Monday, December 8, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“HEARTLAND” by Michele Leggott (Auckland University Press, $NZ27:99); “THE LIMITS” by Alice Miller (Auckland University Press, $NZ24:99 ); “BULLET HOLE RIDDLE” by Miriam Barr (Steele Roberts $NZ19:99); “HALCYON GHOSTS” by Sam Sampson (Auckland University Press, $NZ24:99)
Four recent volumes of poetry, two by established poets and two by poets who have just produced their first collections.
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Michele Leggott of the University of Auckland is a very-well established poet and was in 2013 the recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry. Her latest volume Heartland was a finalist in this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards. I have only recently got around to reading it.
In her end-note, Leggott tells us: “A family is a series of intersecting arcs, some boat-shaped, others vaults or canopies, still others vapour trails behind a mountain or light refracted through water. None is enclosed, all are in motion, springing away from one another or folding themselves around some spectral inverse of the shape they make against sea or sky.” I take this to mean that Michele Leggott’s thematic agenda is to memorialise and mythologise her family and forebears. The “heartland” is the extended and ancestral family and all its inherited codes and legends.
Much imagery in the first section of this collection is drawn from childhood experiences and old photographs, but also from knowledge of the Hauraki Gulf and the islands in it. This much is clear, but lines (often with loose caesura) in loose unrhymed form often seem random and unfocused and the consciousness is one that drifts and wanders.
The poem “tiger moth” opens thus: “poetry is a crayfish or two / packed in wood shavings flying / home in a chillibox with my name on it / dear family it’s been a long time / let’s go hunting the past in order / to find the future you ask me / what poetry is and I tell you about / the whale and her calf tracking in the gulf / the coastguard has been alerted / because boaties might collide with them / the Rimutaka Hill Road is closed / …”[there follow various other events and observations] “… this is poetry you make it happen / wherever there are ears eyes / and mouths…”
If this is an answer to the question “What is poetry?” then I do not find it a satisfactory one, as it appears to say that poetry is simply random sensual experience (what one sees, smells, hears etc.). Isn’t this really the occasion for poetry rather than poetry itself?
The collection’s first section (called “a little ahead, my shadow”) ends with poem told by a female English ancestor. The second section (called “unwinding the bird”) begins with a poem set in Spirits Bay, gateway of the dead, where spirits jump off on their journey back to the ancestral homeland – so we have a bridge to New Zealand and later poems have visions of angels who have Victorian names and therefore might be the spirits of ancestors. There is a very personal poem about going for a walk with a dog-for-the-blind. The title poem “heartland” appears to be memories of childhood picnicking, and it is chiefly in childhood that ancestral and familial legends are absorbed.
Of course in this collection the Pakeha condition has to be considered – that is, the realization that we are separated by half a globe from ancestral experience, and that we are essentially living in somebody else’s legendary space. I find this most clearly addressed in two poems about the stars, which reference Lawrence Durrell and John Donne…. and David Eggleton. “Land sea and sky” is a clever poem about the upside-down-ness of constellations, especially the Pleiades. “The longest night” concerns Matariki.
The collection’s third section, called “many hands”, is divided into seven days. Apparently it celebrates a road trip in Australia and is a very good fragmented travelogue best relished for its specific images of place; but it also probes the hurtful decaying tooth of memory with its references to Charles Darwin and Henry Lawson. The fourth section “the mezzaluna rocking” comprises poems about ancestors and relatives often in the first person and again referencing Australian imagery. The tightest and (as I read it) the most carefully crafted section is the one called “Some Day” which brackets the experiences of a First World War New Zealand soldier in poems of home, going earth to earth.
To have imagery based on one’s personal memory and family lore is fine, but there are times when the specificity of this family’s references and memories exclude the reader. The specific does not become universal. Let me candidly say that, despite the poet’s endnote, and some of the stories of her forebears in New Zealand, I still did not understand what all the poems were pointing at and I am sure I still do not know. It may be the poet’s Heartland, but it does not always become the reader’s.
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Alice Miller’s debut volume The Limits is very different, being more personal, visceral and immediate. Poems are arranged in four sections titled “Skin”, “Steps”, “Earth” and “Body”, though for some reason the contents pages don’t display these sectional titles. These are poems that have the texture of dreams, or perhaps nightmares. They float in a world that us half mythic, half everyday, an always nowhere. I would use the term “surreal” except that that is now something of a cliché. What appear to be strong feelings are converted from the abstract to the concrete. To illustrate the technique, I quote in full the (double-spaced) poem “Air”:
You wake on the plane and mistakes ooze out of you
Mistakes ooze out of you like pus squeezed from skin
Look out the window and all’s yellow
Every minute’s infected
And it’s your last chance to choke the ocean
for the plane to crash like a dancer
for you to smell the earth
We live in a staggering time signature
What can I make of this? Yes, it signals the poet’s musical interests (“time signature”), which are referenced a number of times in this collection – later poems refer to Brahms and Clara Schumann. Yes, the “pus” is a simile for “mistakes”. (But what sort of mistakes? Mistakes about what?) The “yellow” is related to the colour of pus and maybe to sunset or sunrise or just sunshine over the sea as seen from a plane. But then maybe the plane is metaphorical too, in which case the poem is an attempt to concretize something abstract…. But what? You see, I find myself going around and around in circles with these poems, trapped on a verbal carousel, not knowing really what is being said. Perhaps this is about something so personal that it is incapable of being conveyed to a wider audience.
