We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“DEEP COLOUR” by Diana Bridge (Otago University Press, $NZ25); “AS THE TREES HAVE GROWN” by Stephanie de Montalk (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $NZ25); “JAMES K. BAXTER – THE SELECTED POEMS” Edited by John Weir (THWUP $NZ 40)
Three years ago, I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing Diana Bridge’s seventh collection of poetry Two or More Islands . I at once admired the way she used mythological and literary references which showed real erudition on her part, and how she could make meaningful statements about the present age from them. I concluded my (regrettably brief) review with the statement “I can only give superlatives to this sane and satisfying collection”
Diana Bridge’s latest (eighth) collection Deep Colour opens with the eponymous poem “Deep Colour”. Beginning as a reflection on fish deep down in an aquarium, it morphs into a consideration of time and loss where “Day after day / the past waits for the present to fall / into its hands. One truth will soon displace / another; I am left with this. A life gathers its themes, / some of which it may never weave.” Time and transience are relentless and what is to come is never really fulfilled. And given that these are major themes in this collection, there is much alternation between the present and the past.
The first section of this collection focuses on present life, but present life which is often looking back. “In memoriam” is two elegies for a dead friend, “A split sky” and “Moving through leaves”. Two poems recall raising an infant, “Freestanding” being essentially about a child beginning to walk; and “Singapore shapes” depicting an infant becoming used to the shapes in the world. Some poems are written in the third person but (at least to this reader) seem to be close to confessional (“She spends time with objects” and “Her sort of order”). Bridge is very interested in shapes, texture, colours – an aesthetic appreciation of physical reality. It is no surprise, then, that she is very concerned with visual art. “He has put away pointers” is a reflection on a painting by Pissarro but, like “Deep Colour”, is becomes a study in the colours and the moods (or emotions) they incite. In examining another painting, “A butterfly floats in the paint”, there are references to the famous butterfly dream of an ancient Chinese sage. Bridge is, as later poems prove, deeply interested in Asian culture. Perhaps her most rebellious poem is “Singing robes” where she refuses to tie physical reality to abstract ideas. Giving an almost geometric account of things seen in early spring, the poem concludes “Must you tie it all to something? If I were Wordsworth, / I would think you must, for fear that spring be wasted.” But spring is never wasted if one simply admires and appreciates spring without dissecting or explaining it. Goodbye Wordsworthian cloudy transcendentalism.
Given this aesthetic attitude to physical reality, the collection’s second section, called “Utamaro’s Objects” comprises poems inspired by the 18th century Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro and his depictions of the natural world. The sequence “Songs of the garden” evokes the artist’s images of flowers and plants, but more often images of small creatures such as insects, butterflies and skinks. We are in a walled Japanese garden, but because we are following Kitagawa Utamaro’s images, we are observing nature at second hand. These poems are delicate, like the small creatures, and inevitably conjure up images of antique Japanese brush-work
Digging into the even deeper past, the third section, “Fifteen Poems on Things: Translations” takes us back to poems by the Chinese poet Xie Tiao (fl.460-494 AD). Bridge’s translations, like any translations, can never replicate exactly the original poems. There is no way that two very different languages can be synchronised, especially when the languages are separated by 1600 years. Even so, Bridge’s translations are a tour de force. Though the inspiration is an ancient one, we are drawn more directly into nature. The opening poem, “the wind” is an exquisite piece of work, characterising the wind in terms of the things it moves “Gently intermittent, it draws the red bud from its case; / Its thick mass spread, green cocklebur is stirred. / Drooping willows bend and then rise up; / young duckweed comes together, to disperse. / In the corridor, long sleeves are blown about…” Thus in the following poems in the sequence “the bamboo” “the rose bush” “the rushes” [which references a song by a Chinese empress], although as the sequence moves on, its observations are more about human reactions to the world of nature, and becomes much more concerned with human behaviour, as in the lament of a courtesan separated from her lover.
The final fifteen poems of this collection revert to the present time and the poet’s own voice, first delving into the impact of Hamlet in “Compared to silence” which wanders along the paths of human perception and asks if it is words or tones of music that create out moods, beliefs, understanding. Sometimes perhaps silence (“the rest is silence”) is better than articulation. Equally concerned with poetry, “The critic at sunset” – inspired by something Clive James wrote - examines inspiration as experienced by the poet. I am interested that two of Bridge’s longer poems are intriguingly ambiguous in their meaning. “Empty your head” views colonialism and the European taking of [in this case] Australia while being in tension with the importance of discovery and advanced science – almost implying that discovery, de-mystifying legends about the Earth, was inevitable. “Irish Girls”, drawing on accounts of immigrant Irish girls incarcerated in Seacliff Hospital in the late 19th century, presents us with a contest between the hard reality of the girls’ experience and the bush which, as depicted here, seems like a compensating refuge for the girls.
None of this analysis of the collection ignores that fact that Diana Bridge is capable of pure pastoral. Expression of seasons are dominant in “Canterbury contrapuntal” and “Walking during lockdown”; while “Accommodations” comes close to saying that nature follows art.
