Thought Horses by Rachel Bush

(VUP, 2016)

Reviewed by Nicola Easthope

When I trace my journey as a poet, it takes me back, first, to the good cheer of my Teachers’ College tutor, Rod McGregor, and soon after, to the warm encouragement of noted New Zealand poet, Rachel Bush.

Rachel was an English teacher at Nelson Girls’ College when I was on a practicum there in 2001, and in one of those fleeting conversations teachers have (beside the pigeonholes, by the photocopier, in the bathroom), she told me I must make the time to keep writing.

That one could manage to be both a teacher and a poet was a revelation to me, and Rachel’s unwitting role modelling, undoubtedly to thousands of former teenage students, too, has left a lasting impression.

Published the day after Rachel died from lung cancer at the age of 75 in March 2016, Thought Horses is her fourth collection. Three years on, I finally pushed aside the marking for my classes to read this book, and in doing so, my shelved sorrow at the news of her death was both illuminated and softened.

Though many of these poems form meditations on mortality — the pains of aging, losing good friends, subtle hints at the poet’s own terminal illness — the entire collection canters and glistens with a generous and animated heart that feels closer to life than ever. Much deservedly, Thought Horses was longlisted for the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

Thought Horses opens with the titular poem, drawing us in with the repeating second-person pronoun, to list the many (understated as ‘some’) disorderly yet associated thoughts of early morning:

The sleeping computer, how its green eye opens and closes.
Then how the heels of shoes can be stacked and steep and you will never
wear them again or desire them…

Then the friend who is worried because maybe the growth is back again.
(“Thought Horses”)

Rachel smudges the boundaries between her poet speaker and characters; here, it is not clear whose growth might have returned. Indeed, on entering this equine mind of insomnia, it becomes hard to distinguish between her page ‘you’ and one’s own self — the dark hours of unwelcome wakefulness laid out with such an honesty that is, in turns, hauntingly and humorously familiar:

There is a chance to think of death.
You think about baking gingernuts.
You think about baking ginger crunch.
You think about whether you want a new bed or new spectacles first.
(“Thought Horses”)

This poem is a gorgeous marriage of the philosophical with the quotidian, reminding me of the observational wit of Lauris Edmond, and is one of my favourites of this collection, particularly for this line:

You think of the Brighton Rock film where Helen Mirren still manages
To look like Queen Elizabeth, especially when she wears a headscarf.
(“Thought Horses”)

Buy this book just for the breathtaking passage towards the end, describing the embodied and embodying movement of the ‘thought horses’ head on.

Rather than sections organising the 45 poems in this book, the work flows in an interwoven whole. Themes are developed and motifs returned to — the olive and the fan palm; sparrows falling out of trees; elusive sleep at predawn, ‘…when day is less / than a light line above the hills’ (“Early”). Rachel pays tribute to memories of childhood and her keen observations of other children; the give-and-take of food gardens; the habits of tourists, whether lost, lying or out of practice; and triumphantly throughout, the glittering movement of thought, processing, and being processed, like light — quick, colourful, knowing itself.

Three standout poems take lines from the poetry of Anne Carson, reminding me of Therese Lloyd’s stunning preoccupation in The Facts. Seriously, it is evident that one can never be afflicted by too much of the Anne Carson muse. Maybe I will try summoning her, too. Rachel’s “Anne Carson, Until I Fall Asleep” and “Five Answers for Anne Carson” are like dual dreamscapes of sensory and psychic disorder, conversations where the flipside of desire is danger, but desire always shows up in the mirror:

                 A patch of tissue triggers erratic unseemly electric
activity and your heart beats all over the place, helpless as a young girl
Easily in love even with her own reflection in a train window at night.
She cannot get over herself.
(“Anne Carson, Until I Fall Asleep”)

In the second poem, Rachel looks boldly into the face of mortality — her own or that of someone close — with an achingly brave stanza that somehow holds both acceptance and resolve:

                 Under the seam runs the line of stitches where a scar will live, lumpy
and purple at first and then paler than the skin around it. That seam is
a sign of hope. The pain is a sign of nothing to the woman. All she can
do is carry it. All she can do is hoist it up this way or that.
(“Five Answers for Anne Carson”)

Rachel Bush made an incredible contribution to the poetry of Aotearoa, igniting the twin flames of thought and feeling through the bright imagery and music of her poems, inviting readers and writers to join the chorus:

Because every day the poems
stay folded and pressed flat in
a suitcase of their pages
till the composer unfolds
them in sound lines and when
you sing them, they float.
(“Sing them”)

We have a lot to thank Rachel Bush for, and I’m very glad for her words, both in person and in these enduring, well-sung pages.