Careful reading, Jane Stafford

end of the dry
Janet Charman
Auckland University Press, $19.95
ISBN 1 86940 146 8

If He’s a Good Dog He’ll Swim
Elizabeth Nannestad
Auckland University Press, $19.95,
ISBN 1 86940 124 7

Both Janet Charman and Elizabeth Nannestad begin 
their collections by writing about writing. Charman’s “end of the dry” looks from the point of view of the reader, in a library of books which has become a sea:

the library floor shoal’s blue
fiery whitebait swarming through

There are suggestions here of plenitude, excess, beauty and the possibility of drowning. There is also, in the neat rhymes and metaphorical shape, the promise of a formalism and a coherence that is, as one reads on in the poem and in the collection, somewhat illusory:

stung away from where i’ve loaned envogued
these last years
and wading to the stacks

Charman is not an “easy” poet nor is she timid with her language. That is one of her virtues. But “envogued” is a strange, not immediately accessible reference. And who is doing the wading — the speaker, presumably rather than the whitebait, which are busy swarming and anyway don’t wade. And the tenses aren’t right: “loaned … and wading”. Oh, don’t be so pedantic and literal, I hear you say. OK, but I like the image, I like how it progresses and I want to pay it the courtesy of careful attention rather than let it swim over me, so to speak, while I murmur “how poetic”. To continue:

short fiction short fiction the tiny voices
bleep bulge of phosphorescence
sweeps Alice Monro into the parceltray of the pram

Now I see. Careful reading is not death to modern poetry. It is its life blood. There is a subject here who is grammatic-ally — and by implication socially? — effaced and who is doing the acting — is stung away, wading, sweeping. The lack of a clearly defined identity supports the increasingly desperate tone of her (an Alice Munro reader with a pram is surely female) situation, beleaguered with a baby with only the tiny voices of short fiction to comfort her:

can’t dislodge it
gather armfuls of glossies to traction the wheels
won’t go

Even this isn’t working. Other kinds of reading are applied, until there is only one solution:

set off the flares
eat the emergency rations
begin to read

Nannestad, on the other hand, is very much the writer, the producer of the text, with all the agonies that entails, as her title, “Facing the Empty Page”, suggests. She begins

The empty page
looks all innocence
but has its own sense of humour.

You might decide
to call yourself Madame X, be sighted in foreign cities without forwarding address.
The empty page will be at home, waiting.

The empty page is the challenge the writer dreads. However evasive or imaginative writers are in their life, their art is always waiting there for them, having, Nannestad goes on, “no heart / no home / no pity”. Its relationship with real experience is dangerous:

It is a mistake to introduce the empty page
to your prospective lover. It will spoil everything
leaving you alone, just you and the empty page, for ever.

Writing about life ruins life. But there is an ambivalence in Nannestad’s stance:

The empty page is closely related to Great Australian Desert.
Good men, good women, died trying to cross it.
Some people find that encouraging.

The empty page will “come round for a short time to your way of thinking”. That is, successful creativity is not completely impossible but its tenure is only dubiously enjoyable:

The empty page will
settle in

take your name to the bank
drink your whiskey
inhabit your house

What Nannestad is doing has an impressive literary tradition, that of the conceit or extended metaphor. Having personified the abstract concept of the demands of creative life, she can then treat it in a number of playful and bleakly amusing ways. There is none of the fragmentation or uncertainly that Charman’s poem offers the reader, none of the slippage or innovation. There are plusses and minuses in this. If Charman annoys from time to time, as the reader becomes lost in a series of increasingly obscure references, so the challenge is almost always invigorating. And while Nannestad is always controlled and polite with the reader, amusing, explaining, polishing, so there is at times a thinness and a feeling that the empty pages challenge is not always fully met.
Compare, for example the way that both writers treat the subject of romantic love, a difficult task, given the range of tired rhetorical conventions attached to it. Nannestad is more conventional which paradoxically could be seen as more courageous. Going in close to the bone of feeling, trusting language to mimic and not to reduce emotion is a risky business. “Twelve Love Poems” nail their colours to the mast in their title and in style mimic to the point of translation that most eloquently lascivious of poets, Catullus:

I want to stay and I want to go. What point
is this? I don’t know, only
that it is narrow.

This is Nannestad, while Catullus (translated by Peter Whigham in the Penguin) has

I hate and I love. And if you ask me how,
I do not know: I only feel it and I’m torn in two.

Does Nannestad improve on Catullus with the image of the point and its narrowness? I’m not sure — can a point be narrow? It seems muddled in comparison to the clarity of the Catullus. Novel, unexpected images characterise many of these poems. One compares the lover with a book, “a few pages are turned / and I have not had enough of those / books of eyes, mouth soft and certain”, another with an owl and another with a bear. There is an almost haiku-like simplicity with a twist:

This endearment,
don’t tell me, but has it been
worn before?

