We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“BECAUSE A WOMAN’S HEART IS LIKE A NEEDLE AT THE BOTTOM OF THE OCEAN” by Sugar Magnolia Wilson (Auckland University Press, $NZ24:99); “THE MOON IN A BOWL OF WATER” by Michael Harlow (Otago University Press, $27:50) ; “UNDER GLASS” by Gregory Kan) Auckland University Press, $24:99)
The title of Sugar Magnolia Wilson’s collection Because a Woman’s Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean is, according to an end-note, a Chinese proverb – or at least it is when you subtract the word “because”. It is referenced in a poem of the same title. But what does it mean and how does it announce the focus and intention of this collection? Does it mean a woman’s heart is like something tiny in something vast – a mere speck in the universe? Or is it like our term “like finding a needle in a haystack”, perhaps signalling that a woman’s heart is inscrutable and hard to locate? And yet a needle can prick and strike, so maybe it’s also suggesting that, small and inscrutable though it may be, a woman’s heart [= feelings, motives, emotional thought patterns] is capable of striking out at the world.
My apologies for making such heavy weather of a title, but I do think these suggestions take us somewhere near to what the poet is on about. Because a Woman’s Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean has poems suggesting women’s isolation, emotional responses to nature and (perhaps) vulnerability. But it also has more bolshie poems striking back at men and at any assumptions about women’s weakness. The prick of the needle.
The nine-page prose poem “Dear Sister” opens the volume and in some ways is its manifesto, or at least its announcement of coming attractions. In a country setting, a woman addresses her “sister”, partly about the nastiness and insensitivity of men (apparently all men are guilty of destroying the environment) but mainly in myth-related images, referencing Lilith, of a woman asserting herself in her own way and even in solitude. Much of its night-time imagery draws upon Romanticism, even if the vocabulary is contemporary. Much also resembles a dream-state, which recurs later in the poem “Dear X”.
Indeed the “Dear Sister” sequence anticipates a number of keys later struck by the poet. Similar night-time imagery appears in the poems “Moon-baller” and “Spent”. Similar ideas of a lost Edenic innocence, and of the lost childhood security of a protective mother, occur in the poem “Home Alone 2 (with you)”, despite its quite different idiom, which says “for a while you let me be a kid again, / a kid who got lost and can’t seem to / find her mother anywhere, / no matter how hard she looks.” In the poem “Final 80s expose” there is desire for a painting of a mother in which “the wispy brown / quarter moon of a / child’s head can be / seen to rest against / her knees”. The collection closes with a 15-part sequence “Pen pal” (apparently it was published separately as a chapbook five years ago). It is a free-verse sequence written as if by a child (or young teenager) in a rural area. The girl plays at being a witch so there are “spells” in it – as well as the assumption of the female’s special, and possibly magical, powers. Of course “Pen pal” presents an adult poet’s perceptions and sensibililties, and not those of a child. But the assumed child’s voice is yet another harking back to innocence.
Oh to be a protected child again… and yet the adult world doesn’t allow such an option.
In fact the world can be a fairly brutal place, and so can much of Sugar Magnolia Wilson’s imagery. The poem “Anne Boleyn” gives a harsh anatomical vision of a woman become monster to preserve herself, with the tone struck in the opening lines “Anne Boleyn had reptilian creatures / dwelling in her ovaries / eating all her eggs”. Meanwhile “The Monster”, referencing Frankenstein’s monster, plays on the paradox of the masculine blending tenderness with brutality. (Obviously there is the added irony that Frankenstein’s monster was invented by a woman writer, so the monster is to some extent a woman’s view of the male.) You will also find in this collection incidental reference to male domestic violence in a poem about two half-sisters (“Betty as a Boy”) and in an evocation of 1980s Auckland and children negelected by parents, but again, with a hint of violence (“Newton Gully mix tape”).
I could resort to the tired term “surrealist” to describe the imagery in some poems here (such as “Pup art”). But I am more taken by Wilson’s tendency to anthropomorphise nature as a way of delineating the human condition. In “Glamour”, birds building nests are anthropomorphised to suggest women trapped in domesticity. Something similar happens in “Mother” where birds’ fertility is clearly linked to the concept of motherhood in general. As for “The lake has a long memory”, “Muddy heart”, “The Sleep of Trees” and “Town” – all give a sort of nature description which really comments on human nature, human memory, the human psyche.
