Silver Linings: Sarah Broom's "Gleam"

When I went to see Te Papa's Andy Warhol exhibition in Wellington last month, I started off enjoying the pop artist's sense of fun.

I had read the Penguin Classics version of his diaries some years before, and I looked at first for the heavily-curated personality that came through in his writing. In the diaries he’s a bit like Oscar Wilde’s character Lord Henry Wotton, a charming but insecure person who is constantly trying to contain himself and everyone around him with aphorisms and one-liners.

 “I never fall apart, because I never fall together,”; ““It’s not what you are that counts, it’s what they think you are,” ; “Isn't life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves?”

As the exhibition showed more and more of his experiments with different images and similar themes, however, I moved beyond the words and began to think of his art practise as something like a giant, semi-organic Rube Goldberg machine.

One end of the machine took in cultural icons, and the rest of it was involved with identification, analysis and experimentation as it picked apart what made celebrity and American iconography tick. No wonder his workspace was known as “The Factory”.

If I looked hard enough, I could almost see the wheels turning and the cogs spinning as Warhol tried new settings and configurations, but in the end, it seems he never did get the result he wanted.

New Zealand poet Sarah Broom's new poetry collection Gleam reminded me of Warhol’s machine. Her personality is vastly different to his – she is kind, down-to-earth and equipped with a laser-like focus, but she, too, has used her craft to build a machine that helps her process and understand a subject too big to contain.

Born in Dunedin, Broom had a prestigious academic career that included lecturing at Oxford University before she returned to New Zealand in 2000. She is the author of numerous articles and reviews, as well as Contemporary British and Irish Poetry, and her first poetry collection Tigers at Awhitu came out to rave reviews in 2010.

The focal point of Broom's machine is also the reason why there will be no more work forthcoming from her. She passed away from lung cancer as Gleam was being finalised for press in April, and her impending death fills every poem.

She was first diagnosed while pregnant with her third child in 2008. Her baby was delivered safely but even though she was fit and a non-smoker, she was given just months to live. Broom spent the years that followed concentrating on writing and receiving treatment.

Her reflections on life, parenthood, pain and death appear again and again throughout the collection, polished to a gentle sheen by the light touch of her language.

Despite the heaviness and tradition-laden history of her subject, Broom is resolutely contemporary in both style and structure. She writes about stars, the sea, trees, bodies, light and her children.

Death itself is a white, silent moth that flutters and brushes around the edge of her work, but Broom writes vividly and frequently about pain. Sometimes she is subtle, and sometimes her words are brutal – I can barely stand to re-read “Little Black Stick Figure”.

It’s hard to tell if Broom’s machine worked for her, but I hope so.

“both”

you are both held
and not held
you are both alone
and accompanied
you are both cared for
and not cared for
you are nurtured
and at the same time
you are abandoned
utterly

yes, yes, yes

so said the bird
tap tapping
on my
skull

Nelson