Cold Water Cure by Claire Orchard

Cold Water Cure. Claire Orchard (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2016). ISBN 9781776560578. RRP $25. 112pp.

Reviewed by Maia Armistead

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Cold Water Cure, Claire Orchard’s debut poetry collection is, on its face, a series of poems about Charles Darwin during his time working on The Origin of Species. Orchard takes inspiration from his notebooks and letters, viewing his life and character through the eyes of his wife and other figures from his personal history.

Orchard reaches far across history and culture for inspiration, and this eclectic myriad of voices rings loud throughout the book. From the opening found poem taken from an All Blacks interview post-game, to a piece of advice given from a father to a daughter, Orchard’s strength is her ability to link these dramatically different settings and tones together, and then string them into a cohesive story that remains emotionally taut.

In the middle section of Cold Water Cure, Orchard’s and Darwin’s words and worlds lie side by side, woven together seamlessly, as Orchard tells Darwin’s story through the lens of her own eyes nearly two centuries later. In the poem “In the library with Darwin’s red notebook”, Orchard endeavours to understand Darwin’s writing, and spends the rest of Cold Water Cure colouring the gaps of his character.

You underlined gradual with a firm stroke,
Scored another word until it was unreadable. So we go
On, you retreating as I advance over pebbles, beached somewhere
You do not name, in the air a tang of distance and discovery

By paralleling the eclectic and sometimes sad life of Charles Darwin with her own experiences, Orchard manages to create something that transcends history or biography, weaving a thread of humanity between the somewhat inaccessible past, and the mundane reality of the present that we all understand. Her references don’t feel contrived. Instead, they feel natural. Orchard achieves a story that is more than biographical and creates a world with details spanning past, present, and future.

Along with the references that permeate Cold Water Cure, Orchard dances between perspectives, making her poetry collection an adventure through the innermost thoughts of all kinds of people. She shifts through a range of viewpoints, from a five-year-old observing their own growth in terms of the shrinking gaps between words, to a collection of figures from Darwin’s life. In “We’re all five”, Orchard captures the changeability of childhood:

Time was we didn’t know the names for things but now we’re
Utterly absorbed by placing cubes in rows and counting them, with
Variegating paintings of our favourite things, at least until we’re thinking
We’d like to go home soon.

Orchard writes her cast of characters in a grounded way that surpasses mere history. By capturing the internal monologues and deepest thoughts of her subjects, Orchard allows the reader to feel a wide scope of human emotion. In this way, Cold Water Cure is a story that celebrates the everyday. At times, it is also a story that shocks with its ability to extract strong emotion and nostalgia for the oft-forgotten moments of life.

Some of the most powerful poems in Cold Water Cure are the ones that document life’s unexceptional moments, such as ‘History’, where Orchard listens to the radio and hears the voice of a boy she used to go to school with. Reality and memory blend together in many of Orchard’s poems, and it’s always interesting to read on and discover whose head you’re going to get a glimpse into next.

Cold Water Cure has integrity beyond its status as a debut. It doesn’t shy away from bluntness or open spaces, trusting the reader to keep up with a story that jumps between centuries, from head to head, past to present. I would recommend Cold Water Cure to any reader who enjoys poetry that finds beauty and meaning in the everyday aspects of life. Its portrayal of life and memory is consistently natural and visceral, and I leave Cold Water Cure feeling as though I had travelled a long way and heard many different stories throughout my journey.


Maia Armistead is a Year 13 student from Hamilton. She loves music and books, and can probably be found listening to Joni Mitchell or obsessively reading in order to fulfil her 2020 challenge to finish 50 books.

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