Wanaka poet Liz Breslin savours first poetry collection

Last updated 10:35 29/06/2017
Marjorie Cook/Fairfax NZ

Wanaka poet, Liz Breslin, reads her poem Dichotomy, from her first published collection of poems, Alzheimer's and a Spoon, published by Otago University Press.

Liz Breslin, Wanaka poet, with her first published collection of poetry, Alzheimer's and a Spoon.

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Wanaka poet Liz Breslin has a moment to remember: receiving her first published book in the mail.

"When I got the envelope, I almost didn't want to open it," she said.

Alzheimer's and a Spoon has been published by Otago University Press and will be launched in Wanaka on July 13.

Acclaimed Dunedin poet Vincent O'Sullivan has said of it: "To find this kind of sheer brio and linguistic flair in New Zealand writing, one inevitably goes back to Janet Frame."

The accolade thrills Breslin, who was inspired in her writing by her memories of her late Polish babcia (grandmother] Manuela Sibiga.

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"But it is not just my grandmother's story. A lot of it is about our preoccupation with memory, so there's a lot in there about social media and the weirdness of that," Breslin said.

The first two poems in the volume reference German psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer, who first reported on the disease in 1906 after studying dementia patient Augusta Deter for five years.

"Memory is so important to us because we base our family and our culture on it. When it is taken away, where are our reference points? That's why we are so afraid of dementia in our society," she said.

Breslin first told her story of her babcia, a Polish prisoner of war during the Warsaw Uprising, at the 2015 Aspiring Conversations festival in Wanaka.

Sibiga was caught up in the race by Polish youth to try and liberate the city from the Nazis before the Russians arrived.

She became a refugee in the United Kingdom and did not return to Poland until the late 1980s.

Breslin's challenge was to understand things her grandmother did not discuss. By the time she was brave enough to ask, her grandmother had succumbed to Alzheimer's Disease and answered in Polish, a language Breslin does not completely understand. 

"We couldn't really communicate at all in a verbal sense so that's why I think it is really to cool to talk about it in poems," she said.

Breslin has mined her own memory of her grandmother's sparse sentences - phrases such as "we didn't really gain anything substantial or real" - to construct her own understanding of her grandmother;s experiences.

The wartime experience only properly dawned on Breslin when she agonised about moving from the United Kingdom to New Zealand.

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Her grandmother used just eight words: "I had to leave. You had the choice." 

BOOK LAUNCH: July 13, with Dominic Hoey, author of Iceland, at Rhyme and Reason Brewery, 17 Gordon Road, Wanaka, 6pm.

- Stuff


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