Scoop Review of Books

The Universal In The Particular

The Comforter, Helen Lehndorf (Seraph Press, 2011)
Reviewed by Sienna Latham

It’s often said that there are two types of people in the world. There must exist as many ways to divide us as there are people to imagine, but right now let’s consider just one possible dichotomy: that among us are those who view poetry as simultaneously lofty and unnecessary, disconnected from everyday life, and those who actually read it. Don’t get me wrong; this world of ours is riddled with landfills of angst and terrible wordplay best written and kept hidden away in teenage journals. But to divorce that language from the experiences, thoughts and emotions that inspired it is to miss the point — and to miss out.

Helen Lehndorf’s debut poetry collection mines the easy-to-overlook, details tiny and weighty and very much worth commemorating: moving house, reading the newspaper, gardening, taking yoga classes. It’s a snapshot of family and identity, memory and transience, the tension between what we need and what we want and what we choose. Like its namesake, The Comforter should be brought out during the coldest, dampest months to combat the long nights and shadows, but its contents actually span the seasons.

Palmerston North-based Lehndorf opens with an ode to wabi-sabi, the appreciation of imperfection, and meditates upon its role in her life as mother, partner and daughter, creator and writer, the once-upon-a-child coming to terms with adulthood and the gap between expectations and experience. “I am cold,” she writes, “but I chose. / I chose this.” This quiet strength accompanies warmth and humour, as she looks around the dinner table and observes that “We are / a series of small interruptions / dressed as family.” An evening spent waiting for a friend, buffeted by Wellington’s winds — not even two scarves can withstand them — becomes a laugh-out-loud funny exercise in sticking up for oneself:

even if you leave someone waiting in a beautiful place,
they will still feel the wait. I am walking away
from the water now. I am walking towards Cuba.
Michelle, I’ll always love you but, mate,
you are all broadcast and no reception.

Most of all, I love the way these poems find the universal in the particular. Though they could only have been penned by their author, a characteristic of so much good writing, they contain truths that will resonate with each reader. We all know “how just one pulled thread / can undo a day,” just as the downy descent into sleep often offers all the respite we need to find what Lehndorf describes as “a new way.” The Comforter is a slender, handsome volume that I hope the poetry-readers and poetry-reluctant alike will pick up and learn from and return to as each season gives way to the next. Highly recommended.