The Rocky Shore
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
The Rocky Shore is Jenny Bornholdt’s ninth volume of poems, published over the last 20 years. Its six extended sequences, “Confessional”, “The Rocky Shore”, “Willow”, “Fitter Turner”, “A Long Way from Home” and “Big Minty Nose” (a couple of these reprinted from earlier collections) offer both a continuation and a development of her previous work.
What most draws readers to Bornholdt’s poems is, I think, the voice: quiet, reflective, unbardic, apparently absolutely straightforward – telling it like it is, as we once used to say. It’s a voice you feel you can trust because it seems to be treating you like a friend, even a confidante: “The garden, you see (and must understand) is a mess”; “I’d like to mention my children. I hope they know/that I love them even though I yell sometimes”; “Our friend Noel, who is always drinking something/new and interesting”. (The names of friends and family regularly crop up.) It’s a voice that can risk the flat and the humdrum: “Sometimes,//to make my life more interesting, I empty the dishwasher/in the afternoon, instead of the morning.” Equally, perhaps within a few lines, the voice can ache with pain and loss, agonise over a child’s illness, grieve for the dead and the dying: “I miss my father./I miss having a father.”
Some of the most moving moments here recall Bornholdt’s father, whose death she’s also written about in Summer (2003). His absence haunts the poems. He haunts the poet’s garden in which we again spend a good deal of time, not least while a writing shed is being built for her in the title poem. The often hilarious details of the shed’s erection are mirrored by the slow accumulation of the poem itself, a dual construction, and “translation”, neatly clinched in the pun “The shed’s articulation”.
As that kind of low-key punning suggests, this apparently artless voice with its friendly chitchat about life, the universe and everything, in fact, demands careful artfulness to create and sustain. (Frank O’Hara’s poems, very different in many ways, might offer a kind of analogy.) Here this artfulness is admitted, almost apologetically:
Which I know
seems very plain and straightforward and
conversational, but it’s taken a lot to get it
The more attentively you read, the more you see how – for all their seeming casualness – these sequences with their mostly long, overrunning lines have been carefully fitted together. They do indeed, as Bornholdt observes in the notes and acknowledgements at the back, “talk to and sound off each other – there’s a kind of conversation going on.”
Part of this conversation is to do with everyday realities, both the trivial and the life-shaking. If, as Bornholdt says, “it’s taken a lot to get it//this way”, there is a lot to get in. Relaxed as the poems seem, they are crammed with the world. Part of the conversation (a kind of ongoing rumination really) is to do with poetry, and with these poems in particular: “I was also thinking about//personal poetry and how it’s not given much/time of day any more” (“Confessional”); “some people might think it’s not poetry. Well …” (“Fitter Turner”); “I think the garden/is as much poem as this poem is. And the washing and the coffee//are also poem” (“Big Minty Nose”). There are flickers of lyricism: “the muddy track to adulthood”; “we live//in a very small pocket in the great big frock/of the world”. Individual words are plucked out for inspection and reflection: “Ratcheted”, “resonant”. “Hey!”, linked to the disappearance of the poet’s father’s coffin through the curtains at the crematorium in “Fitter Turner”, is picked up again with the scattering of Nigel Cox’s ashes in “Big Minty Nose”.
In the final two lines of “Fitter Turner”, returning from the doctor’s with a son with a black eye, the poet briefly reflects on rhyme: “And we’ll drive home – his eye matching sky – which is/an easy rhyme, but pleasing, to me, nevertheless.” As elsewhere, this is by no means as “plain and straightforward” as it might appear. ‘Eye’ and ‘sky’ not only rhyme with each other but assonantally reach back to ‘sign’ in the previous line and forward to ‘rhyme’ itself in the next, while ‘easy’ half-rhymes with ‘pleasing’ and fully with ‘me’, and the offrhyme of ‘is’ and ‘nevertheless’ lightly sketches (without nailing home) the vestigial shape of a concluding couplet.
If the voice in these poems doesn’t work for you, you might call it disingenuous, occasionally twee. That would be to underestimate its depth, subtlety and range. Personally, it’s a voice I just want to keep listening to.
Harry Ricketts is co-editor of New Zealand Books and teaches in the English programme at Victoria University of Wellington.
Jenny Bornholdt’s The Rocky Shore won the poetry category of this year’s Montana Book Awards.