Monday, May 25, 2020

Something New

 We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“EVERY NOW AND THEN I HAVE ANOTHER CHILD” by Diane Brown (Otago University Press,  $NZ29:95); “THE SONG OF GLOBULE” by Stephen Oliver (Greywacke Press, no price given); “NO TRAVELLER RETURNS – the selected poems of RUTH FRANCE”, edited with an introduction by Robert McLean (Cold Hub Press, $NZ27:50)

            As I have done so often before, I begin with an obvious apology. Apart from all being collections of poetry, the three books I am considering on this post have very little in common. Each has a different focus, a different style and a different purpose – and they are gathered together here only because I have recently read them.

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Rimbaud was certainly onto something when he said “Je est un autre”. As soon as pen meets paper or finger reaches keyboard, a poet is creating a fiction even if writing in the first-person. Any sort of autobiography is selective, smooths down (or jazzes up) reality, and ignores things that don’t fit the writer’s design. Yet at the same time, all poets reveal something of themselves in the poems they write.

These are all commonplace truisms. But I am trying to suggest delicately how difficult it is to review poetry written, confessional-style, in the first-person. Back in October 2015, I reviewed on this blog Diane Brown’s Taking My Mother to the Opera, her poetic account of her childhood and her relationship with her parents as they grew old, written in the first-person. Every now and then I have another child is also confessional, first-person and about the narrator’s life. But here is the problem. Ignoring the clearly surreal and dreamlike sections of this collection, much of the narrator’s CV matches publicly-known details of the poet Diane Brown’s life. So are we to read Every now and then I have another child as straight autobiography, and then busy ourselves psychoanalysing it and drawing conclusions about the poet’s state of mind? Or are we to see it more as a kind of fantasia, mixing autobiographical details with what is consciously fiction?

In this review, I’ll take the latter option and refer to the narrator as Joanna, the name she is given in Every now and then I have another child. This collection is the length of a short novel (approximately 150 pages), although its nine long sections do not make a sequential narrative. The tale often curls back upon itself, and there are spaces for rumination and reflection. But the essential situation is clear enough.

Joanna has two adult sons, but “every now and then”, although she is well past menopause, she wonders what it would be like to have a daughter. The poem “After the Facts” (p.95) begins: “In this dream I am plotting a child, planting the seed / in my lover’s mind, then remember I can’t recall the date / I last bled, five years ago at least. My stomach is swollen / but without craving or nausea. Menopause, not pregnancy…” In fact she imagines giving birth to and nursing and carrying a daughter, who invades her dreams. But there are many things in her past that trouble her. Her mother deserted her when she was very young, so she also wonders what it would be like to have a mother. Joanna feels deeply the lack of a mother’s support and approval, noting she is “Secretly praying every book of mine, every child might / flush her out to the surface. Imagining her appearing / at the hospital or my book launch, swanning in, all dolled up, / the same age as when she left, exclaiming, ‘My daughter, / I’m so proud of you.’ ” (“Ways of processing” p.140). And Joanna never had a sister, lamenting in  “Selected Fragments” (p.88): “I wanted a sister, but my mother said / I was her lovely only”. No daughter, no mother, no sister – Joanna, now of mature age, suffers from a lack of female intimacy in her moulding as a person. She has also been through a divorce and there is an ex-lover to think about.

Much of this is in the key of regret, lost opportunities and “if only…” and “it might have been…”. But then there is the surreal element. Early in the piece, a Doppelganger called Anna begins to butt into Joanna’s life. Is she Joanna’s imagined sister? Or (as she sometimes appears) is she a vision of what Joanna’s life would have been had she continued with the apparently disorderly life she led whan she was a young adult? She could be the part of Joanna that wants to shout out tactless things at a funeral or behave like a spoilt child. The Doppelganger Anna is Joanna with the “Jo” removed, as is noted at one point; so Anna takes over parts of the narrative to criticise or ridicule things Joanna says and thinks. Sometimes she is bad conscience, and sometimes she is evil angel. Late in the piece, one of Joanna’s writing students is apparently murdered. Was this done by the evil Anna? (And if so, isn’t she in fact the dark side of Joanna herself?) A genial young cop called Dave comes to quiz Joanna about it.