Diana Bridge’s poems are not to be read quickly and superficially. They require of the reader concentration and much re-reading. I confess [reluctantly] that I was sometimes daunted by the copious end-notes telling me the inspiration of many poems. But I again see Bridge’s work as essential reading for anybody who wants to take the pulse of current poetry. A collection to be read and re-read.
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To put it mildly, Stephanie de Montalk’s poetry is radically different from the poetry of Diane Bridge. While Bridge prefers stately, packed stanzas, de Montalk prefers lean, narrow lines (three or four or five words per line). While Bridge is very reflective and very concerned with time and art, de Montalk is more impulsive and brisk and immersed in nature. But don’t assume that her world view is frivolous. Besides, it’s good to remember the dictum that comparisons are odious. Bridge is Bridge; de Montalk is de Montalk.
As the trees have grown is de Montalk’s fifth collection of poetry. The title As the trees have grown comes from a poem buried well into the text called “You will touch down” which declares that “[I] find that as / the trees have grown / so, too, the boxy / twin-engine congregations / of kereru – air ferries / of the species - / and the delicate nests / of titipounamu…” – really a simple declaration that the seasons turn and growth continues… and much honour to de Montalk for singling out the wonderful, bulky kereru as a harbinger of healthy avian existence and the titipounamu [“rifleman”] as the tiny but resilient creature it is.
In the collection’s opening poem “Heartfelt” the human body is compared with landscape. The murmur of the heart is like a waltz or fox-trot in the process of having cardiac problems examined. The six poems that immediately follow “Heartfelt” reference medical situations and hospital procedures, though gradually sliding into images of animals, trees and the farmyard, almost as if these are the disoriented thoughts of the patient, under anaesthetics, either undergoing or awaiting surgery, hallucinatory but vivid, like the best surrealism. Things are vivid and clearly delineated even if the poet [or poet’s narrator] is disoriented. A reader can only assume that these are poems born of the poet’s own experience.
The second section of the collection opens with an outright embrace of the weather and wind with the poem “Allurement” which reads in full “Last weekend the wind / brought cobalt skies, / bright hills and cicadas / louder than you’re likely / to remember them. / The cats slept in fresh grass, / leaves swirled / on the lower lawn, / and all day there was / a deep, white light / and everything / with an edge to it. ” Many different moods are struck in this section. The poem “Papaver somniferum” wherein, says the narrator “I searched for Aunti Emma”, which makes sense of this only when an end-note advises us that “Aunti Emma” is a street name for opium – and the poem is in part about searching for the stuff in a hostile natural environment. There is a strong strain of fatalism in de Montalk’s world-view. The offbeat “Amor fati” considers the stoic embrace of fate, exampled in the life of a peripatetic trout. “Events” is also fatalist philosophy
De Montalk opens her third section with the Stoa (location in ancient Greece where stoicism was taught) and moves into poems relating what appear to be about a particular location as the weather and winds and seasons work around it, either benignly or intimidatingly. Here de Montalk comes closest to a Romantic concept of a force rolling through all things., while “Park Life” is purely objective observation of birds.
We then, in the fourth section, move into what is apparently nostalgia, taking us to the northern reaches of the North Island as remembered from childhood. The poem “The far north” begins “Does the sea still sing in summer, / blue between the dusty hills / and northern sky, cloudless / and cicada strong on the gravel / road to Paihia…? ” suggesting that the poet has long since been far from the far north (de Montalk is based in Wellington). “At Waitangi” is about her brother, as a youngster, catching fish. And yet “Tide line” comes back to the subjective views of a patient still in hospital – the “far north” is something being conjured up in a semi-conscious state. “Ground report” watches the demolition of an admired tree, but rather than lamenting, the poem takes the stoical position that things will be as they will be and that a smaller tree nearby may one day be as towering as the demolished giant. Fate rules again.
One of the longest poems in the collection “Time-distant” is an account of pilgrims going to Lourdes, presumably to be healed of afflictions. This bring us back to the matter of affliction and healing as seen in the collection’s earlier poems about hospital existence; but “Time-distant” appears not to be something de Montalk has herself witnessed. The very title “Time-distant” says this is something that happened in the distant past – and indeed an end-note tells us that de Montalk’s poem is drawing on the novel Lourdes by Emile Zola, a sceptical and anti-clerical account of the Lourdes phenomenon. In the circumstances, and given Zola’s fiercely anti-religious attitude, what de Montalk produces is relatively neutral about the phenomenon.
The longest poem, closing the volume, is “Sleave of care”. Its title is drawn from a phrase in Macbeth but, as de Montalk says in her end-notes, the discursive poem has nothing to do with Shakespeare. Instead, it is an elaborate account of a garden and estate in Ukraine which was originally created by Polish nobles. The poem is apparently based on the poet’s visit to this place, and is aware of trees and foliage now changing the face of what was once a place of pleasure in “Polish Ukraine”. Tempus fugit. Time changes all, but the working of nature is still fascinating and beguiling.
