262-63.

[539 wds]

Poetry NZ Yearbook 2 (2015)

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