But some are too thin (“Summer. Yes, it’s / time for love” sounds like a Pepsi ad) and an attempt at confronting over the top romantic rhetoric (“So soul to soul the winds might kiss/ performing rain / or the moon create shadows under the golden elm…”) is just not good enough or bad enough to work in either straight or camp registers.
Charman, by comparison, doesn’t set up any affiliations to a traditional forms of poetic expression. The only pure love poem in her collection is hardly that — it is formally more complex and more to do with passion and sex than love. The final poem in the collection, it has no title and begins:

you are a hot
concentrate how will i
dissolve our detachment
unless by introducing you to my hand
to my left hand which
has all the subtlety of an advertisement divertisement

We are in another system of poetry, as well as another system of emotion, where “feeling” is both a thought and a physical sensation, both inextricably entwined and all action is sexual:

and you sitting close as my finger
clothing
some on some off never enough
the crumbled bed and our eating in all the languages at once

I particularly like the word “crumbled”. Charman is very good at productive, witty punning. At first one misreads it as the conventional “crumpled” but then “eating” suggests crumbs (in bed, presumably). But careful reading shows that it is the bed which is crumbling — from passion, from breakdown? The language of sense culminates in the amazing line: “The therapeutic peripatetic clitoral literal peripheral lick”, the final word gratifyingly obscene in its overtness in comparison with the ornate, almost medical latinese of the preceding words, and the poem ends quietly:

and mouths make decisions for nipples
and discussion and the words we wear
it’s over here
address me

So while Nannestad takes on the conventions of romantic literature as a way of suggesting authentic experience, Charman breaks down normal expression as she challenges tidy ways of looking at emotion and possession. Nannestad doesn’t really get on top of the tradition, and at times is controlled by the more banal tendencies of such expression.
A more successful register for her are those poems which deal with love, not of a lover, but of family — an emotion central, one would think, to our cultural experience but without the formulas to articulate it — there are few poems to mothers outside the Hallmark card tradition and few poems to children not maudlin or self-congratulatory. Nannestad’s poems to her mother and grandmother (“A Portrait of My Mother”, “My Grandmother Grows Old”, “Immediately After”, “More of My Grandmother” and “Talk, Talk”) are the strongest in the collection, displaying Nannestad’s gift for incident, characterisation and restraint. “A Portrait” is imbued with emotion and love, yet expressed in language which is restrained and dignified without compromising either the emotion or the poetry. It is divided into sections — “Shoes”, “As a Mast”, Her Hands”, “Ashes”, “Dancing”, “Her Voice”, “The Colour of Her Hair” — each focusing on an aspect or event, perhaps trivial but now with loss (the poem is subtitled “in her memory”) made dear. It ends:

My mother as a young woman was honey blonde
and wore it well. What so shines
leaves this death aside
and beats on in everything, as love.

She was a person of standing
though this was something we paid no attention to
who looked out past her.

Charman’s style makes it more difficult for her to risk such sentiment. But at the centre of her collection — the most unnerving poems in a fairly unnerving lot — is a series about (silly word, inadequate) childbirth and motherhood. The form and language of these poems are unsettling, which seems to me entirely appropriate to the experience. If her poem on sexual love demonstrated the entanglement of body and heart, how much more should this subject attempt to chart the dissolution of self, soul and body which motherhood entails. Sentiment is out of place here. In “birthday surprise”:

the doors crash open
and someone gets out

i’m alone in my body
and descending

red welling
showering flooding

There is more than a hint of Sylvia Plath here, which I can’t say makes me feel very enthusiastic, but there’s no accounting for taste. “pin unpin pin unpin pin” has similar cadences:

how careless of them to leave me so high
when i’m wondering if that baby
baby
i wasn’t dying for
can fly
i slip her over the fourth floor sill
content with undemanding decor of this room

But in “moist milk sounds around me” the Plath ghost is confronted and laid. The setting is the post-natal daze of “fisted arms screwed eyes”, “pins creams wipes gauze swabs breast pads” “shut up / in a drip front nightgown”. It ends:

the front door shrilling
open your unshowered body hair to the
Plunket nurse
holding the dozen ghastly tulips glossed Sylvia Plath
and the florist man
already whining up the indifferent street

ah your mouth tearing at me

There is no sentiment here — which is an observation, not a judgment. I admire the sentiment in Nannestad as much as I admire the lack of it in Charman. It’s just that birth and babies are generally thought of as difficult to represent without recourse to joy or horror and most women’s experience is not purely either, although it contains elements of both. Charman’s poetic voice in the majority of poems in this collection is impersonal. I think that this is because of decisions she has made about writing and language and meaning, that is, for technical rather than personal reasons, means rather than content. But fortuitously, when this mode is used to convey the experience of birth, it results in harmony of style and subject which produces an effect that is very good — chilling, but very good.

Jane Stafford teaches English at Victoria University.

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Posted in Literature, Poetry and Review
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