I do not find de Montalk’s largely que sera sera fatalist philosophy oppressive. It gives her the freedom to look at past, present and [possible] future impartially and it certainly keeps her in a position to look at things – even unpleasant ones like hospitalisation – with a truthful eye and an acute sense of physical reality, even when the mind is disoriented.
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John Weir is a priest and academic and John Weir is a poet (see a review of his SparksAmong the Stubble on this blog). But John Weir is probably best known for his friendship with James K. Baxter and, over the half-century since Baxter died, for curating and keeping in the public mind the work of Baxter. Weir has edited Baxter’s Collected Poems (1979) and then much later Baxter’s Complete Poems (2022) as well as the four volumes of James K. Baxter : Complete Prose (2015) which is reviewed in detail on this blog. There is no doubt that Baxter was one of New Zealand’s greatest – and most quotable – poets, appealing to many people. I remember as a teenager reading with great pleasure Baxter’s early collection (published in 1953) The Fallen House, the first book of poetry I read by my own choice rather than being told to do so by a teacher. Of course, for many reasons, Baxter was also a controversial person, very questionable in his private life and very performative in his public life (see on this blog The Baxter Problem).
Now we have James K. Baxter: The Selected Poems edited by John Weir and oddly enough it is very welcome. The Collected and Complete poems of Baxter were very bulky tomes, sometimes difficult to hold or move around. The Selected Poems are of a more reasonable width and bulk. Over its 310 pages of poetry, Weir divides Baxter’s poetry into four sections – “The Early Years: Dunedin and Christchurch 1945-1949” ; “The Wellington Years and a Visit to India 1950-1965” ; “Return to Dunedin 1966-1968” ; and finally “The Jerusalem Years 1969-1972”. This sequence allows us, if we choose to read from beginning to end, to see how Baxter’s poetry shifted in style and content.
In his introduction John Weir remarks that Baxter was “by any standards, a remarkably prolific poet” (p.xv). This is putting it modestly. About 3,000 surviving poems were written by Baxter. Weir gives a concise biography of the man. Baxter had written over 600 poems before he was 18, when his first collection was published. Until he kicked the habit in the late 1950s, when he was about 30, Baxter was a slave to alcoholism. Weir traces handily Baxter’s genesis and evolution as a poet – moving from a leaning on the Romantics and French Decadents to a greater alertness to the New Zealand scene and a more colloquial style until he was “called” to Jerusalem in the late 1960s and died in 1972 aged 46. Weir makes one painful but necessary statement: “[Baxter] was… a willing partner in a number of sexual liaisons. While most of these were consensual, there were at least two which can be classified as rape. While the revelation of this fact has quite properly caused severe damage to his reputation as a man, it should also be said that, despite his preoccupation with sex and despite the serious offences he committed, he also gave direction and compassionate assistance to two hundreds of people, young and old.” (p.xx) I speculate – and with the greatest respect – that Weir would, in his life as a priest, have heard many unpleasant confessions in the confessional, but this particular revelation would probably have been the most upsetting for him. Baxter was a guru with feet of clay.
Weir claims Baxter “bequeathed to New Zealanders a blueprint for social reconstruction based on Christian and Maori cultural values and a body of poetry and prose that was remarkable for its range and for the sense of a life lived here, in Aotearoa New Zealand.” (p.xxi) Well… maybe, though it is hard to see Baxter’s polemics as amounting to a blueprint.
Here, though is the very best thing about James K. Baxter: The Selected Poems. Weir says this selection based on “what I consider to be the best and most recognisable poems Baxter wrote” and hence it is in the tradition of “Best Poems” (p.xxi)
Reader – I will not lie to you. I have not read the Selected Poems from beginning to end, if only because I have already read nearly all Baxter’s verse in other publications. But I did spend a week or so dipping in and out of these selected poems, enjoying old favourites from the first poem, teenager Baxter’s concise “High Country Weather”, to the very last poem, Baxter’s ranting “Ode to Auckland” with its notorious opening line “Auckland, you great arsehole”. Yes, at his worst, Baxter could turn to rant. I revelled again in the early stuff “The Fallen House”, “The Bay” and “Wild Bees”, and that great colloquial elegy “Lament for Barney Flanagan”. I paused at “Howrah Bridge”, which I think was a turning point in Baxter’s work; and I once again felt very ambiguous about “Thoughts of a Remuera Housewife”, which now seems a rather smug and self-satisfied piece of work (Jimmy Baxter showing he’s not one of the bourgeoisie). Then there were the great poems identified with place like “At Brighton Bay”, “Winter River” and the comical protests like “A Small Ode to Mixed Flatting”. And finally the pared-back poems of “Jerusalem Sonnets” and “Autumn Testament”, Baxter controlling himself and getting a focus.
So much to read here. So much to admire. Essential reading for sure. And portable.