sign language - reviewed by Brian Johnson


A short review for a short book

Street Women Press of Palmerston North have published a book of poetry by Paula Harris called sign language and I'm recommending it to you. It's a short book, only 36 pages long, which means it costs about 50c a page, but if you want to get a nice little book of poetry and five cents change from fifteen bucks then there's not much reason why it shouldn't be this one. It starts with the introduction and the introduction is great. Paula Harris, you see, is a 5'6" white woman who went all the way from Wellington to Greenville, North Carolina to stay for a month with her former lover, a 6'7" black guy called Ronnie. She says that these poems are her "holiday photos. Each is a glimpse at the isolation and alienation I felt, and the struggle Ronnie and I went through getting to know each other again." So at least this is a book about stuff, and the author has suffered for her art.

The first part is called "welcome to america...have a nice day y'all". It's about isolation and alienation, as in "tornado watch til 10.04 pm" and "who does she think she is? (how they see me)". Mind you, you'd have to ask, what else could she expect from Greenville, NC? What else does she expect from the folks down South? Of course there are going to be roaches in the motel, strange noises in the dark and junkies for neighbours. But she's not really asking for our sympathy or asking us to be upset. She's just telling us what it was like, as she said she would when she described her poems as photos. They're good poems too, crisp and well controlled.

The second part is called "the lovin'", and it's about her and Ronnie. The month in Greenville was not all bad for Harris. It's about how good it was to be with Ronnie, but how difficult it was for them to be together in that place. It's nice in "cutting it away" and "kiss and make up", but difficult in "a poem about feeling confused". It's actually quite sensuous and lovely in it's straight out honesty in telling how she felt.

Mostly I liked it because it's about stuff, real stuff, about an experience. It doesn't try to exist within some sort of angst ridden self-referential vacuum of static perceptions and useless feelings. It is real and complete and a worthy album for her memories of a time and place. There are no regrets.