Book Review: On Edge, by Damian Ruth

Reviewed for Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2019, published in 2019: 

In his collection On Edge, Damian Ruth has complied poetry from years of writing and publishing. These poems are organised into three parts: part one, ‘On Edge’ (which we’ll come back to); part two, ‘A boy on a bicycle’; and part three, ‘Before the dead of the night’. Part two is a confessional biography so confronting and suggestive of extreme violence that it could be triggering for abuse sufferers. It comes after a part one which is layered and beautiful in its reflections of place (the absence of place and our place in the world) and before a collection of situational reflections on life events both meaningful and ordinary (events like being able to say ‘I love you’ or being a regular in a restaurant).

Part one of this collection is a deeply moving read. I grew up as a ‘third culture kid’ – a child of missionaries who came from one country, brought me up in another and unwittingly created a situation where I belonged to neither – so Ruth’s examination in this first part of what ‘place’ means to us was personally relatable. In his poems ‘place’ is where we come from, where we go to, where we avoid and where we long to exist but do not. Ruth explores this theme of place through setting our feet into what we think are concrete places – Africa, Darlington Station, Galway, Paekakariki Beach – but forcing us to question what creates our experience of that place. For example in ‘Ratatouille Rex’ we are with the poet in a home with friends looking out at a beautiful view –

‘and with the town reflected in the foreground I wonder if,
if I could, if I could just catch
the top left corner of the picture in a finger nail
and pull it away to reveal -’

Ruth makes us question our motives for being where we are in the world. To see our physical location as signalling something about us. In ‘Cafe’ for example the poet reflects on those who dip in and out of a South Kensington cafe; some believe themselves to travel for adventure, some have fled as refugees. Ruth questions how we can truly know what drives us to a place –

‘we carve our grief into each other’s face,
being less the questors we thought we were
and more like refugees, looking for a place.’

What Ruth achieves so well is part one, and why this collection is worth reading, is articulated in the poem ‘A letter to my daughter on her first birthday’ –

‘People will struggle to pronounce your name correctly, and one day – the first of many – someone will ask you “Where do you come from?” Do not scorn the question. Be generous. Yes, it is often an irrelevant and banal question for a person to ask of someone. It is also one of the most profound and complex questions we can ask ourselves.’

And then we move into part two and three. My concern with this collection is that pulling such different material together needs to occur with the reader in mind. I felt bewildered and lost when suddenly thrushed into the confessional violence of part two. As I have read poetry this year I have become convinced that New Zealand publishers need to think more closely about book design. Poetry is art and poetry books should be artful, crafted as thoughtfully and carefully as the poems within them. Three chapbooks held within a shared case would have allowed Ruth’s work to be presented as a shared collection while being a clearer signal of the differing work to be discovered.