The Place Where I Left You is the first poetry collection by Sandra Ann Winters, who won the Gregory O’Donoghue prize in 2011. In her winning poem “Death of Alaska,” the disappearance of a son and a beloved dog become become metaphors for each other, each loss bringing an equal but different kind of grief. The opening is a sliver of ice, cutting to the heart of the poet’s despair in just a few short lines:
“My white German Shepherd
female ears tuned to sounds
I could not hear, disappeared the day my son left.”
But although there’s an effective sparseness in the use of language and emotion, the poet doesn’t shy away from letting her clear delight in the sounds of language come through: “he who cut me off like a sharp ship of scissors / against the papery peony stems.” This interaction between the theme of human contact and word play appears again in one of Winters’ most beautiful poems, “Water Signs,” in which the poet feeds crab meat to a friend breastfeeding her baby. With the emphasis on the “tender pink” of crab meat, the woman’s “peach breast,” the baby’s “petal pink mouth,” a scene of the utmost gentleness is created, with a kind of harmony existing between the women and the crab they eat. Despite the primal barbarity in the cracking open of crab claws and feeding the meat to a woman nursing her newborn, the poet reminds us that the crabs were once babies themselves, their journey to “Oyashio, the ‘parent current'” almost lovingly evoked. Its this joyful gratitude towards a life feeding another life that subtly eases the reader towards an acceptance of this version of the circle of life, in which the poet finds herself “caught / somewhere between creature and human.” Its masterfully executed.
Family relationships are a recurring theme in this collection. “Shampoo” is a humorous little poem in which the poet searches for the shampoo in her son’s shower. A strong likeable voice emerges: “Where does he keep / the damn shampoo?” Finally, after the narrator has given up searching, she spots it “one foot and two inches / above my line of vision” thus encapsulating, with a wry sentiment about physical difference, the changing nature of a mother-son relationship. The fluid nature of relationships is also a theme in “To and Ex-Husband on his Sixtieth Birthday,” an unsentimental look at the things which once constituted a marriage a marriage: games of chess, camping trips, the husband playing the piano while his wife slept. Although the marriage has since ended, still the husband once “ladled water” over his wife in the bathtub; still he “loved our newborn son in white.” There is no desire to diminish a set of experiences once they seem to have come to nothing; this writer recognizes the value that the past holds.
Winters is also adept at summoning a sense of place, and in fact a whole section of the book is dedicated to place poems. In “The Mother Vine” she lists the different names given to the state fruit of North Carolina: scuppernong, mother vine, suscadine, scuplin, suppydine, suppeydime, white grapes, bullets, bullis, bull — each name as exotic in the mouth as one imagines the fruit might be. Winters’ connection with Ireland comes across clearly in poems such as “Mute Swans” and “Early E-mail.” “Knocknagullane, Ireland” brushes a little too close to the Bord Fáilte Irish experience: “Ballads rise from pints of black Guinness. / Local set dance to jigs, reels and hornpipes.” But there is a genuine emotion at the heart of this poem, expressed without resorting to convoluted metaphor:
“But only in the dark, rainy midmorning do I really
know you Ireland as I touch the ancient standing stone,
rock built on rock, softened by the sweet smell of tea and rain.”
Winters is adept at writing about geographical locations, but also displays a deft hand in describing the domestic sphere with its individual rooms where human lives are played out. In “The Kitchen” a comparison is drawn between Monet’s kitchen in one of his paintings and her own; but whereas Monet and other impressionists would have discussed art at length with each other, she examines her son’s hair for nits by her stove. Its a striking realisation of how two things can be both similar and worlds apart, especially in the opposing realms of real life and art. “The Library” describes the room the poet plans to die in, as she announces from the outset. Colour is used to great effect here; we can almost see the “cocoa velvet sofa,” the “brittle yellow roses” that were once laid on her father’s grave, the poet’s pink-and-blue bracelet she wore as a baby and which now decorates this room.
There were many moments in this collection where I stopped and re-read particular lines, struck by the poet’s use of language and imagery. Two such arresting lines had me examining over and over, wondering just how Winters had conveyed deep emotion with such ease: “I tremble, draw back, pinned by many colors. / I want to look away, but I freeze like glaze on an urn.” Elsewhere, the poet compares here own mortality to a broken toaster, her delicately-constructed lines imbuing an inanimate object with significance:
“How often things quit, break down.
Just today the toaster stopped
taking that piece of bread
to the red coils, glowing.”
These are uncompromising poems, raw in their honest examination of the self and in their meditations on death. In “Suicide,” we almost see the goat on the cliff stepping “from pale blade to pale blade,” prevented from wandering over the edge by the wind pushing from the sea. We almost hear the poet speaking in our ear: “What is it like to love the insane? / Only you can be well-acquanted / with the desperate knowing of almost.” Its the same quiet, steady voice that characterizes this collection, as if the poet is telling us that simplest of things: a story.