Peeling away from the margins Janet Wilson

Red Leaves
Diana Bridge
Auckland University Press, $22.95,
ISBN 1869403460

Fire-penny
Cilla McQueen
University of Otago Press, $29.95,
ISBN 1877372066

Resistance
Meg Campbell
Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop, $16.95,
ISBN 1869420578

This bouquet of verse demonstrates the flourishing talent of women writing at or beyond the mid-point of their lives, who in different ways are grappling with problems that come with age: death, loss, loneliness. All three are established poets; in each case their new volume consolidates work already published, a reputation already made.

Of the three, Diana Bridge is the relative newcomer, and shares with Lauris Edmond that phenomenon of being a late starter, first publishing in her early 50s. Like Edmond, she too is prolific: Red Leaves is her fourth volume in the last nine years. Informed by her emotional response to the deaths of her mother and brother, it also includes a section on India where Bridge lived for several years. However, the range of allusion is broader than these events suggest; dipping into Red Leaves is to become acquainted with a well-furnished literary consciousness. Bridge’s strong aesthetic sensibility is informed by her extensive knowledge of classical oriental literature and art (she has a doctorate in Chinese classical poetry); her precise phrasing and elegant control of rhythm are balanced with cross-cultural perceptions, multiple allusions, and a layering of language. These shimmering, beautifully modulated structures are reminiscent of those Oriental artefacts and literary modes which she has studied.

Bridge captures the essence of objects and places as if seeing them through a telescope, and individual poems acquire an iconic quality through the adroit handling of image and metaphor. The “red leaves” which “glow” in the title poem are a conceit, introducing a dramatic spectacle, Medea  – “It is the Greeks in Japanese” – as well as imaging the tragic fate which will unravel:

each red igniting leaf,
held in the spotlight of its character,
turns like a twist of Ninagawa scarf,
leaf to leaf in a placing enigmatic
as Medea’s to her brats.

 

The visual image collapses (“the leaves are breaking/apart. They fall in crumpled parasols”) as the denouement approaches. In the final metamorphosis, the changed referencing of red from leaves to Medea herself (“curled over emptiness,/her red hands cursed by touch”) dramatises the enormity of the tragedy.

Bridge’s aesthetic awareness also appears in the typographical experimentation of “Lines – for Gabriel Levin”, a response to several of his poems: the “burden of lines” which Levin carries, develops into blocks of text placed elliptically in relation to the margins; so “Your words assent. They peel/away from the margins.” The final section evokes the ruins of a triptych depicting the crucifixion and its witnesses: “John, Mary and the painted angel”

placed, I believe, like
the resurrection of
some ancient form.

 

The centring of this conclusion on the page suggests the very miracle it announces.

This metafictional dimension is challenging and not to everyone’s taste, yet these poems repay close reading. The moral conscience sometimes guides the aesthetic sensibility too overtly, as when she asks “what is required to frame an idyll/how much dirt, disease and  poverty/it takes to set a city off”. However, in “Caves”, the cautionary tone – “Don’t go down Adela’s path./You have no choice” for “Caves … draw you in. Again/and again” – is unproblematic.

Bridge’s self-consciousness includes her own endeavours in the accomplished “The Mountain Rises”, which measures the distance between inspiration and achievement in writing poetry. And her easy grace is deceptive when it comes to people: in “Palace: Khetri Mahal” a man “as sly and silent as a spider” comes “to cadge a cigarette. Bony/and threadbare, he crumbles like/a corner of the palace.” In poems on the deaths of her mother and brother she leaves us with starkly etched images.

Fire-penny, Cilla McQueen’s 10th book, opens with poems distanced in time and place, reconstructing life on her ancestral island home of Scotland’s St Kilda, and concludes with a movingly elegiac sequence, “A Widow’s Songs”, commemorating her late husband. In between, in the section titled “Weather”, are poems about her everyday life in Bluff. These include experimentations: a comic dialogue touching on the introduction of rabbits into New Zealand in 1863 and the prose poem “Possum”, whose multiple etymologies underpin the seemingly incomprehensible definition: “Possum,/therefore I eat./My ruthless arboreal phalanx/mills by teeth.”

McQueen’s individualistic take on the quotidian and mundane in “Weather” presides over the more complex moods of the opening and concluding sequences. “Muse” celebrates the cat:

Fur clumped,
yin-yang markings smudged
by a burnt patch from the heater
whose radiance she contemplates
immobile as a nun.

 

And the sight of the sheep “by the compost heap” – “She stood impassive as if carved in soap” – breathes new life into the seemingly inconsequential: “she turned her woolly bottom round/and went back through the hedge to Charlies.” McQueen’s inimitable humour also surfaces in “The Fairies Rattle their Spoons”: scientific ambitions to reach the centre of the earth are countered by invoking Hine-Nui-Te-Po and the vagina dentata. “Rather than the scientist staking her/like a vampire or a witch, to plumb her soul –/she might just close her legs and choke him.” The whimsy of imp/act is recorded in “An Imp”: “the imp in my eye his eye spat”:

Imagination closed on it
quick as a fist, a black spar.

It queers my inner sight.
It cannot be dissolved by time.

 

The “framing” sequences show McQueen striking out into darker territory, recreating a strange world in St Kilda where superstition and Christianity mix uneasily, and where the community itself is apparently struggling with a new awareness. A consciousness of mortality creeps in – “What will become of us in time?/Bones, stars, brittle remnants” – and in “Fire-penny”, of the powers of imagination to recreate what has been lost:

thus in time
will I conjure
your image
in lamplight.

 

In the lyrics of the final sequence, where she movingly sees herself as “a wisp of fleece on a barbed-wire fence/since he is gone”, images of the bleak Bluff landscape and climate anchor the mood of mourning until the resolution of the final poem “Frost”. Here she turns from the “you” of personal address (as in “your true absence”) to the third person: “he is history, gone/from this round world, he is starlight.” Fire- penny shows McQueen using her technical mastery over a range of verse forms and metres to register the quirkiness of existence and the facts of the everyday to balance the heightened experience of loss that death brings.

Meg Campbell also confronts spectres of ill-health and loss in Resistance, her fifth published volume. Many of these poems are personal, even confessional, addressed to friends and immediate family. They use stream of consciousness to come to terms with an emotion or attitude: hence poise is achieved more through a concluding sentiment or statement rather than manifested in the poetic structure (as with Bridge and McQueen). Love is a binding force in relationships for Campbell, as in the title poem “Resistance”, where she wants to resist love’s dying, and concludes: “No, love is not ending”. In her poem to the late John Mansfield Thomson, “our love for him” is as “rare as the slow blush of the moon in eclipse,/and close to the Earth, and dusky.”

Several poems offer glimpses into dark and traumatic spaces which Campbell has inhabited, but there’s a lighter touch in the more recent work, and an appreciation of harmony in nature:

Perhaps there will
always be room at this lovely spot
for blackbirds and bumblebees

on a mild morning, with a slight
wind, and clouds vanishing.

 

Janet Wilson teaches at the University of Northampton, is editor of the Journal of Postcolonial Writing, and is currently completing a study of the poetry of Fleur Adcock.

 

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