The Yield by Sue Wootton

The Yield. Sue Wootton (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2017). ISBN 9780947522483. RRP $25. 84pp.

Reviewed by Nicola Easthope


            Some words dwell in the bone, as yet           
            unassembled. Like the word you want…
(“Lingua incognita”)

As a high school teacher and part-time poet, who dwells mostly in the classroom and the junior deans’ office, these two lines are an affirming and yearning encapsulation of my life during term time. In her fifth collection, The Yield, Sue Wootton reaches in, plucks the word you wish for (like a heritage rose stem, like a vintage cello string) and holds it out in invitation — here, feel this with your whole body. Suddenly, you’re alert, all senses popping, whether poet or reader, listener or observer, or poised in each and all of these roles. In The Yield,  Wootton is a skilled orchardist, rhythmic conductor, and the chief writer of a muscular Deep South settler-tongue — all in service of ideas and experiences that thrill and heal. 

The Yield was a finalist in the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards Poetry Award, and it’s no wonder. This is an enviable harvest of many award-winning and runner-up poems: “Wild”, “Ice diver”, “Smeuse”, “Luthier”, “Calling”, “Daffodils”, and “Admission”. Instead of being divided into sections, the collection is made up of 58 poems that flow together; you’ll be swept up in its fluid movement from one fruitful poem to the next. But there is an intentional arrangement, beginning with the vivid “Wild”, an urgent love song for the nurture of nature, and ending with “The yield”, a wonder song to the little askew apple tree that could.

The speaker in “Wild” personifies what could be a desperately old tree, or an urgently compromised ecosystem, demanding to be regarded:

            Measure my wild. Down to my last leaf,            
            my furled, my dessicated. This deciduousness,
this bloom…

            What will survive me, O my cockroaches, O my lice?

There is no place for the reader to be an impotent bystander — protect and conserve, or get out of the way: ‘…Examine my yearn, and treat it with trees.’ I feel as if I’ve been employed as an assistant nurse in A&E, and that my patient is acutely conscious of their mortality. My own tame and wild aches are delineated here, too — it’s like I’m in consultation with a holistic GP who issues me with a green prescription:  ‘Mineral deficiency: socks off. Soil. Dark / rot, eye-less wriggle, while the roots seek, seek.’ Reading and re-reading this poem feels as good as doing what this doctor orders, and nudges me, barefooted, to the nearest native bush.

Wootton’s varied characters include clouds, children, ice divers and icebergs, sealion and salmon, mammoths and wasps. The poet’s themes are equally ranging: the rough intimacy of hospital care, the difficult solitude of prayer, as well as what humans do to hedgerows and the small animals that traffic through them (“Smeuse”). The sanctuary of an empty church is illuminated: the speaker could be someone of an organised faith or an atheist open to the mysteries. Whoever they are, they’re glad to be alone, dazzled into the worship of everyday things, even the dust motes that are cast in the lightshaft of a stained glass window (“The needle work, the polishing”). A priest in a coffee shop, an ice diver as monk, atheist-leaning children in awe at the bounty of nature’s seeds, stoppered human emotion in a jar —  these poems are grounded and full of body, yet accessibly open and attendant to the metaphysical that neither religion nor agnosticism can wholly satisfy.

Throughout this collection, Wootton is queen of the quotidian; she makes the essential extra, and the ordinary effervesce. “The crop” is a taut string tied back and forwards between the earthly and the otherworldly; it traces a kind of matrilineal abundance through work, birth, and art:

                                                                        …and she,           
            unforeseeable by She, who stands now in the beds,
stripping the glut for jelly. The fruit mounds in the colander
like a placenta. Scarlet juice stains all her fingers.

            She prints the wall…

Further evidence of Wootton’s pliancy of language and succulent grace can be found in “Wintersight”, followed by “Matariki in the Chinese Garden”. Both are comforting poems to read during this cold Covid-liminal July in Aotearoa, when we ‘…Can’t see by bright what shores us up / or orbits us, what shapes the edges of the known and needed world.’ I love the wry humour within these poems, too: ‘Forgiveness: such a pretty word, for such a bitch’. (“Forgiveness”). This is both assured and reassuring.

Wootton is a master of the sound device. She writes with taut control of assonance and alliteration, monosyllabics and line breaks. In “Mammatus”, the chiming consonants and echoing vowels make unusual clouds visceral, metaphorical breast tissue made firm:

            This canopy           
            might burn and wheel, might split,
might vomit flapping cawing smuts, might spew
its pent and rotted milk to pit our pretty town

I feel confident in saying that William Shakespeare would have admired Sue Wootton!

In Wootton’s ultimate poem, we are gathered into all that has come before, and reminded that in order to keep our home in this world, we must sow, tend, harvest, and yield. We must give in and give way, open up and let go:

            constantly by stars and worms, so bonded
to this place and bending to it, as ice
melts in its season, streams away…
(“The yield”)

Wootton’s writing casts the spells and seasons of living. Her poems are chants and enchantments, incantations to strengthen the weave between human will and the wildness we depend on. She creates with the dexterity of an athlete, a musician, and a food gatherer in all weathers. Her poems are simultaneously spacious and substantive, voluptuous and sensorily ripped. This book is ink-jet, juicy-fruit, harvest-moon bathed and flavoured. It compels me to write my way through the school holidays, and work to make my craft better than before. Pick The Yield off the bookshop shelf, bite in, and savour.

Nicola Easthope lives on the Kāpiti Coast. She is a teacher, and poet: ‘Leaving my arms free to fly around you’ (Steele Roberts) and ‘Working the tang’ (The Cuba Press).

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