What I regard as the stand-out poem in this collection steps aside from these preoccupations. “Conversation with my boyfriend” is a tour de force that has to be read stanza by stanza, alternating between two poems – one expressing a Korean’s thoughts on the same things as the other speaking an Anglophone’s thoughts. I have often seen this double-poem structure before, but rarely as well-handled as it is here, with its suggestions of both understanding and misunderstanding between two cultures. For the record “Bathhouse night chat” is another exercise in the incomprehension between cultures and there are other poems which seem to reflect the waxing and waning of an affair with a Korean.
I would not describe this collection as wistful, although it has its wistful moments. More significantly, its imagery and ideas show a collision of tenderness and hard destructive reality. It has teeth, and they are very sharp. A very significant debut.
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Individual poems always have to be read carefully and treated with respect – and this is the hell of reviewing collections of poetry. Unless I were to give a cogent analysis of each individual poem, which would make for an incredibly long review, I have to make generalisations about a poet’s work. And essentially this means seeing and commenting on patterns and repeated motifs in poems.
I am saying all this carefully before I launch into my remarks on what is, I believe, Michael Harlow’s twelfth collection of poems The Moon in a Bowl of Water. One of the three epigraphs to this collection is George Serefis’ statement “It would be very useful if our poets learned to use prose for poetic purposes.” Picking up on this statement, Harlow has produced a volume of prose poems.
In 2016 I reviewed positively on this blog Michael Harlow’s Nothing For It But ToSing, noting how often Harlow’s poems read like psychodramas and how he conceives of joy as a brief consolation for life’s wounds. Born in 1937, Harlow is a Jungian therapist. He is also, says his on-line bio., of Greek and Ukrainian heritage. The psychodramas are here in The Moon in a Bowl of Water with one poem, “On black or white, or both”, specifically referencing psychotherapy. The ethnic connections are here too, with poems drawing upon Greek mythology, as in “Odysseus to his son Telemachus”, “Merz poem, dreaming of Delphi” and those alluding to Persephone. “Artemis for Alcibiades”, with an Eastern Orthodox setting, suggests the therapeutic power of some church-related customs. “Weaving, and the serenity of her laughter” has a Greek setting and is simply an expression of the serenity that can be found in work, as if it were a sacrament. As for the title poem “The moon in a bowl of water”, it contrasts the ways of the “old country” with the ways of the new, particularly in the matter of having children.
What is more dominant in this collection, however, is the matter of ageing and death. Harlow is now in his 82nd year and inevitably many of these poems are an old man’s reflections. Of course there are poems about death, coffins and funerals, as in “Contingency plan”, “Undertaking” and “The real estate of heaven”; but even the poems that do not address death directly tell us something very sad about facing old age. Perhaps life has not added up to what we expected. “Ex Libris” says that a life of writing may lead to the realisation that it is better to be without words. “Telling darkness” and “Our ruby anniversary” both imply that noise, words, and chatter end in silence anyway. Harlow’s reference to Saint Augustine, “The Bishop of Hippo and Time” suggests that the best thing about time is that it moves on and comes to an end. But something wry can be wrenched from the march of time. One of the collection’s best, “The weather in Mallorca and Tennessee” concerns aged people trying to connect with youth and discovering that growing up is not an endless process of maturing: “And lately he feels the call of philosophy. He thinks hard about walking. Even if walking forward is always the way of getting somewhere, still, it’s good to remember that striding out on one foot, the other is always going backwards.”
The collection’s poems about unhappy psychological states are as frequent as its poems about ageing and death. “Cloudy Sunday” is the portrait of a girl damaged by grief. But what intrigues me is how often psychological stress seems to be related here to connections not made and relationships that did not work out. A wedding does not take place because the couple are mismatched even if they enjoyed flirting (“A matinee special”). A romantic connection may happen, but probably never will (“Swimming lessons in Spanish”). A woman lives on her own after being thwarted in love (“The gardeners”). The poem “Short talk on walls” concerns what literally separates us. Twins are “strangers of almost a close kind” (“Sister’s keepsake box”). While “Short talk on Cezanne, Switzerland and lemonade” is mainly about the artist’s special way of seeing, it too segues into the story of a mismatch and deals with how different his tastes are from his wife’s. At least in the poem “On never meeting Samuel Beckett”, the idea of the lost connection is given an ironical and funny twist.
If death is near, if connections are not made and human beings apparently live as isolated souls, then (as was apparent in Harlow’s last collection) joy can never be heartfelt but is always a brief consolation. A clutch of poems say this directly (“A glancing smile”, “Waiting for the basket-of-gold girl”, “Three times blessed”). A poem about a photographer (“The eye of the day”) sees life as, at best, a mixed blessing, or “a way of living… inside the light and dark.” The mood is clearly expressed in the advice given in “One hundred laughters”: “say you are a window-washer rising out of a dream, wanting to give a small but bright celestial shine to this umbrous world.”
