Monday, April 1, 2013

Something New

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

“FAMILY SONGBOOK” by John Newton (Victoria University Press, $NZ25); “MAGNIFICENT MOON” by Ashleigh Young (Victoria University Press, $NZ28); “WILD LIKE ME” Elizabeth Nannestad (Victoria University Press, $NZ28)

            I pick up and read with pleasure three poetry collections from Victoria University press.

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John Newton’s collection Family Songbook consists of six sequences of poetry with a prefatory poem paradoxically called “Envoi”. This proem functions as an invitation to find the country and family of which and of whom Newton is born. The sequences that follow accept this invitation. From various perspectives they are examinations of South Island landscapes together with family lore and personal memories.

Written in loose, conversational pentameters, the sequence “Beaver Station” expresses clearly the younger man’s disdain for the fake replica of a pioneer town that Rotary are putting up as a tourist attraction in Kekerengu on the Kaikoura Coast. But his feelings of contempt are offset by a sudden respect for the pioneering generation, personified in his great-grandmother, his discovery of the ruins of a real farm, and the epiphany that

whatever it was that I was
trying to make contact with seemed to be
concentrated here, where the ruined forms
of mowers and hayrakes closed ranks in the
rusticated dust, where Beavertowns bloomed
in a riot of lupins, borage and
California poppies….”

In “Beaver Station”, the younger man’s discovery is not only of kinship with his forebears, but of kinship with the land itself.  The two concepts intertwine in all that follows.

And how have poets and painters responded to this South Island scene?

The title of the sequence “Great Days in New Zealand Painting” may at first seem to be mildly ironical. Written in sections with stanzas of two, three or four lines as it becomes polyvocal, the sequence makes at least some suggestions that our canonised painters may not have always got it quite right  – the loneliness, the distances and sometimes the sheer ugliness of the West Coast. And there are now different alert foreign observers looking at the same scene, for
Meanwhile, back in the scenic zone…
Sigrid and Gunther, saddle-sore Romantics,
Tipple on a warm Lucozade, easing
Their hamstrings.”

There is also a note of nostalgia to Newton’s tune, for he observes ruefully,
Woolsheds were meant to be woolshed-red.
Now everywhere they’re galvanised iron…”

But as it ends with a vignette of Toss Woollaston painting, you can be sure that Newton’s intention is not ironical after all.

On the other hand, the sequence “Small Farmers” is unashamedly adolescent recall, of the poet’s time in boarding school, of his awkwardness and sense of dislocation in visiting the farms other kids lived on, of all those typical feelings of teenage inadequacy and (in an odd sort of way) of a nascent sense of social class. In the recorded teenage observations and gossip, it is clear that not all farmers who send their sons to Christchurch boarding schools are socially equal. Plenty of irony here.

There is more unvarnished autobiography in “High Lonesome”, in this case a recall to hippie-ish young manhood, guitar-strumming, baching out with friends, smoking dope, trying to write seriously, thinking there was kinship with the ephemeral but discovering  “Friends embraced, then sheared off, /trailing cinders”. In effect, a tale of how things never work out the way you expect when you’re young. The poem’s flaw is that there is not enough distancing on the part of the poet; it is a little too like a diary with not enough space between “I” poet and “I” callower younger man being observed.

Yet there is a stunning comeback in the next sequence “The Same River”, in which Newton writes in the second person (“you”) and hence distances himself from the young mountainside roamer being observed. This sequence’s philosophical reaction to landscape is as chilly and objective as the ice-cold river that is encountered.

“Driving to Erewhon” is most fittingly the final piece. It is at once an expression of pain at the way the landscape has changed (cellphone towers, industrial irrigators etc.) and a reconciliation to the experience of parents and earlier generations and to the fact that others wrote poetry here too.

I’m afraid that I can respond most fully to Family Songbook by referring to another, wholly unconnected, book.

The first time I guest-edited Poetry New Zealand, I had the pleasure of reviewing a volume called Curve of the Moon by the Irish poet Noel Monahan. It included a long poetic sequence entitled “Diary of a Town” which was no more nor less than a very specific evocation of the small Irish town in which the poet had grown up in the late 1950s. At odds with some aspects of his nation and with some of the values of his parents’ generation, Monahan nevertheless produced a generous portrait of that particular time and place. He was mellow and mature enough to see his parents and their values, as well as his own youth, in historical context.

