Monday, March 27, 2017

Something New

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

“THE YIELD” by Sue Wootton (Otago University Press, $NZ25); “THE INTERNET OF THINGS” by Kate Camp (Victoria University Press, $NZ25)

            Reviewers are supposed to ruminate, chew things over and gradually work their way towards a punchline giving their considered opinion of a book. With Sue Wootton’s sixth collection of poems, I am too impatient to do this. I want to begin with my conclusion and here it is: The Yield is one of the most satisfying, intelligent, well-crafted and involving volumes of New Zealand poetry I have read in the last decade. This is a poet who really knows her craft, has a wonderful sense of form, and isn’t afraid to front up to big questions without getting sententious about it. Nature, time and a nagging spiritual sense are all part of The Yield, but so too is a strong understanding of family life and the local. The poet is engaged in the quotidian world and not sitting isolated on a mountaintop.
In the opening poem, “Wild”, Wootton takes the artistic gamble of having nature, personified, addressing us. The poem is a kind of invocation, implicitly asking for human understanding and restraint (“Scaffold me with metal, cage me in glass, tube me, needle me, fill me, flush me.”) in the face of the wild. But it is not conservation propaganda. It is carried by its lyricism and its piling on of images.
Nature as such is one of Wootton’s preoccupations in this volume. She delights in the oddities of nature in a poem about breast-shaped clouds (“Mammatus”) In her poem “Wasp” the whole scale of human engagement with nature is seen in a small domestic incident - a man killing wasp is the peer of a prehistoric hunter. There are many poems about the sea and many references to fishing in her imagery. “Sea Foam at Gemstone Beach” sees death in small foaming bubbles. “Every Hunter and Forager” takes a more primal approach to the sea, linking us with other predators since the beginning of time. And then there is a poem like “Wintersight” a deceptively “pure” winter poem about deciduous trees in winter, but carrying beyond that to a real notion of tragedy. It begins flirtatiously:
The sycamore hoists last-leaf yellow parasols
against a clean blue sky. Paper thin they sun-wink, spin,
twirled as if by flirting girls commanding an admiring eye.”
            But the poem moves on to “the silent, dark and necessary forces” that strip a tree bare.
It is inevitable that observation of the cycles of nature leads to a strong consciousness of transience and death, certainly in “Graveyard poem”, but also in “At Hawea”, where rain falls and bubbles die on the surface of a lake; and in “Black Lake”, introducing a destructive, unforgiving side of nature. “Daffodils” appears to be an elegy. “A day trip to the peninsula” is a five-part sequence, which at first seems in a holiday mood until its progression of birds (kingfisher, pukeko, hawk) upsets it with images of predatory nature. The sequence ends with a shiver. On the back of this sense of transience and lost time, there are also some retro (perhaps nostalgic?) representations of time past and time lost. There is the creation of a vanished world in the imagery of “Barrel organ out of order’; childhood recall in “Three poems at the well”; and an intuition that children are untameable in “Of animals”.
Is there more to nature than decay? The spiritual nags at the poet, occasionally emerging as a guess that there might be something more than the physical universe. This is manifested in the odd religious image, sometimes ironical, sometimes almost sardonic, but there nevertheless – not quite “the God-sized hole” in the modern psyche, but something near it. In “The needlework, the polishing” she ambiguously “likes an empty church” i.e. an old church is a purely (and apparently godless) aesthetic experience; but “Autumn voltage” suggests that mystery, even in nature, might somehow be connected to religion; the poem “Priest in a coffee shop” is in a similar vein; and while “Pray” is ironic it again calls on church imagery (putting something in the plate) to make its points.
Yet the final poem of the volume – the title poem “The Yield” [about a scrappy tree nevertheless managing to set down roots in its own way and flower] -seems to affirm, if anything, the fact of life itself, blind but surviving.
Thus much for trotting my way through what this volume is “about”. Of course this tells you virtually nothing about the quality and worth of the poems themselves.
One of the most attractive things about Sue Wootton’s work is her attention to form. Her shape poem, “Jar”, has a conclusion neatly echoing and transforming its beginning. Similarly “Under / Over” is shaped to replicate the descent and the rise of a diver under ice. Her “little shanty” has exactly the (mainly rhyming) form of a sea shanty, tho’ ‘tis evidently all an extended metaphor where the ship is the solidity of love.
More important than these frolics is the strong sense of the value of onomatopoeic sound. Many of Wootton’s poems sing and bounce. Take a look at the poem “Luthier”; or at the central section of “Abandoned stable, Matanaka”, replicating the experience of a horse-ride in childhood:
Misted morning rides on horse-wide tracks
on board the felted ribcage of a breathing beast.
Seed heads swashed our knees. We parted leaves.
The passing world itched flesh to snort and snicker.
Ears flick-flacked and swivelled: nets set to catch
the pitch of tremors set off by a distant barking dog.
The bite, the bit, the spit, the froth, the foam.
The lips that curled back rubbery to show
the sea-slug tongue, the yellow chomping bones…:
The emphases of sound here play out the rhythm of the horse, the accelerating tempo of its pace, and the swift brushing-past of the foliage.
I do not aim to be the uncritical admirer of every poem in this book. A prose poem like “Picnic” is good and precise reportage of a family picnic with young children, but I am not sure that it is anything more than that. Yet this book has some great poems. The greatest may be Lingua Incognita – about both the limits of language and how language does not rise to the occasion of emotional stress. Fittingly, it is quoted in the blurb, drawing attention to one of the poet’s major preoccupations. Then there is “Strange Monster” – a genuinely heroic poem, with references to Marianne Moore, wherein the nature of poetry itself is explored in an extended image of a kitchen. Sue Wootton’s fine sense of form shines here as the poem is written (mainly) in iambic triplets.
A personal favourite, though, is “Ice Diver”, a poem almost in the grand manner, but with strong sense of modernity. I quote it here in full.

