Distances, depths and directions, Catherine Vidler

The Moonmen
Anna Livesey
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9780864736260

 

Tigers at Awhitu
Sarah Broom
Auckland University Press, $24.99,
ISBN 9781869404574

 

Mapping the Distance
Ingrid Horrocks
Victoria University Press, $25.0,
ISBN 9780864736277

 

The Moonmen, Tigers at Awhitu and Mapping the Distance each contain a stunning range and depth of work. The collections are of course as unique as the poets themselves, but reading them together reveals some interesting points of contact. The most prominent of these, apart from the fact that the poets are all women in their 30s, is a shared attention to some aspect of motherhood: Anna Livesey devotes her book’s final section to poems concerning her ill mother; Sarah Broom’s poems often centre on her experiences as a mother of young children; and Ingrid Horrocks writes a long sequence of poems about her desire for motherhood and experiences with IVF. In a related common theme, these collections all speak of a journey or journeys, whether between geographical, physical, psychological or emotional states. And at the level of language, the poems consistently display deep, innovative focus and momentum, reflecting creators assuredly connected to the tools of their craft.

The poems in Livesey’s second collection, The Moonmen, sometimes remind me of metal engravings. Finely cut, beautifully precise, self-revealing in impact, they demonstrate a necessity that does not seem to rely on outcomes of interpretation. But these poems are also often puzzling and mercurial, moving and confronting, and as such they call for significant intellectual and emotional engagement.

The collection is divided into three sections: “The Moonmen”, “Midwestern” and “Mother”. Poems in the first section read almost like a cabinet of curiosities populated by real and/or imagined objects; such as “the most perfect tree”, “a tiny library”, “splendid ice-pickles” and “the great iced cake of relationships”. Then, in “Midwestern”, we find strangely recorded anecdotal material, such as that contained in the short poem “Go”:

I was weeded, undesigned,
I caught nothing but garter snakes.
A wastrel, whale-headed, I was racy, roving.
I was lacy and needy, sober and serious.
Owl-like and shrew-like, I was waiting for
news.

 

Reading these first two sections often felt like listening to someone saying compelling things in an accent I’d never heard before. A confident, measured tone was combined with a strange cadence that seemed to distance the poems from the speaker, as if acute observations were somehow being made from a far-away place, either spatially or temporally. The effect was to suggest something exotic, even extraterrestrial about the poems; that they were of this world, but they were not of this world.

In the third section, “Mother”, a different kind of force, almost like a simultaneous ascent and plunge, transported me into a realm in which Livesey’s words were at their most humanly luminous. In this section the poet approaches the heartrending situation of her mother’s illness from a variety of angles, potently articulating its physical, psychological and emotional complexities in ways that are at times plain and direct, at others ornately elusive. The collection’s final poem, which communicates essentials of vulnerability, sadness and resignation in the face of loss, speaks in a language that gathers and focuses Livesey’s remarkable poetic strengths. From “What Licence issued you anyway?”:

Connection, light as sunlight through clouds;
As lights flick across valleys, across gorse.

There is no way of saying we are sorry, save to
hold you.
There is no way to hold or save you.

 

Broom’s Tigers at Awhitu is an immensely powerful debut collection, which enters directly into vicinities of darkness, light, and the spaces in-between. Its poems are often situated under conditions of extreme pressure. In their natural environments, winds crack, ransack, lunge and whine, the sun cracks and plunges, the ocean loses its footing. In their human environments, a swimmer narrowly escapes drowning, a man waits desperately for rescue on Everest and, at the book’s core, the poet is confronted and pursued by threatening extremes of illness. However, moments of joy, love and light are never far away in the pages of this book, and when Broom turns her attention to these, her work shines in a different way: like seeing great strength used to cradle a baby or play something tender and beautiful on a musical instrument.

Broom’s poems are resilient and firmly planted. Taut and limber, they bend but do not break beneath the sometimes enormous weight of their imagery and subject matter. In “The Plain”, for example, the speaker engages with, listens to, and moves through an almost unfathomably harsh environment:

I crawl forward on knees and elbows

I think the sharp grass is talking to me
telling me of a time when breath came easy

 

And in “Hospital Property”, in which the poet speaks frankly about her devastating cancer diagnosis and treatment, her view remains fixed on the future: “No, but wait. Watch what happens now.”

These poems and others positively vibrate with tenacity and bravery in the face of terrifying circumstances, and as such they constitute a deep centre of gravity in this collection. But they are set in a wider context in which poems also express happiness that is at times sheer and sudden (as in the poem “Red Sail”, in which a bright red sail encapsulates elements of a mother’s joy), at times gentle and contemplative (as in “The Island”, in which the poet addresses her unborn child with the gentle tones and rhythms of a lullaby), and at times understated and vast; as in these lines from “Matakawau”, the book’s final poem, and one in which Broom displays her characteristically striking landscape imagery:

when the sea pulls this far out
the world is simply tender

the mudflats gleam,
shellfish click and gurgle

birds call out across
a barely possible openness

 

The co-existing presence of poems such as these, while not altering the impact or effect of others, ensures that even at its darkest moments there is never an absence of light or of hope in this collection.

Horrocks’s Mapping the Distance is a book with a wide surface area. The poems span 10 years, visit a variety of geographical locations (Italy, Japan, America, New Zealand) and explore a significant range of personal and emotional territories, such as overseas student experiences, relationships with friends, family and partner, and becoming pregnant using IVF technologies.

When I sat down to write about Horrocks’s poems, the first thing I wrote was that they “exuded a gentle heart”. I had actually meant to write “heat”, not “heart”, but I think both statements are true. Reading the collection felt almost like sitting down for a cup of coffee with the poet, her warm, friendly words rising like steam in the space between us.

The poems are often very personal in subject matter but a distinct directness in their tone and language (something akin to that of an impartial observer) strikes an intriguing balance, widening their perspective and providing scope for a reader’s involvement. The sequence “Songs for children, a cycle in many voices” exemplifies this phenomenon. These poems address the IVF process in a straightforward, informative style that combines first-person and third-person perspectives with representations of “many voices” (as in the poem “Chat Room Voices”, which quotes participants in online conversations). In this way the sequence conveys intensely personal elements of the experience while also inviting universal contemplation. From Waiting:

New to chat rooms
she trawls,
looking for symptoms,
hooked on voices
letting out stories
day by day.

 

The book’s first section, while dealing with a very different kind of subject matter, also reflects a combination of an objective style with the communication of subjective detail. These poems introduce us to a series of fruits, which are described via the contexts in which the poet encounters them. The language of these poems is crisp, direct and captivating in its luscious encapsulation of the elements of each piece. From “Seeds”:

Let me split it for you.
You see, honeycombed in this bitter green fruit
are cloying pink droplets.
Take a seed, break it open on your tongue.

 

The phrase “mapping the distance” is a fascinating title for this collection as it prompts the reader to imagine what kind of map the poems might constitute in relation to the distances they encompass. Rather than signposting linear routes across a series of separate planes, these poems seem more like constellations distributed within a wider three-dimensional space; providing meaningful structure and illumination to the poet’s journey while also preserving ample room for readers to interact and make their own connections.

 

Catherine Vidler is the editor of Snorkel (www.snorkel.org.au). Her first poetry collection, Furious Triangle, is forthcoming. 

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