Though the gaunt, rugged and sometimes forbidding South Island landscape is completely different from that of a small Irish town, John Newton’s Family Songbook does something very similar to Monahan’s book. Newton has the maturity of vision to see himself as part of a continuum, a generations-long conversation with the land, and to reflect respectfully – and indeed with a little awe – on his parents, grandparents and great-grandmother, as well as (with somewhat less awe) on his young and more unformed self. This is a considered volume of very reflective poems.

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When you plunge into Ashleigh Young’s first collection, Magnificent Moon, you can’t help loving her exuberance even if you’re not sure where she’s going or why. I find myself panting to keep up. Indeed, I feel a bit like the first-person jogger in the volume’s stand-out poem “Well-lit route”, who is at once exhilarated by the trip and scared as hell of the dark.

“Where is all this going?” I keep asking.

Unlike John Newton’s volume, Magnificent Moon does not have an overt unifying theme. Here are 52 individual poems in an expansive 91 pages. The poet often game-plays. She has the chutzpah to name the whole volume after an unfinished poem that has to be read cryptically. Yet the fact that the poems are divided into three sections suggests at least a loose arrangement of their ideas in this volume.

The sixteen poems of the first section, for example, are mainly poems of childhood and parents and teachers (the poet’s mum, internal evidence suggests, seems to have been a teacher).

There are some stunning vignettes here – like the poem “Better kept an idea”, about her father’s incommunicativeness at the dinner table, which proves to be a much refined form of communication. The poem “Doors” yields up the sharp lines “my mother springs back like a trap, /her arms opened up / to consume me.” Then there is “Quantum leaps”, which recreates vividly the way a child reacts to amateur home movies and theories of UFOs. It becomes not just a record of these things, but a reflection on the fertile and cumulative imaginativeness of children.

Ashleigh Young is the type of poet who can sometimes, in the midst of a lyrical reflection, go sardonic and self-referencing. In the oddly-titled poem “(the lost daughter)” are the lines “That autumn we did… boil apples and figs / and fill hot jars with chutney / the colour of sheep’s eyes. We then stockpiled the chutney / on various high, hidden shelves. I think this memory / probably qualifies us to be in a poem. I’d want to be / the kind of poem / that’s stuck on a Perspex bus shelter or on the side of a train, / a poem that speaks to us all, that straightens the warp and crackle, / that inevitably speaks of rain.” This sounds like satire until it, too, is undercut by clearer signposting of the tragic situation that underlies the poem.

Not all poems in this first section are about childhood, but they are all youthful. The poem “Turning twenty” works with the conceit that life is like a swing and that you will be pulled upright eventually, no matter how dizzy it seems.

In the eighteen poems of the second section the concerns are definitely more those of a young adult. The “found” poem “the rest is easy” (pieced together from assertions in some magazine articles) is about writing itself and attitudes thereto. Some poems appear to be rather fraught accounts of being a young woman, dancing (“All the Single Ladies”), interrogating what friendship is (“Afternoon with Jane”, “Afternoon with Simon” “Afternoon with Matthew”), or for that matter interrogating what reality is. Like a child growing used to her senses and the “reality” those senses present, poems like “Elizabeth” and “The older the cheese” try the adult’s technique of probing reality in the form of symbolism and dream images, a sort of verbal surrealism. The surrealism and dream images seep into the poem “The young woman and the sea”, even if the poem begins with the very concrete dramatic situation of struggling to make contact on a first date. Another way of probing reality is to try to corral and control it. You can do this by making lists, as Ashleigh Young does in “list” poems such as “Some difficulties” (on possible disasters) and “Tight formations” (on hugging).

Do I detect moments of thwarted romanticism where we cannot take at face value such statements [fired by the movie The English Patient] as “All women deserve to be carried out of a desert cave / by a crying man, billowed all around by a white sheet.” This comes from “My hairdresser and my heart”, which is half in love with, and half disdainful of, the romantic ideal. Like a sensible young adult, in other words.

I am interested that there is so much imagery of journeys that are more in the dream world than in the world of concrete and physical reality. This may suggest journeys yet to be achieved – the potentiality of a life not yet lived fully.

“Where is that potentiality going?” I asked as it turned to the eighteen poems of the last section. “The child has grown. The young woman has stretched her imaginative muscles. And now….?”

