How to Live by Helen Rickerby

How to Live. Helen Rickerby (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2019). ISBN 9781869409050. RRP $25. 96pp.

Reviewed by Xiaole Zhan


‘You don’t just learn to read one time, but over and over again.’ (“How to live”).

How to Live is a wonderfully jigsawed exploration of silenced women’s voices, the big philosophical questions, and the acrobatic possibilities of poetic form. I mean ‘jigsawed’ in the most tactile and joyful sense of the word — these are poems made to be grappled with both hands, to be constantly assembled and reassembled to reveal new inflections and voicings. From a humorously poignant prose poem outlining the existential quandary posed by Rickerby’s fork collection, to a fifteen-paged ‘deconstructed biography’ detailing the life of Victorian novelist George Eliot, the sparkling invention alive throughout Rickerby’s collection made me learn about, and fall in love with, reading over and over again.

You don’t have to be silent
but I am telling you a story


I choose what to put on
what to take off

and who
(“A pillow book”)

At the heart of this collection is voice; Rickerby’s own full-blooded voice in conversation with the voices of the ‘unsilent women’ throughout history — Hipparchia of Maroneia, Sei Shōnagon, Ban Zhao, Sisi of Austria, George Eliot, and Mary Shelley. Rickerby is a storyteller in the truest sense of the word; her poems are often ‘told’ directly to the reader, ‘you’, with wit, red-hearted honesty, self-awareness, and vulnerability. I think this is the strength of Rickerby’s poetry and what makes every sentence of every page so immersive and enjoyable. The reader feels as if part of a natural conversation where self-reflexive irony — ‘I say / I hate hypocrisy above all things, and immediately / start thinking of things I hate more.’ — can transition effortlessly into sincerity: ‘How can something that has / been said so many times still have any meaning? And / yet, I love you.’ (“How to Live”).

5. But I do have something to say. I want to say that she
lived. I want to say that she lived, and she spoke and she
was not silent.
(“Notes on the unsilent woman”)

A conversation, however, ‘…requires both voice and silence… Speaking and being heard.’ (“Notes on the unsilent woman”). Rickerby interrogates the different shades of silence found when searching for the voices of women: ‘Silence isn’t always not speaking. Silence is sometimes an erasure.’ (“Notes on the unsilent woman”). The erasure of women’s voices is strikingly embodied in the empty space that fills half a page, representing ‘what we have left of what Hipparchia wrote.’ (“Notes on the unsilent woman”).

However, Rickerby explores the other kind of silence, too, that of listening. Her words are richly informed by voices throughout literature, philosophy, and history; they are always listening. The title poem, ‘How to Live’, is inspired by the same lyrical intuitiveness as Lyn Hejinian’s My Life and seamlessly interweaves other’s voices in conversation with Rickerby’s own voice through italicised quotes. This quality of ‘listening’ allows Rickerby to push the boundaries of poetic form; there are very few ‘poem-y’ poems in the collection. The poetic, essayistic, and philosophical, intertwine electrically to examine what it means for a woman to speak and be listened to.

Xiaole Zhan is studying Music alongside Creative Writing in Melbourne. Her life often circles incidentally around a temporary theme/ phrase which is currently ferocious concentration — a remark on some Chopin she’s currently playing.

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