It is clear that the title Every now and then I have another child refers to the whole process of writing fiction and imagining characters. The non-existent baby daughter sometimes soliloquises. So does the imagined Anna. So does the picture of a boy whom Joanna sees on a wall – an alternative version of Joanna’s sons, perhaps. So does Detective Dave. Each is the poet’s “child” after all. The narrative arc is not random. There is a sort of cathartic ending and things that allow Joanna’s spirit to settle a bit (or, as the current cliché puts it, “reach closure”) but this ending is for the reader to discover and not for me to reveal.

As you will have noted, Joanna (like Diane Brown) runs a writing class and this brings many comments both on the writing process itself and on her attitudes towards her students – not always complimentary. In fact, she can be quite satirical about writing classes and hip academe and its attitudes. In “Maintaining the Mask”, she recalls being a panelist at a literary event, and describes the other panelists as “Younger, well published with permanent jobs in universities / … I surmise I’m the token speaker outside their circle. / ‘I taught here’, I say to the audience, ‘night school, when anyone / could attend, before creative writing classes became an industry / and kudos for institutions. / A long line of students anxious for a piece of paper to hang / on the wall to prove they can write. And everyone denying / anything therapeutic about it.’ ” (p.16)

Of course it’s hard not to equate these lines with Diane Brown’s own frank views of academic hauteur… but then again, there’s that danger of confusing the narrator with the poet. Maybe Joanna is, in toto, another of the poet’s “children”.

So how do I sum up this very capacious poetic excursion? Parts of it are funny intentionally. Parts are rather raw and unhappy. Despite the final catharsis, there is much unresolved regret here. I did not enjoy all of it, because I felt many of the reflections repeated themselves. But I did keep reading – and that is the effect of a good book, isn’t it?

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A pity the Monty Python people turned the words “and now for something
completely different” into a comic catch-phrase, because I really would like to use those words now. Stephen Oliver’s The Song of Globule is a very different sort of poetry from the colloquial-confessional of Diane Brown. Stephen Oliver is a prolific poet (this is his twenty-first collection) who bills himself as “Australasian” – New Zealand-born, but resident in Australia for twenty years and now back in New Zealand. I first became aware of his work when I reviewed his collection Intercolonial, specifically about “Australasian” connections, in Poetry New Zealand back in 2014. More recently, there was his collection Luxembourg (reviewed on this blog), which I nominated as one of the year’s best collections of poetry in my “Poetry Picks” round-up for 2018 in the now defunct New Zealand Listener. Stephen Oliver can write colloquially, but he brings to his work a wide knowledge of classical and canonical literature and a respect for traditional poetic forms. Let us say that he is sometimes downright erudite.

The Song of Globule comprises 80 sonnets – real sonnets in full 14-line form, all with rhyme-schemes ( well, sort of – the rhyme schemes can be erratic), and nearly all of them following the Shakespearean rather than the Petrarchan structure, and so ending with a rhyming couplet. Mind you, many of the concluding couplets are internal rhymes or para-rhymes, and a few sonnets (Numbers 37 and 47, for example) do not have a concluding rhyme at all, unless you can see a way that “chick” rhymes with “hip”; or “soothsayers” with “bartenders”.

An end-note (also printed in the blurb) tells us that these 80 sonnets “pursue the oneiric preoccupations of a young female protagonist in Sydney who, if not suffering from multiple personality disorder, is certainly a fantasist”. So they present a floating consciousness in a sort of dream state. We soon work out that the young woman in question comes from a comfortable middle-class background (father a chartered accountant on Sydney’s fashionable North Shore), but that she longs for grunge, freedom, in a word, bohemia; and she goes roving in the wilds of Sydney seeking her thrills and kicks. “Her face, friendly as – in the mirror’s clutch, / hungered for a grip on life, love and lies. / Just one more girl in search of some hero.”(Sonnet 6, p.8). But, from the beginning of her ramblings, she knows that there can be huge disappointments. “Life doesn’t give a rat’s arse how we feel. / We nose-balance our hopes much like a seal; / dreams may be free but some turn out crappy. / So Globule learnt that life is a mixed dish.” (Sonnet 2, p.4). This hardens her shell and leads her to a dangerous insouciance: “If life proved to be nothing but a farce, / on balance – she didn’t give a rat’s arse.” (Sonnet 28, p.30).

