Cloudboy by Siobhan Harvey
(Otago University Press, 2014)
Review by Arielle Walker
Every Cloudboy should have a Cloudmother. In her latest poetry collection, Cloudboy, Siobhan Harvey gives us a remarkable, sensitive insight into the journey of an autistic child and his mother. The title goes beyond a single, grasped moment from within the book; rather every poem is infused with the language of cloud-matter.
Split into chronological chapters, Cloudboy opens onto a mirrored pair of poems, setting the scene for the rest of the book. Cloudboy and Cloudmother have good days and bad, and these are reflected in the lines that change from “Cumulus” (the first poem) to “Cumulonimbus” (the second): ‘The body is a nest alive with new song’ becomes ‘The body is a hive buzzing with electricity’, while arms ‘open to embrace’ shift into fists that ‘come clenched and swinging’. The rest of the chapter continues this exploration of Cloudboy and his relationship with both his mother and the outside world. We witness later as mother and son share the open air, inventing stories in the sky:
He tells me a cloud is
A hot air balloon, a shoal,
A sky swimming street.
(“A Migrant Teacher Considers Clouds”)
…but despite this often-closeness, Harvey is all too aware of the space between herself and her child.
These final moments of sleeping
cradle something which can never be
reclaimed. Like land and water, we
have shared the space, the companionship
of mother and child.
Each poem in the first chapter is named for a different cloud-type, and each cloud-type reflects a mood. Cirrostratus is light, hazy, far away, as Cloudboy is lost in thought, quiet, calm. A stratocumulus cloud is heavy, dull and dark, creating what we would consider to be an overcast day, and the almost-concrete poem reflects this, a pause between stanzas wrought with multiple forward-slash raindrops.
“Stratocumulous” isn’t the only poem that borders on concrete. Poems float across pages, forming cloud-patterns of their own. Words, letters, sounds all group together, creating vivid pictures — the imagery here is astounding.
(“Alienation”) is an open window:
how Cloudboy turns towards it, the freedom
beyond glass, the knowledge
of air, the gravity birds defy.
Each poem is at once abstract and narrative: each can be read alone but, placed in order, tell a linear tale. All too soon, the first chapter ends. Cloudboy and Cloudmother must make the difficult transition from the freedom of air and sky into the rigid routines of the school system, navigating complex relationships and constant misunderstandings:
I wonder what this cloudmother thinks when her cloudson says no
one wants to play with me. Does her cloudy heart dissolve too? Does
she spill drizzle as she considers genetics and remembers how, as a
lonely girl, she watched while other children played?
(“The Gifted Nephologist Goes to School”)
The chapter ends with a visiting doctor, and Cloudmother is faced with a difficult choice. The poems slip-slide from meditative fragments into full-bodied, self-aware letters, ending on a final frantic leap in “Wavy Through Moonlight”. A decision has been made.
As stunning as much of the word play is, the most impressive (and humbling) aspect of this collection is how Harvey leads us into the most intimate of moments with the lightest touch. She captures fragments of each moment, each step of her journey with her child, with an astounding insight and warmth. These poems beg re-reading.