Usually when I’m offered a single-author collection of poetry to read and review, I expect a very slim volume, high on production values but low on words, and I’m fine with that. Like smoked salmon, poetry is best devoured in delicate slivers rather than huge chunks. So I was surprised to receive a much weightier than usual paperback in the post from Judy Croome, her latest poetry collection, a stranger in a strange land.
Its scale - over 100 poems - was the first indication of the poet’s passion about her many and wide-ranging themes, and about poetry as a medium to communicate her feelings. (She also writes fiction.) But this is no catch-all compilation, assembled en masse for the sake of bulk. A glance through its pages illustrates how carefully she has crafted this volume, meticulously laying out each poem in a different format, varying the architecture of every page. The inclusion of several sets of deft haikus amidst the ebb and flow of other shapes and sizes demonstrates Croome’s adeptness at tightly controlling form.
The first and eponymous poem in the collection immediately establishes some of Croome’s key themes of alienation and dislocation, which might be expected in one raised in the Zimbabwean bush and moving to Johannesburg in turbulent political times. Then begins a whirlwind journey through various topics and moods, from light-hearted paeans to her pet cat to stark evangelising against racism and in praise of vegetarianism. Even the staunchest carnivore stands to be swayed by “Sunday Lunch”, a deceptively guileless title to lure you into a comparison between abbatoirs and the Holocaust gas chambers. The poems also address universal themes such as appeals for world peace and a return to the simpler lives of a non-technological age to highly personal, individual intimations about love and loss.
Throughout, her approach is gutsy, fearless and sincere, unafraid of controversy, not only addressing cancer and dementia, for example, but also taking to task a cancer patient whose selfishness drove her partner away. Yet beneath forthright, assertive statemets lurks both a vulnerability and rawness, a world-weary knowledge counterbalanced by an almost childlike sense of hope, teetering on the sense of loss and disillusion ushered in by adolescence.
On first reading, I reeled between the oscillating light and dark tones. I started to wonder whether the book might have worked better if subdivided into categories, signposting the reader’s expectations rather than wrong-footing them by so often switching themes and tones. But by the final poem, I had concluded that her scheme worked best, weaving in and out between sorrows and joys, because isn’t that how life rolls? The contrasts make each poem more powerful, whether light or dark or in between, pushing the reader to emotional extremes without ever risking compassion fatigue.
On a personal note, as a bit of a Pollyanna, perhaps it was inevitable that the poems I loved most in this collection were those that struck lighter notes, and in particular the delicate, celebratory haikus. I also loved the simple starkness of some of the poems about relationships, e.g. “Ears”, which ends
the words you thought you heard,
which are nothing like
the words I spoke
Croome’s often deceptively simple phrasing makes for a very accessible, honest, open and earnest collection. Though many of the poems have grim themes, a redeeming sense of hope underpins the book, along with the sense that the author still adheres to her simple core values, despite disappointments, sorrow and despair along the way. And chief of all of these is summed up in just one word: love.
A roller-coaster of a collection that will inspire readers to ride out the ups and downs of their own lives, and to always find balance and hope by considering the bigger picture.