To jump to assessment, some of these sonnets are gems. See Stephen Oliver’s skill by comparing Sonnets 15 and 16 (pp.17 and 18) where two different moods are evoked by the same stimulae. In Sonnet 15, Globule is bored by the sight of a kiddies’ playground; then in Sonnet 16 we get the joy children feel there: “Each hour is a newly dug treasure hoard / that rolls on like an endless ball of string.” Sonnet 24 (p.26) gives an effectively creepy sense of the young woman’s friendless solitude, while Sonnet 30 (p.32) is a psychologically accurate rendering of the way people often save their public dignity, and sense of self-worth, by pretending that they have not been hurt by others (in this case, the young woman knows she has been discarded by lovers). As for Sonnet 50 (p.52), it shadows perfectly the protagonist’s youthful lack of care: “Globule resided in the here and now, / a handful of dreams, a few basic skills; / she saw herself living inside a cave. / The sun sank on the hillock of her hip.”

There is, however, one major obstacle that might come between the reader and the text. The Song of Globule is so specifically about Sydney, that to appreciate it fully one would have to know Sydney well. Many of the copious end-notes tell us about Sydney, its arcania, the locations which some sonnets describe and (often) the poet’s regret that recent property development has destroyed much of Sydney’s old bohemia. But all this explanation simply reminded me how much I, as a non-Sydney-sider, do not know that metropolis.

Stephen Oliver strains the consciousness of his bohemian wandering young woman by, late in the day, having sonnets about women who represent martyrdom (Sophie Scholl) or who combine fervent religious belief with sensuality (Mary Magdalene, Thecla). Then, for 15 sonnets (Sonnets 64 to 78), he gives his rendering and re-phrasing of Ovid’s Heroides (but in a metre that Ovid would never have known). In these sonnets, women from Greek legend address, and rebuke, men from Greek legend. Penelope regrets how long it is taking Odysseus to get home, and wonders if he has taken up with some floozie; Phaedra still hungers for the erotic love of her stepson Hippolytus; Ariadne rebukes Theseus for abandoning her after she has shown him how to get through the labyrinth; and of course Medea gives a piece of her mind to Jason etc. etc. You get the message here – men can be deceiving bastards who leave women in the lurch.  With one of these vignettes I would, however, take issue. In Sonnet 70 (p.72) “Dido to Aeneas”, the spurned queen of Carthage calls out the self-righteous Trojan wanderer who has sailed away. But her billingsgate is redundant. Read the Aeneid, Book 6, and you discover that the silence of Dido’s ghost, when Aeneas encounters her in the underworld, says more than any rant could. When Dido’s ghost turns wordlessly away from Aeneas, you already have possibly the greatest dismissal of a faithless lover in all literature. Rant is redundant.

I do note that the last two sonnets of The Song of Globule bump us back into the more mundane world of a lost soul in Sydney; and I do understand that these classical tales of abandonment could relate to Globule’s desolation. But I do think the 15 Heroides sonnets are not quite in synch with the rest of the text, and may have been conceived by the poet separately from The Song of Globule.  (Indeed Sonnets 64 to 78 had earlier been published on their own). Even so, I enjoyed Oliver’s concatenation of the demotic, the surreal and the classical, and I enjoyed The Song of Globule for all its skill and the intellectual games it plays.

Personal, petty footnote: The blurb of The Song of Globule features comments from three people endorsing Stephen Oliver’s work. One is a gentleman who now bills himself as “Nicholas Reid of Canberra” to distinguish himself from me. I’ve mentioned this confusion between the two of us before when, seven years ago, I posted on this blog Who is this Ghost who Walks Beside Me? However, I categorically refuse to now start billing myself as “Nicholas Reid of Auckland”. I had the name first, dammit.

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In his introduction to No Traveller Returns – the selected poems of Ruth France, the poet and editor Robert McLean really throws down the gauntlet. He points out that Monte Holcroft once referred to Ruth France (1913-1968) as “among the finest minds of her generation”. But, says McLean, it would be hard to claim that many of our current New Zealand poets have fine minds. Indeed those who “read deeply of contemporary essayists, philosophers, and historians eschew poetry because there seems to them no exercise of intellect in it.” What McLean champions is the type of poetry that he himself and only a handful of his peers now write – poetry which deals directly with philosophical concepts, makes use of traditional forms of structure and metre, draws on a real knowledge of canonical literature and the Classics, assumes that the readership consists of informed adults, and is not merely loose, confessional observations.