Oddly enough, the third section is a descent into things, or an orgy of anthropomorphism and reverse-anthropomorphism, where the human and the non-human meet and sometimes switch places. In “The washing line of the future” a human being becomes a home. In “Badly stuffed animals” dead things are substitutes for living beings. A woman turns into cold armour (with a pun on amour) in “My Amour”. A man is a whale in “Evolution”. In “Prey”, human beings seeking sexual partners are like those deep-sea marine creatures that give off their own light. A bicycle becomes an elephant in “Elephant”.  “Nana” (apparently a poem inspired by living in London) has the great lines “New Zealand was deep down / in my mind’s pocket: like a brown coin / I forgot what it was worth / but I was grateful I had it / to wrap myself around….. / Homesickness was a door in my chest / that someone’d left open / and all the cold air / was blowing in.” Yes, the human being and the ice-box. A human being becomes a magnolia in “Magnolias”.

I am pressing the point a little, but having passed the discovery of childhood and the confusion of young adulthood, the poems of Magnificent Moon are in effect going into analytic mode and questioning the place of human beings in the big picture. Even poems about exercising, jogging and visiting the gym assume human being are machines, although the very last poem (“Giametti”) reflects both jocularly and wistfully on the possibility of the soul.

It occurs to me that I am possibly making very heavy weather of this, although the imagery of these poems does move as I have noted. The keynote of Magnificent Moon is vivacity. It does dizzy.

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Now let’s stop mucking about with these attempts to guess why poets have arranged their poems into various sections in their collections. The 65 poems of Elizabeth Nannestad’s Wild Like Me are unashamedly 65 individual poems. They are not corralled off into sections. This, of course, doesn’t prevent me from spotting the poet’s habitual concerns as I read my way through them.

Butterflies, birds, fish, and flies are encountered in the eight opening pages, as is the moon “freely floating/ in all the emptiness” and a sunset. And a beetle in a perfect poem called “Rowing to Paradise” (“Hoi there beetle: you’ve a long way to go. / If only you knew - / /from the back door to here is about / 60,000 beetle miles.”)

So we have an observer of nature. A compassionate one in the real sense of “feeling with” the various creatures she observes, but not sentimentalising or anthropomorphising them. The expansive two-page poem “It is Now Time for Nesting” is about clearing unwelcome starlings from a chimney nest – knowing that they are nesting and are a community, but also knowing that the little blighters have got to go. “Wasp” is about helping a dying wasp to die more easily. “Except for the Goat” concerns taking to safety a goat with a broken leg. In “It Come to Grief”, the poet pauses before flicking a daddy-long-legs out the window.

And where is the poet (or at least the poet’s persona) in all this?

Seeing herself as a part of this fragile natural condition, like the starlings, wasps, goats and daddy-long-legs. The poem “Wild” gives the collection its title, with a string of images of wild things (rivers running into the sea; sparks; smoke; a breaking heart; the salt of the sea) all of which are “wild like me”. And just as natural.

There are a number of poems about writing poems. But the nearest Elizabeth Nannestad comes to a manifesto is the poem entitled “Why You Should NOT Stick to Writing About What You Know” in which she posits that the human heart is always empty and waiting to be filled – and all we really know is the emptiness. Hence the need for a sympathetic imagination and the ability to project it onto what we do not know. This could be linked to the concept that life is a constant learning and life cannot be taught, as in the poem “A Woman Walking” which begins with Nennestad’s most assertive statement:

Lets’ face it. I am not any good at life.
Everything surprises me.
All those things I learned off by heart –
nobody ever asked for any of them.”

Certainly there are a number of poems in which adults are still at heart awe-struck children. “How Old the Young Are” and “We All Play” have the common theme of adults and children changing places, perhaps representative of the mature adult writer who now realizes how provisional the different stages of life are. “How It Happens at the Funeral” has elderly adults acknowledging that in some essential sense they haven’t grown since they were children. In “Her Beauty” a hospitalised woman redeems her present degrading circumstances by remembering the commanding presence she once had – imagination trumping the lived moment.

This could be indicative of runaway romanticism, except that Nannestad is as ready to devise poems of close physical domestic observation - poems about filling up an untidy garage; and about the wind whipping around the house at night; and about a paperweight for unruly papers.

On this side there is her projected imagination; and on that side the pithy gnomic statement of “Oh to Caress”, which reads in its entirety

 “Go ahead my feet
love one another –
I won’t look.”

There were times when I caught a tang of Stevie Smith – the big things implicit in the very small and domestic things.  There were times when the first-person confessionalism felt like notes towards a self-analysis. But Wild at Heart achieves what a good poetry collection always should. It presents a very distinctive voice.

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