Again, quoting in full the poem “Recon”, I see the fantasy/mythic element dominating, but I’m not sure how literally I’m meant to take it. Here goes:
When we go to the field
to recover our weapons
all our axehandles
have grown back to trees
and although we are ready
to bury our dead,
there’s too much room in the ground
so, this is where we kneel again
O Muse, let us.
The final invocation to the Muse suggests that this has something to do with the process of creation (in poetry or music?). Gathering weapons from a field of battle, and axe handles which reconstitute themselves as trees, are things from fantasy or myth, therefore metaphorical surely. But metaphors of what? Kneeling on earth and burying the dead might be saying something about tradition as it relates to creation. Or am I meant to float with it and not interpret it?
Later poems reference St Sebastian, St George, Penelope weaving to ward off suitors and hoping Ulysses will return, and the wooden horse of Troy. In the poem concerning Troy, my heart leapt at the remarkable lines “But when they haul me out, we’ll all see / a girl pretending to be a goddess: / I cannot make an army. / I cannot change shape.” This appeared to be a call back to solid, concrete, quotidian reality, and a move away from psycho-mythologising. Yet, while never going for the external, concrete document, The Limits does also touch on communal mythologising, especially in the poem “Below the Senate” where Adam (the natural man, as I read it) and Caesar (public pomp and power and role-playing, as I read it) meet and struggle.
I am torn in my appreciation of this collection. Alice Miller does produce bracing and sometimes resonant images and phrases. I loved her mixed critique of literary responses to the world in the poem “Burn”, where she asserts: “When we put down / our books, spine-spread, we’re left / with our own life’s sentences / sweeping over our faces like waves / endlessly cresting / endlessly breaching…”. I enjoyed her escape from misty and Freud-haunted mythological forests, when she glances at an earthquake–damaged nuclear reactor in Japan. Reading these poems out loud, I found that some of them sing. But I was often stumped by their hermetic opacity. To what are they referring? What are they dissecting? Am I really the dumbest boy in the class not to get it?
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If I invoke the opaque in discussing Alice Miller’s debut volume, I must do it once again in dealing with Miriam Barr’s debut volume. The poems of Bullet Hole Riddle are mainly written in the first person and are intensely confessional – the great majority in the first section relate to the young woman’s sexual life, but the opacity is in trying to decode the nature of this life. To this reader at any rate, there seems to be something traumatic to which these poems are a long-term response. For example, the title poem “Bullet hole riddle” appears to equate a penis with a gun, orgasm with the firing of a bullet and the result as a wound in the gut. At the very least, this is a very unhappy and negative account of sexual experience for a young woman.
This is not the only note that Miriam Barr strikes, however. The collection is often more wistful than accusatory – love is thwarted or love escapes before it is recognised. A riff on Thumbelina (“Storytime with Hans Christian Andersen”) ends with the chant “We want love in our blood too” – a hope unfulfilled. The poem “The gist of it” suggests that love is really shared pain for “It’s tough out there / to keep the blood in our veins / we are wired to feel / each other’s pains / yet still we gather / form these groups / these functional little tribes / try to warm ourselves / to be warmed.” To the very last poem in the book (“Exchange”) there is wariness, for “Bartering our existence / we exchange small pieces of ourselves / until the lines blur. / We are not stand-alone objects / We are looking at ourselves / through each other’s eyes / Two people in the dark / showing each other where the edges are.”
There is, then, in Bullet Hole Riddle, a sense that love is both necessary and dangerous; fulfilling and wounding. We need to be part of the loving group, but we render ourselves vulnerable in loving at all. Given that these are the poems of a young woman growing in an assertive post-feminist generation, I was taken aback by how often the poems assume the passivity of a woman’s body in the act of love.
The most optimistic poem in the book, and one of the best, is “Love and gardening” which is a vision of love as shared activity in constructing a garden - but this poem is so idyllic in conception that it could be read as fantasy – and so the note of wistfulness comes in again.
I should note that there is a subsumed and muted strain of specifically Maori imagery in this collection. I should further note that I had the pleasure of attending the Auckland launch of this volume, and greatly enjoyed hearing both the poet and a fellow performance artist reading from the collection. Many of the poems appear to be specifically written for performance, one of them (“Somehow in Relation”) requiring the dual performance of two voices.
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And Sam Sampson’s Halcyon Ghosts. One tries to read poetry. One tries. One tries the poetry. One puts the poetry on trial. One knows one reads more poetry than most people read. One knows. One knows one is trying to read poetry without putting poetry on trial. But one puts poetry on trial try as one might. One does a trial reading of poetry. One wonders if one should try. Sometimes one does not want to try. One asks if one should be judged for trying. One tries without scoring. It’s a try. One takes a bunch of sticks. One breaks them. The breaks are random. The broken pieces are random. The lines of poetry are random and broken. Do they breathe? Do they speak? They are random. They are broken. One tries the breaks. The breaks are judged. The judgement is broken. The random is tried. One knows one reads more poetry than most people read. One knows why most people don’t read poetry. The broken lines are random sticks. The guests fly and the birds are skeins. Repeat twice. The poems are shaped. They are shaped after photos of birds in flight in skeins and broken lines. Later they are shaped after patterns of significance to the poet. To the poet’s mind they are shaped. They are Auckland poems. Oddly they are nostalgic poems. They are the broken bits of nostalgia, place and coherence. They are unplaced. They do not cohere. They are a pile of rubble and broken bits. They are the broken bits of Auckland and coherence. Sticks and skeins will break my mind but lines will never hurt me. Do they fly? The broken bits do not fly nor the falling feather from the photographed skein.