A walk on the wild side, Cilla McQueen

Wild
Anne French
Auckland University Press, $31.95,
ISBN 186940310X

Travel and other compulsions
Heather McPherson
Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop, $18.00,
ISBN 1869420349

Catullus for Children
Anna Jackson
Auckland University Press, $21.95,
ISBN 1869403088

Bluff’s main street was recently relieved of several thousand tonnes of aluminium dross, stockpiled in a warehouse since the demise of a recycling venture a decade ago. Patrons of the Oyster Festival, no longer under canvas, joyfully consumed quantities of the delicacy in the pristine new venue. Gold was spun of it. Adept at sexual politics, Anne French addresses a lover as an oyster:

That sly, salty taste of you
You leave a silty residue,
a trail of ooze and mud.
(“Salty”)

 

Wild weather, landscapes and emotions inform the four sections of her new collection through which she guides the reader initially by means of definitions of “wild” on the back cover: “I know the true meanings of wind, mountain, wild.”

In “Seeking the wild”, a sequence of six poems in the first section, her sense of alienation in present-day Britain on revisiting her patrilinear ancestors contrasts strongly with her identification with New Zealand. “A foreigner here in my father’s country”, she adopts the “ancestral” language of Maori to address her forebears, however casually: “We whakanoa ourselves with a little water, to leave things as they belong.” “A light lunch at the end of the century” deals with another aspect of “wild”, contrasting the eating habits of “a more simple time” with the preoccupations of “the too-well-fed”. After an agreeable beginning (“Pull the calyx from a ‘vine-ripened tomato’/and all the sweet particularity of summer fills/your nostrils”), a Proustian recollection-chain devolves into a train of thought from compost to pesticides, Cezanne, Californian nectarines, Welsh rarebit, salmonella, gene-splicing and cornmeal bread, ending with a heavily ironic “Enjoy!” French can push a point, even to demolishing her wild-weather metaphor:

If I did not love you,
this would be a weather report
not a commentary on my state
of mind.
(“Heuristic”)

 

Seeking “the plain truth of it” (“An explanation”), her language is stronger, I think, in direct, personal poems such as “Bruise” (“the night it rained in a mist/black water at our feet/the rain’s cool fingers in our hair/the memory of it/like a bruise in a tender place”) or “Time and distance” (“Your mild/allowing of this or that/tiny possibility. The taste/of your final kiss”) than it is in the “epistemological” problems of “Mudbacked mirrors”.

Elizabeth Crayford (NZB, June 1999) discerned a broadening emotional range in French’s last collection, Boys’ night out. I think this continues in Wild. The articulate French, at times to her chagrin “too cool by half” (“Datum/trend”), allows a glimpse of a less secure persona at the end of  “Holiday in Cornwall”, where she struggles to come to grips with genuine distress without the customary shield of language. “So frightened/I can hardly talk”, she turns up the car stereo and cries behind her dark glasses in baffled vulnerability. I’d like to see more of this poet, who, in “The meaning of the word”, “can’t decide which is worse:/to be thought credulous, or shallow”, but in realising that the object of her desire is “Your true self well hidden” is forced to acknowledge the elusive qualities of meaning and human relationships.

2

A friendly woman looks out from the pinhole-camera image on the cover of Travel and other compulsions, standing firm in snow, warmly wrapped and hands in pockets. Or it could be a wrong-end-of-the-telescope image – either way it suggests focus, perception and a steady relationship between observer and observed. Emotional security underpins McPherson’s collection, balancing subjective tension with the presence of another. Travelling, she shares experience – the first poem “Snapshots” begins, “Hi, it’s me!/here I am in Washington D.C..” Sidetracked from the Women’s Art Museum, with a tourist’s naive eye she gives a spooky picture of the White House, baulking at “self-guided tours/like a masturbatory fantasy”, wondering whether “the White House isn’t immune/… maybe snow slid into the west wing and pipes froze …. the First Lady swallowed her words//in the chill of its icy heart.”  Snowflakes that “do not convince as solid … do not convince as living” evoke desiccation and corruption in “January 1995”. On a visit to the Holocaust Museum, “this littering, this rash/of ashes” leads the poet (“I think an invisible/chimney is raining fragments of burnt shudders/over the town, over the day”) into meditation on Auschwitz and its survivors:

preserved like the Pompeians
ordinary lovable and unlovable persons
who did not die a natural death
and were always human.