McLean sees these strengths in the poetry of Ruth France who, dead now for over half a century, certainly belongs to Hamlet’s “undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns”.  France wrote two well-received, but now largely forgotten, novels; and she produced two collections of poetry, Unwilling Pilgrim (1955) and The Halting Place (1961), in both cases using the pseudonym “Paul Henderson”. A third collection, No Traveller Returns, was left in manuscript at the time of her death. On the whole, she has been overlooked by anthologists, including what McLean calls “a recent book about New Zealand women poets”.  No Traveller Returns – the selected poems of Ruth France contains selections from all three of her collections, with the poems from the third collection No Traveller Returns being published here for the first time. McLean and Cold Hub Press are making an admirable effort to restore to the canon work by poets that has been neglected or overlooked (including the hitherto uncollected poems of R.A.K.Mason). Thus this welcome selection.

Ruth France’s poetry deals with the physical world, with South Island or Wellington landscapes and seascapes apprehended and described in detail. But the physical details of nature are nearly always the occasion for abstract thought. One of her best poems, “After Flood”, ceases to be about the described flood itself and becomes a reflection on human fallibility and the tendency to take for granted our fragile, constructed circumstances. “The Young Legend” may apparently celebrate early seafarers around our coasts, but really asks how we can attach inherited European images and mythology to New Zealand (or to put it biblically, “how can we sing our songs in a strange land”?). “Mouth of the Waimakariri” does convey awe at the river’s collision with the sea, but the situation is rationalised as philosophy where “Wind / Is cold reason, parting grass, re-sifting sand, / Plunging trees through the sky, breaking the sun / Till light and matter are fragments, and reason / Cries which is the one truth?” In effect, the objective scene before the poet becomes a symbol of the workings of the human mind.

Ruth France looks at floods, clouds, New Year bonfies, or the mouth of a great river, but none of these is a Ding-an-Sich. Each is a cue to some process of thought. Without exception, all of France’s poems require close reading and re-reading.

What I detect in France’s work is a mind not fully at ease with the physical world. She rationally registers nature’s awe and beauty, but she does not submit to it emotionally. All the while, there is the ever-questioning mind of the rationalist (in the Platonic and Cartesian sense), which says that the senses may be cheats and that each emprical observation is subjective and probably unreliable (see the poems “Object Lesson” and “Road Map”).  Empiricist she is not, for all her powers of observation. Yet there are times when the rational mind is not enough, and she aches for a more emotional approach (see especially the poem “How Shall I”). The repeated theme of the toll of time does make much that she writes pessimistic. All must end. Yet in longer, more discursive poems such as “New Year Bonfire”, “Ghost Ships” and “The New Journey”, there are sparks of hope.

Keen eyes might notice that the only poems I have cited so far come from France’s first collection Unwilling Pilgrim. But the traits I detect therein are consistent with her later work. From her second collection The Halting Place comes a strong statement of her philosophical rationalism in “I Think of Those” where “The mind in its lonely prison forfeits today / As well as its yesterdays…” We are all imprisoned in our minds. A halcyon scene of summer collapses into the threat of winter in the collection’s title poem “The Halting Place”. In the hitherto unpublished No Traveller Returns, the title poem tells us that we cannot revisit the past any more than we can step into the same river twice. Even more severely, “The Letter” seems to despair of the possibility of real communication between people. Given that she sees the mind’s interaction with the physical world as the only ontological (and epistemological) reality, Ruth France has great difficulty dealing with death. Her attempts to make something uplifting find her, willy-nilly, stumbling into religious imagery. “When All the Flames” collapses into incoherence when she tries to wed Biblical imagery with a death-ending view of evolution and a critique of masculinity. “On the Death of a Young Girl” denies, but still strains after, an idea of immortality.

I hope I am not overstating this case. In emphasising that Ruth France is an epistemological rationalist, that she feels a great barrier between herself and the physical world, and that she is often pessimisitic, I am not saying that these are the only keys in which she plays. Nor am I suggesting that her perspective is one I dismiss. It often makes for exemplary poetry. I note that in her second collection The Halting Place, there is more sense of other people rather than just her isolated ego. In “Always, on Waking”, her boat-building husband is seen as being part of her protection against the outer storm. The hitherto unpublished “While Trying to Study Phonetics on a Spring Morning” crosses into the Baudelairian country of “Correspondances” with its empirical construct that all the senses relate to, and feed upon, one another. And lest any reader imagines that France is a forbidding stylist with contorted ratiocination, I would point out the beautiful, straightforward clarity of “Elegy”, a long, unadorned account of a boy’s death by drowning; and the wonderful “Three Bulls”, noted by McLean in his introduction, where a simple childhood memory moves seamlessly into the idea of the power of mythology.

McLean has not ‘talked up” France’s work in his introduction, however. She really is a poet who deserves to be rediscovered.

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