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Colleen Higgs

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Lynette Paterson on Lava Lamp Poems at the Grahamstown launch

As some of you know, Ingrid Andersen and I had a Grahamstown launch of our books, >Piece Work and Lava Lamp Poems during the Festival. NELM kindly hosted the event and I loved the evening. My friend, Lynette Paterson, introduced me and my poems, and Phillippa Yaa de Villiers did the honours for Ingrid.

It was wonderful for to hear Lynette speak about my work at NELM. I felt as though I was basking in warmth and light; and that the best of me is truly seen by her. I couldn’t take it all in, so I asked her if she would send me what she said, which she did and she gave me permission to publish her introduction. So here it is.

Launch of Lava Lamp Poems by Colleen Higgs, at NELM, 7 July 2011

Lava Lamp Poems is Colleen Higgs’ second collection of poems, published by Hands-On Books. Halfborn Woman was launched in this same venue in 2004.

First I want to pay tribute to Colleen for her hands-on involvement with writing and books – her own and others’. As a writing teacher in Grahamstown, the manager of community publishing at the Centre for the Book in Cape Town,
and the founding director of Modjaji Books, she has consistently turned her hand to the task of nurturing writers and writing, and latterly, women writers in particular. Modjaji has published 27 titles (and counting) in its first four years, with already several prize nominations and winners among them. Colleen’s vision and enterprising spirit are remarkable and inspirational.

In the midst of this, Colleen pursues her own life and her own art, and now brings us her second collection. Colleen’s personal life is the ground of her art. The chatter of her daughter; the silence of her partner; memories of others she has loved; places that have shaped her – these are the sources of her poems, and progressively they unfold an ever more fully born woman. From a high balcony in Troyeville, the girl with the pert new haircut and the “finely tuned anxiety” (17) sees into the far, firework-illuminated distance, but cannot discern the precipice she is on (20). The mother on the living-room couch with her small daughter watches the lamp in the darkened room, and discerns the meaning of present, past and future with a “slowed down, profound” wisdom that rises and sinks like the warm yellow wax in the lava lamp (47).

Perhaps more than anything, what the writer of this collection discerns is how short is the journey between the long-boned, smooth-skinned child, and the grandmother whose baggy skin is glimpsed as the faded blue nighty rides up her thighs. “You can’t pretend it won’t happen to you.”(12) “The birds have all gone, the river is fuller / the days are shorter, the rain is coming. My life will end. I’ve seen it now.” (39)

From such epiphanies, memories and workaday incidents, the poet examines who she is. The child asleep in bed with her pushes against her with her legs, as if to launch herself: “as if you’re eager to push away. I am your ground.” (40) The poet ‘pushes against’ each memory, each incident, testing, risking, launching. She writes to find her own ground.

And she writes against forgetfulness, towards wholeness. “My mother is slowly forgetting her life, / who she is and what holds her together. … I want to / remember enough to follow the pebbles all the way / back into the dark forest.” (30) (Incidentally, the presence of fairy tales lends both charm and a searing incisiveness to the collection – as is the way with fairy tales.)

While the life-content of her poems is processed in the writing, and the form is carefully crafted, Colleen’s poems tend not to have answers, points of arrival, or definitive conclusions. In form and content, the poems swell, undulate, “bubble and loop” (47). Like the yellow wax in the lamp, they rise and fall as the density of thought and feeling freely changes. On the whole they have the viscous quality of real lava – which may be why the flow of the prose poem is a favoured form. But even when form congeals into a surface crust, the inner fluid is restless, moving, seeking, asking – and sometimes shocking the reader (and probably the writer herself) with a hiss of steam as it encounters something unexpected: “sometimes I feel I could even slap strangers, / for no apparent reason” (9).

I’ve said nothing about the more ‘public’ sequence entitled, Notes from a New Country, in which the writer very tentatively, and humorously, ‘pushes against’ a new order of things, testing, looking to find new ground. Perhaps we can prevail upon her to include an extract in her reading.

It is with pleasure that I present Colleen Higgs and invite her to read from Lava Lamp Poems.

Lynette Paterson


Recent comments:

  • Lynette
    July 30th, 2011 @09:14 #

    Internal dialogue at 3am:
    "Jeez, what do you mean 'viscous'? There's nothing in the least 'sticky' about these poems. They flow with open honesty."
    "You're right; it's a badly chosen word. It was in fact the fluidity of the poems I wanted to express. The lava metaphor got me into trouble. Apologies, Colleen."


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