Intrigued by historical continuity, feeling as foreign in Britain as French and “yelling/kia ora at New Zealand/House”, the lovers, “wanting the stonemason’s brief/that survives love, treason, poverty”, “stare at repeating pasts” in church and graveyard. Headstones “cut deep to expose belief” recall the Pompeians again, where “plastic wrappers//and six-pack rings/itch between green blades/and sycamore wings.”

The frankly lesbian McPherson pays homage to feminist antecedents in “The forebears”, praising those “armsful/of unmastered women – who side-stepped/‘one-agenda’ rules – to choose their own …. changing the women we might be.” In the “sensuous location” of Waiheke where “the baches hunker//in tangles of honeysuckle over kanuka”, she celebrates physical love “in the dark spasms of bamboo/wind chimes”, hoping the original owner of the bach wouldn’t mind “his bed/being fleet with double-currents – two women/ who sleep – and don’t sleep – in it.” (“Waiheke Island”)

The influence of James K Baxter on a generation of younger poets is producing a number of Baxter poems. In “Poet, once elder …”, McPherson recounts his reaction to her question about homosexuality:

unlike your church –
you didn’t denounce
the sin of loving
otherly … few poets
then or now
might be as brotherly….

 

I enjoyed the accelerating energy of “The Wellington Party” in the Begonia House as a polite party becomes “a crowd! A pandemonium!” and ends in a frenetic “dance for the dead -/for the living – for us all!”

3

Underlying Anna Jackson’s Catullus for Children is the tiny crepitation of the cicada’s song, counterpointed by the sound of hoofbeats. “A quotation is like a cicada. Its natural state is that of unceasing sound”, according to Osip Mandelstam, whose quotation opens the collection. In Jackson’s poetry, subtle linkages – with poetic roots stretching from classical Greece to modern Russia and closer to home – tinkle the cutlery of cicadas around a literate feast. With only “cobwebs in my purse”, I can dine well in Bluff. In “Party”, Elvira entertains everybody and Catullus in the treehouse where the only visible food is “the spiderwebs that is all/you have got on your shelves.” “Envoi” dedicates the poems to children, “you geniuses/who speak poetry/before prose”, who “have your own Catulluses/already inside.” I enjoyed Jackson’s portrayal of children’s speech in an earlier short story, “The bedmaking competition”, and find the same benevolently accurate transcription in “Sparrow (as told by Elvira)”, which catches the unconscious poetry in the thought patterns of the very young. “Poet” celebrates all poets in Rufus, who “chews pencils into shreds,/stares through walls …. and when he writes,/his hand swirls across the page/… he’s like some sort of god!”

Unfamiliar with Russian poetry, I approached the third section, “The happiness of poets: sto ste sto ste”, hesitantly. But that insistent cicada sound, deftly interwoven with echoes of Mayakovsky hoofbeats, gave an aural framework within which to discern the idiosyncratic voices of the futurists. Rhythmic patterns lend pace and pause to striking imagery: “hearse/horse/scooted on its rump along the street/like a coffin scooting into the fire” (“Vladimir Mayakovsky’s kindness to horses”) and timeless moments: “Look! See how the sky holds on to the stars://you’d almost think you could address history,/and the future would be listening.” (Vladimir Mayakovsky’s five-rayed hands”) The latter ends:

I know the power of words,
though they might look (at times) like petals

trampled underfoot.

The conclusion of “Raisa Akhmatova’s happiness” – that “it is the happiness that is hardest to bear” – leads into the last section, “Stow stay stow stay”, in which the poet and her family are moving to a new life. Here Jackson is on her own, “Teeth on my tongue./My family undone”; “A cicada song sounds/in my heart,//an anxious stop/and start.” The poetry is slighter, less assured. Flying south, looking at the landscape from above, finding exactly the right word for the braided creeks “not running but runnelling” and “soothingly static”, she achieves an in-flight shift of focus from “country” to crumpled “counterpane”, “like the beds/I can hardly wait//to get us/into.” At the beach, not exactly foreign but disorientated (“this is New Zealand, not/America, after all”), the new arrivals catch rock cod “and watch them circle/around and around/in our supermarket bucket.” On the foreshore the poet experiences the indifference of nature:

The wind blows so hard
I am frightened

Elvira will be blown
off the rocks, into

the sea, like a bit
of dandelion fluff.

 

In all three collections runs an undercurrent of malaise: an intuition of impending change and an acute consciousness of human frailty.

 

Cilla McQueen’s tenth collection The Rope is due out from University of Otago Press this year.

 

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