Scoop Review of Books

Falling down a Wishing Well

Three Days in a Wishing Well by Kerrin P. Sharpe (Victoria University Press, $25)
Reviewed by Sienna Latham

What would it be like to spend three days in a wishing well? Cold, certainly. Dark and damp — the kind of damp that seeps into your bones and stays there, even during the brief summertime interval when you’d get a fleeting glimpse of the sun crossing the tiny circle of sky you can spy. It would be lonely, too, with only the curved stone walls and a periscope of light and slick rocky mirrors for company. But you’d have your wishes. Your hopes.

In her debut collection, Christchurch poet Kerrin P. Sharpe invites us to imagine ourselves inside the wishing well, peering up at the craggy hands holding coins to drop in, the symbols etched onto their faces and the dreams they embody. Like dream language, her wistful, wish-full poems rely upon a surreal, stream-of-consciousness style that borrows from familiar syntax then twists it slightly, finding a new angle and lending a new perspective.

Sharpe divides the 54 poems into three sections — three days — that tackle such weighty topics as family, memory, history and nature. These pieces, which represent nearly four decades of her work, feel both insubstantial and strong, light and airy, like the migratory birds Bill Manhire references on the back-cover blurb: take in what you can before it flies away. Or pretend you are a sea bird, your tucked-in feet skimming over the choppy, glistening surface of the poems, safe in the knowledge that you can return again in the future to plumb their depths for tasty morsels. (I am not sure if or how avian foresight works, but please bear with me.) The poems are full of birds, too, along with wishbones, feathers, soldiers, monks (these verses are easily my favourites), carts, beeswax; deer, horses and ponies who might be people; angels, rural Kiwiana, and the most urban of city streets, everything in flight. She repeats words in a deliberate, distinctive way, drawing connections between seemingly disparate poems so that they reward re-reading. And you will want to re-read these oblique little vignettes.

Down in Sharpe’s well, a slightly morose deer teaches evening classes and writes stories. He “found himself in a caravan with a medical person and a needle. Not a pine needle. He watched his blood run back to his mother” (from “Three Stories the Deer Published”). That needle reappears in the hands of the author’s mother in “Sewing the World,” as she stitches and braids and embellishes the tale of her life with skill and craft. “Dissecting the Angel” reverses these efforts by pulling apart the ineffable and discovering “an angel / who never reads horoscopes / she opens the sky”.

But if Sharpe’s whimsy sometimes veers into twee territory, she is equally at home in darkness. “In the Days of Your Fathers” finds “no answers / in the great ovens of europe” when confronted with a woman whose time in a concentration camp remains stamped on her skin. “Concussion” captures the strangeness of that experience with beauty and precision. The nameless concussed “remembered / how his shadow stood / close to the mountain / and didn’t recognise him”. Rabbits overrun a sibling’s farm in “Dressing the Rabbit,” a particular highlight; “one is a pocket // of strong beliefs / as old as earth / another takes high tea / with the river // of lost causes / who claims behind / every rabbit mask / is a gunshot”.

Three Days in a Wishing Well passed more quickly than I expected. I mean that in the best way — the experience was less lonely, warmer, brighter, the wishes more beautiful and tragic and vivid. I’m not sure I entirely understand these earthy, otherworldly poems, but I feel so grateful for Sharpe’s willingness to share them, to lead me — and hopefully you — down into the wishing well. Recommended.