Friday, 7 September 2012

A Woman of Mars by Helen Patrice – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

A Woman of Mars, by Helen Patrice (hb, 48pp, available here) is the sixth collection of poetry from PS Publishing’s Stanza imprint, telling the story of a fifteen year-old girl who falls for a handsome twenty-six year-old astronaut—“Only from within his eyes, / did I see clear / for the first time, / a future of steel and stars” (“The Stirring”)—and travels to Mars in the spaceship he pilots to join the founding of a colony. Hence the subtitle: the poems of an early homesteader. The story it tells, of dust storms, disasters and terraforming, isn’t particularly novel, but its point of view is, as shown by the title: she’s a woman of Mars, not a princess, warlord or god; it’s the story of what a normal life might be like, lived on Mars, coping with life and with death, and the subtitle suggests that these are not just poems about her, they are to be taken as poems by her. Not every poem is in the first person—“Buried”, for example, imagines a series of messages sent out to Station five during a sandstorm (“Mining station five, / the storm is abating. / What is your status?”)—but most are, and we see both old and new Mars through the prism of her life and relationships.

In “Transition” she reads all at once the emails that her mother, left behind on Earth, sent while the colonists were in transit and asleep, changing from anger to sadness: “I read her moving from / three word missives: / ‘I hate you’, / through to ‘I would kill him’, / to ‘come home’.” We see the couple search for useful work: “There is no need for an old / boy cosmonaut” (“Finding Home”); and her changing attitude to Mars and its red dust: “The sand eats my booted foot, / even as I stand. / Mars is starving for us all” (“Buried II”). Years later, the red dust driven away by green and yellow, she begins to miss it: “I will never see clear red Mars again, / now that terraforming is begun” (“Mars, Lately”). Having lost Vassily, she now loses even the planet on which they lived. The thirty-three poems vary in length and style, although none rhyme and only two are longer than a page. The poems are direct rather than elliptical or metaphorical, speaking plainly of events in a way that leaves the reader to appreciate their importance to the writer, stories stripped down to the fewest words necessary. It’s a brief book to read, but an interesting one, even to an infrequent reader of poetry like this reviewer.

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