Monday, August 27, 2012

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“SHIFT” by Rhian Gallagher (Auckland University Press, $NZ24:99)
“THICKET” by Anna Jackson (Auckland University Press, $NZ24:99)

            Two weeks ago, in reporting on the New Zealand Post Book Awards, I admitted that I had not read any of the three books that were finalists in the poetry section. One of the three, Dinah Hawken’s The Leaf-Ride, was published by Victoria University Press. The other two, Rhian Gallagher’s Shift and Anna Jackson’s Thicket, were both published by Auckland University Press.
            In the event, it was Shift that won the award.
            I have now been able to, at least partially, amend my ignorance by reading the two AUP books, and here’s my report:  

            I have one bad habit to which I revert whenever I read a sequence of connected poems.
            I can’t help trying to reconstruct the human story that lies behind them.

            I know this is not considered a very sophisticated thing to do.

            Poems should be read one-by-one for their sounds, their imagery, their structure, their word-play, their use of allusion, their emotional and intellectual impact. More recent and sophisticated scholars insist that we throw away any notion of Shakespeare’s sonnets having a linking narrative thread. Yes, a coherent sequence of emotional events may have been their genesis, but there is no way that we can reconstruct it now. We should appreciate them sonnet by individual sonnet.

            But I can’t help myself.

            Rhian Gallagher’s collection Shift, which won the poetry prize in this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards, is divided into three sections. Any collection that is divided into three sections immediately makes me ask “Why?”. And as so  many of the poems in Shift are confessional and clearly carry a very personal emotional import, I find myself constructing a linear narrative out of them.

            So here goes in my (doubtless simplistic) reading of this volume.

            The first third of the collection is called “Shift” and ends with a poem of that name. I am wise to the multiplicity of meanings that the word “shift” has, but the most consistent meaning here is the shift in perspective from being a child to being an adult  traveller of the wider world. Most of the poems in this section are poems of childhood perception, where things are sharply observed and invested with mystery -  a stand of pine-trees; a wash-house; a dusty window; or a visit to dad’s job in the freezing works, with vivid material detail and a sense of the child’s smallness.

             Gallagher’s birth family are apparently Irish Catholic working-class who settled in New Zealand. In the poem House, she tells us of her father “stooped/among rows of potatoes,/the ghost of a famine chiding him.” There seems to have been a pietistic family reaction to the death of an infant sister of the poet – the infant being idolised as the epitome of purity in a way that the little girl (who later became the poet) could not keep up with.

            Yet late in this first section, the little girl has become an adult, travelling abroad (soggy England; Venice; European frontiers) but still thinking of home, as when, in the poem Shared Ownership Flat, “the ever malleable, mobile London cloud/ that tells me I am on an island” is an implicit reminder of other islands.

            The final poem in the first section, Shift is a poem about leaving London and hence making a literal shift; but it is also the shift of perspective where “the South Island/ Couldn’t be more far” and  Could this become my one at home/ among the clouds, the amazing clouds.” Here is someone no longer a child and yet once again small in the huge cosmopolitan world. In one sense then, this first section affirms the condition of being a New Zealander.

            The second section is called “Butterfly”, again a word with a multiplicity of connotations (a short-lived beautiful creature? butterfly-kissing? a social butterfly?). It appears to be the record of a lesbian love affair with an American. She is met in a bookshop in Charing Cross (the poem Lunch Hour). She is celebrated in the villanelle Butterfly. The scene shifts to Italy and to New York. Sometimes there is sexualised imagery as in “the tongue and trench of waves” in the poem Becoming. But, it would appear, after a period of mutual intoxication, the affair doesn’t last. The poem Between declares “Close in and distant, you had me./ Whichever way you moved/ I was swept, arrested.” The phrase “you had me” implies deception, and hence disillusionment. The affair is over. So the later poems in the second section steer back to solitary reflections on nature as, in the poem Lagoon where “this summer/ with its uncompanioned course/ steers me in”.

            Uncompanioned, you note.

            And where does this all take the poet?

            Back to New Zealand. The third and final section is called “Shore”, and has the poet standing, in the volume’s best poem Shore, on a South Island beach “margin of every elsewhere here” – that is, again apparently on the periphery of things in relation to the wide world. The poems in this third section have the poet readjusting to New Zealand landscape and New Zealand mores. She has – if I read it aright – been summoned back in part by a family funeral. She encounters varieties of New Zealand manhood – taciturn male family members who hold their feeling in, and who contrast with a gay couple who hug people in farewell. In the poem The Powerhouse she recalls her father’s work from a more adult perspective.

