Domestic pastoral, Harry Ricketts

Summer
Jenny Bornholdt
Victoria University Press, $24.95,
ISBN 0864734522

Jenny Bornholdt’s poems could be called “domestic pastoral”. This is one of the strongest – though often undervalued – lines in New Zealand poetry. You can trace it from Ursula Bethell’s garden poems of the 1920s through the late Lauris Edmond’s family poems and Cilla’s McQueen’s 1980s’ vegetable garden poems to recent collections like Paula Green’s Cookhouse (1997) and Chrome (2000), Ian Wedde’s The Commonplace Odes (2001) and Anna Jackson’s The Pastoral Kitchen (2001).

Bethell set the basic pattern and tone: exact observation of things in a style which mixes the colloquial and the mandarin, and is (usually) preserved from the portentous or twee by an underplayed humour. The opening of her “Time” strikes a characteristic note:

“Established is a good word, much used in garden books,
“The plant, when established” …

 

So too does the conclusion of “Sinensis”, where Marvell’s famous couplet from “To His Coy Mistress” is both complemented and teased by the mock-sententiousness of the final line:

The poet Marvel said, in one of his compositions:
“But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.”
Such is, likewise, the experience of the Horticulturalist.

 

Much of Bornholdt’s work over the last decade or so belongs to an unashamedly suburban branch of this domestic pastoral line. For instance, there is the engaging sequence of kitchen prose poems in her 2000 collection These Days. The speaker/Bornholdt discovers an unexpected enthusiasm for “the world of plastic” and watches herself haunting “the plastics aisle at the supermarket”:

It occurs to you that you could
become one of those people who is prepared. You could
cook things and put them in little plastic containers, then
freeze them. You find this idea strangely attractive and
repellent at the same time.

 

Later in the sequence, her kitchen floor is alarmingly diagnosed as “an asbestos sandwich”. The remedy? Line the kitchen with plastic and “turn it into a kind of big lunchbox”. The speaker reflects on this new situation:

you feel betrayed by your house. You’d been lulled into
a false sense of security by the dishwasher – a relative
newcomer on the scene – only to find there’s danger lurking
under the very floors you stand on.

 

The slight shifts of tone, the amused, bemused, awareness of conflicting realities, the blend of safe haven and perceived threat, all combine – like the best pastoral – to suggest a whole world in miniature.

2

This world also predominates in her latest collection, Summer, but is now challenged by something far more threatening than asbestos under the floorboards. The new collection is divided into two sections and tells the story of two consecutive summers. The first, set in New Zealand, focuses on the death of Bornholdt’s father. The second chronicles Bornholdt and her family in Menton (where she was the 2002 Meridian Energy Katherine Mansfield Fellow).

The New Zealand section is made up of six elegies, each of which in an entirely different mode commemorates and mourns for the dead father. “Things We Didn’t Do One Summer – A Survey” evokes his imminent absence by giving an inventory of “the/large range of recreational opportunities” the waiting family had no heart to engage in. “Socks and Boots Can Be Very Different” concentrates on an unusual physical detail: the fact that Bornholdt’s father had one foot “measurably smaller/than the other.” The two elegies I keep coming back to, however, are “Pastoral” and “Villanelle”, the opening poem. The villanelle is a technically demanding form. Famous examples include Dylan Thomas’ elegy for his father, “Do not go gentle into that good night”, and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” (with its heart-twisting beginning, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master”). With its repeated refrains and restricted rhyme scheme, the villanelle lends itself to the expression of cyclical patterns of feeling, especially those of loss, anger, frustration and despair. The feeling constantly beats, as here, against the bars of the form. Bornholdt heightens the sense of recurring desolation by using mostly short lines and short sentences, and by adding extra internal rhymes. “Villanelle” ends:

And so we sat it out. The glow
of light sinking into a night
we didn’t want to know.

But it was the one sure thing. The only
thing we knew. And it was wrong, not right.
That summer that wouldn’t go.
That summer we didn’t want to know.

“Pastoral” offers a series of vivid snapshots of the same period, and, like “Villanelle”, concludes on a note of numbed lyricism:

We watched all night
and just as colour
leaked into the sky
all light left him
and day rolled up and
over us.

 

These six elegies establish an echoing emptiness. This continues to reverberate throughout the much longer second section. Although Bornholdt’s father is only explicitly referred to in a few of these later poems, his death shadows the domestic pastoral of that Menton summer. The poems themselves are again typically unfussy and exact, and often funny. There are list poems, encounter poems, anecdotes, haiku. Peter Bland in his New Zealand Listener review suggested that the “short, direct-statement poems can sometimes stare back a trifle blankly”. Read in isolation, that might be so, but not when read in context; the opening elegies and other preceding poems have already earned the reader’s trust.

The poems affirm with quiet conviction the necessary (and healing) sacrament of the everyday. They record and celebrate the transitory and the ordinary – fruit loops and soggy Weetbix, fortune cookies and tooth fairies, train journeys, outings, walks in gardens. The small things, these poems imply, are really the big things, as in “Being a Poet”, where a kitchen blender becomes an unassuming but absolutely accurate metaphor for what poets do:

Today
we’re dealing with the big
issues, like: How the World
Began and
Can We Have Fruit Loops
For Breakfast?
Friends ask
what I’m reading.
By the bed is Go, Dog. Go

 

In “Confessional”, another “blending” poem which reads in parts like a poetic credo, Bornholdt observes: “I was also thinking about//personal poetry and how it’s not given much/time of day any more”. Which is probably generally true, but not here. All the poems in this wonderful collection very much give personal poetry and domestic pastoral the time of day.

 

Harry Ricketts teaches in the School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies at Victoria University of Wellington and is co-editor of New Zealand Books.

 

Jenny Bornholdt was the recipient of a 2003 Laureate Award.

 

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