If I were to get censorious, I could say that some of Harlow’s poems seem to play on the stereotype of sad and stuffy single women - “Reading between-the-lines, Miss Flora Florentine”, “A small magnificence, just buzz me Miss Blue”, “Taking care of your own” and “Miss A returning”. The last-named concerns a woman teacher who hits children and asks the poignant question “Why is it we sometimes end up paying for the unhappiness of the unhappy one?”). Or perhaps these are like real people whom the poet has observed in his practice? Some poems seem to force their conclusion, such as “Counting backwards” where a tale of povertyy-wrenched misery concludes: “The truth is I was born with a hole in my heart / In my heart a real hole they said. And it’s still there.” Humour does not always work. It’s hard to tell whether “His career, a pilgim’s progress”, about a strict and possibly violent policeman, is satire or sneer.
On the other hand “Little song on the Hit parade” is a neat sardonic comment on rampant egotism. And “His acting career, getting a life”, one of the best in the collection, is genuinely funny, though in a melancholy way.
You can see that I have damaged my head trying to corral into neat categories of dominant ideas all the poems in this book. I am now vexed with the thought that they are probably more various than I have suggested. Whatever misgivings I might have about some of Harlow’s work here, however, let me praise the calm reflection of the book’s coda – the perfect six lines called “Short talk on the ‘far more near’ ”, which concisely conveys both the transformative power of poetry and its eternal imperfection.
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Go to this link, Gregory Kan, and you will find that three years ago, in early 2016, I reviewed the Singapore-Chinese expatriate poet’s first collection This Paper Boat. I was impressed by Kan’s ability to link past with present in poems that acknowledged the deadness of the past, while at the same time showing the ongoing influence of the past. Kan often referenced, and was in conversation with, earlier authors.
Gregory Kan’s new collection Under Glass is also in conversation with other authors, as a note at the end lists many (mainly very recent) works which Kan has “sampled”.
Under Glass is all one poem – not a collection of poems – and has to be read as such. Most of this one poem, printed in sparse and widely-separated lines, is gnomic – both in the sense of brief and pithy and in the sense of requiring very close scrutiny to interpret. Call it a soulscape – the cartography of a lost or bewildered soul. On its opening page (also cited on the back cover) it declares: “Here, there are two suns. The ordinary sun is in the sky overhead. The other sun is eating its way out from inside me.” We at once have an image of the external world (material reality) and the inner world (mind, thought, feeling), objectivity and subjectivity, empiricsm and rationality.
Read literally, Under Glass takes a journey through a landscape of river and jungle towards the coast and a lighthouse. Like the sun, a lighthouse is a clear symbol of clarity, elucidation, an explanation of things. But the explanation of life is not so straightforward, and the lighthouse proves not to be a place of clarity and elucidation. It has a trapdoor leading to a labyrinth of caverns in which lies “a giant, mouldering pile of letters and notes” (p.55) which may be a judgment on literature. As this poem (book) progresses, it is the inner sun, the subjective, that burns more brightly. But “everything that surrounds the second sun is not part of it but nonetheless makes it what it is.” (p.40) Even the subjective is driven by material reality. We are in the world of uncertainty where there are no neat answers to the problem of existing.
Strung through Under Glass are direct addresses (“you”) to somebody, so the ontological and epistemological questions are also wedded to the fragility of relationships and it is easy to infer that this set of reflections has been provoked by a relationship that has broken down, or that is at a crisis stage.
There is in this poem that quest for clarity and simplicity, as in “I wanted what happened to be something / I could know / and I wanted what I knew to be something / I could describe” (p.2). The quest is emphasised thus: “I want fixed terms by which to measure my experience. / I must be either high, or dying. / I don’t want to know many small things. / I want to know one big fucking thing / and call it either shame, or home.” (p.12) We also note that “I thought that the things I loved / were places I could always go back to / but the spaces between things become places themselves / and threaten to swallow me whole” (p.6). This concern with the influence of the past links Under Glass with Kan’s earlier collection This Paper Boat.
I found something very refreshing in Under Glass. Perhaps it is the forthrightness of its ideas. Parhaps, for all that I have said about its gnomic quality, it is the poet’s candour in dissecting very personal thought patterns. But most important, it is a work that gives a sense of wholeness and completeness. Under Glass is the expression of one unified inspiration.
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