            I thought nothing would come if I hung around in these parts too long” she says in Shore. And maybe that is what New Zealand always will be to a traveller. A shore. A place to jump off from.

            So that is the linear narrative I wring out of this volume – from child’s perspective of New Zealand to escape into the wider world (capped with a love affair) to return to New Zealand and a lingering wanderlust.

            Stop mentally throwing things at me, please. I am fully aware that this narrative approach is reductive and without nuance and very presumptuous on my part. I am also aware that I have committed the cardinal sin of identifying the poet with the voice in which the poems are written. There is a difference, of course. But I excuse myself by repeating that the tone is very confessional. It is hard to read these poems as anything other than genuinely first-person.

            None of which passes any sort of evaluative comment on them.

            So I make my comments now.

            First, I always have difficulty relating to poems about love affairs. This emphatically has nothing to do with the fact that the love affair in this volume is lesbian. (I feel the same way in reading George Meredith’s Modern Love). The transient love affair simply isn’t part of my life. I miss the element of commitment, without which I see no love. Pardon me if this sounds like a moral comment, but there you have it.

            Second, I do appreciate Gallagher’s musicality, breaking forth in lines like  creaking like steps on stairs in depths of night” as she describes wind-shifted boughs in Under the Pines. Or , in the poem Shore, the great line on “un-resting Alps/ avalanching to the braided rivers”.
            She writes vividly. She has a sense of sound. This is a real poet.

            *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *
            It is not as if Anna Jackson’s Thicket is a complete contrast with Rhian Gallagher’s Shift. Again, here is a woman who can go confessional and who sometimes speaks of personal and intimate matters. But the perspective is considerably different. Jackson is more overtly intellectual; more given to literary allusion; as often concerned with  classical ideas as with personal feelings. Also Thicket is not divided thematically into sections. It is a book of “individual poems” rather than a concept album.

            I cannot even guess at a linear narrative here, but I can see some fairly constant concerns of the poet’s.

            The first two (brief) poems Watch This and Marry in Haste seem to be the protest of somebody who is not married and doesn’t want the domestic responsibilities marriage entails. But there follow poems which deal with themes of family-oriented domesticity. Planning a house. Playing badminton. Worries about dreams (Virgil at Bedtime;  Dream Golems) and watching DVDs with the kids; and the perspectives of mothers and daughters (two poems inspired by Little Red Riding Hood). The Fish and I and Hansel in the House also reference fairy-tales. Doubling Back may end in metaphysics but it starts in supermarket shopping.

            These are all in their various way poems grounded in a home.

            The setting is definitely refined middle-class. In It Was an Honour John, when an old friend (or lover?) comes along, the table “looks like a picture, a magazine spread./ We uncork the wine, break the bread…” And we talk literary talk. Wine persists in Margo or Margaux. And then there is the academic life, with allusions to  marking examinations and wondering about being a society hostess in old London. Three poems reference the Aeneid.

            So these are well-bred and civilised poems, rawness rubbed out and gamesmanship often in charge.

            Jackson’s overtly cerebrotonic tone speaks to the mind amusingly but, for my taste, a little coldly and self-consciously. Her attempts at pithy aphoristic style do not work for me and seem gnomic without gnosis. A poem like Speaking as One of the Billiard Balls  strikes me as a non-euphonious concept poem  - that is, the idea is all, comparing ricocheting billiard balls to pagan gods and the work of fate upon us. Unknown Unknowns pushes abstraction further, with reflections on the nature of the created universe; and For Some Reason works on the Russian doll (or Frankenstein) idea of creation within creation.

            I am not suggesting Jackson has no music in her. In The Coming On of a Maths Brain she counts her syllables carefully according to a new plan. It Was an Honour John is filled with concealed mid-verse rhymes. There is an awareness of metre and sound, though ‘tis often in abeyance.

            Nor am I suggesting that there is nothing heartfelt here.  I can relate to Margo or Margaux’s “Let’s just keep driving to/ somewhere we haven’t looked up/ on the map, some town without/ any relatives to pin your features down to their’s” even if her aim is a romantic tryst.

            But between idea and sound, idea wins; and between head and heart, head wins.

            This is not a judgment. It is a categorization.

            Were I one of this year’s NZ Post Book Award judges, I would have had a hard time choosing between these two volumes.

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