The Comforter by Helen Lehndorf
Seraph Press, RRP $25
The Comforter is Helen Lehndorf’s debut collection of poetry. Lehndorf grew up in Taranaki and studied Creative Writing at Whitireia Polytechnic. She has published poetry for twenty years, so The Comforter is long overdue. Published by independent Wellington publisher Seraph Press, and with a cover by Sarah Laing, the collection looks good in the hand.
While Lehndorf explores familiar themes for a debut collection such as childhood and family life, the poems have an edge of domestic unrest. Relationships are loving but hard work; mothering is a mix of desperation and laughter. “Manawatu gothic”, as one poem states. When writing about her own childhood—her father at the freezing works, her mother sewing and gardening—Lehndorf talks about the skills she’s inherited from her parents. Stitching and gutting, it seems, and maybe a stoic outlook.
The Comforter is also a book about tending. While Lehndorf is obviously a keen gardener, the garden works as a metaphor for the growth (or shrivelling) of her emotional life. The act of gardening also talks to the responsibilities of adulthood. Lehndorf writes playfully about her own childhood, but the present seems more complicated. Many of the poems dwell on renewal: ‘I want a shiny, clean / version of myself. Closedown, / hibernate, restart’, she states in ‘Wabi-Sabi’.
The book is arranged into four sections, but would have been braver without them. It seems to be a New Zealand tick to create unnecessary structure (as Cy Matthews discusses in Landfall Review Online). Streamlining would also have allowed the few weaker poems to be put aside. Some poems do not seem to reach beyond a straight description of events, such as the adolescent trials poem, ‘Strummer summer’. The list poem ‘Alpha’ also felt a little flat. I wanted these poems, and a handful of others, to talk about broader ideas. Family and home are two of the best subjects for poetry, but by looking outward the poems could have provided an entry point for this reader. For example, the poem ‘Where thought goes’ manages to be both intimate and inclusive. In a yoga class (where the teacher is dying of cancer), Lehndorf explores the way thought and language can be used to manage our emotions:
she is not dead yet. She is right here, demonstrating the triangle pose.
My thoughts go west, go wayward. My thoughts are cul-de-sacs.
Dead-ends. I am a sick baby, a cut flower. I am not safe
around visual metaphor.
Although some poems don’t deliver, The Comforter is a sharply observed and funny collection. In ‘Domestic Violence’, a wonderful poem of domestic frustration, the poet watches river swimmers and thinks: “I hope you drown, you / beatific full-buttocked revellers”. In ‘Poem without the L word’, the poet compares her lover to the things that make life worthwhile:
My warm brown egg.
My coffee pot.
My mulch, my humus,
my thick layer of good rot …
Every hour, on the hour
on 45, 33
and on imported, limited-release EP.
While the book blurb may have over-reached in promising “shocking honesty” (the only poem that comes close is ‘Before the Departure’, a brilliant poem about motherhood), the collection is heartfelt, relatable, and authentic. This may be due to Lehndorf’s lack of pretension. That is not to say the work is not serious: Lehndorf’s words are chosen carefully. Sound and rhythm are strengths of the collection, and it’s one to read out loud. There is an easiness to the way Lehndorf’s words flow: “Sparrow head, blackbird beak, thrush face / threaded on leather, fastened with wood” she chants in ‘Latest Project’. To steal jargon from wine tasters, the book has great mouth-feel.
Overall, The Comforter is a beautifully produced and well written collection of work that I enjoyed reading (especially on re-read). The final poem, ‘Garlic-planting time’, leaves us with the poet’s underlying optimism:
This is storing and healing. This is
planning and tending. With muddy fists,
you take possession of the year.