O feed more salt to that deepest heart –
blind, propulsive, without a shell, at
each squeeze pushed hard into the net.

Not you, fisherboy, winding in your reel,
sticking to your quota. But you, off-duty,
shoreless, out of your depth, taking your soul

for a freshwater swim under ice, who’ll
ascend your bubblebreath trail
in holy isolation. You in a dazzle

of danger, drifting with the light-struck
dead. You, hooded, sealed in your drysuit
habit. Monk, sprinkle the salt.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Comparisons are odious. Of course they are, so I will not make them. Kate Camp is a different sort of poet from Sue Wootton, and there’s an end of it.
In her sixth collection The Internet of Things, Kate Camp emerges mostly as a miniaturist working on a smaller stage than the grandness of nature. Her poems are filled with ironic, and usually housebound, observations and anecdotes.
The Internet of Things has as its cover image the preserved kitchen of the Spartan working-lass house in which John Lennon was raised. This signals that there will be pop culture references, as well as learned ones, in Kate Camp’s poetry – as indeed there are. At the more High Culture end of the scale, there’s a poem that begins with an epigraph from Heraclitus.
In Camp’s poems we encounter the neighbours’ guinea pig; a party with adult males playing harmless but boisterous games; a settlers’ museum; a three-part poem which seems fired by the fact that the poet’s mother eventually threw her childhood toys away (although an endnote says the sequence was inspired by a ceramics exhibition). This is a domesticated and enclosed human scale.
Also in the housebound mode, there is a very effective and sad poem called “Artist” about being the companion to an artist; and a poem called “The biology of loneliness”.  Both strike me as really being about alienation; about being cocooned and overcome by things. I think they are the best poems in the book.
I admit to finding some poems impenetrable. What exactly is “Life on Mars” about? I do know the TV series called “Life on Mars” about a cop living in the wrong era, but that has nothing to do with this poem any more than the planet Mars has. What really is it saying? The two poems about St Jerome in his cell – via Rembrandt’s painting thereof – are genre fun, though the conclusion of the second (the saint gets eaten by his lion) seems to me a glib sign-off. I also find it disconcerting to see how often the poet writes “you” when she probably means “I”.
In sum, I found The Internet of Things an interesting collection with a couple of highlights.

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