Raw edges of wonder, Janet Hughes

The Hill of Wool
Jenny Bornholdt
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9780864736529

 

Thicket
Anna Jackson
Auckland University Press, $24.99,
ISBN 9871869404826

 

Aloe
Diana Bridge
Auckland University Press, $24.99,
ISBN 98718669404413

 

The Leaf Ride
Dinah Hawken
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9870864736505

 

Western Line
Airini Beautrais
Victoria University Press, $28.00,
ISBN 9780864736499

 

Looking for common threads, I found plenty shared by two or three of these collections, but only one that clearly runs through all five – a domestic vein, which the poets handle very distinctively.

Jenny Bornholdt is especially identified with frankly domestic poetry – family, kitchens, food, chores, banality embraced affectionately and humorously. Now the domestic particulars are sparser, and sometimes set down rather baldly:

I feel lucky to know
what a cup of flour
feels like. The way
this flour, with water,
can become bread.
With egg, cake.

The sparkle and lift, the yeast and baking powder, are somehow missing. The celebratory note is subdued, the comedy rarer and less comfortable. In many poems the domesticity shades into surrealism, into powerful, mystifying fables, or anecdotes with a gothic edge, investing the domestic realm with anxiety and unease:

inside
babies lick the clocks
until time disappears
inside their gummy mouths.

 

The dominant theme is memory, the poems often rueful and shadowed with loss. Summer (2003) included elegiac poems about the death of Bornholdt’s father; loss plays out differently now, the change caught neatly in three villanelles – one in Summer, and two in The Hill of Wool. Bornholdt handles this constrained form, so unlike her typical loose-limbed verse, with great flair. In the earlier example, she turns Dylan Thomas’s trope inside out – the summer light is “far too bright”, the season incongruous. She uses the form strictly, the tolling repetition suggesting waves of overwhelming distress: “The summer that wouldn’t go./That summer we didn’t want to know.” Though the grief there is raw, it is contained, whereas an unsettled, contagious melancholy seeps into many of the newer poems.

The recent villanelles, less strictly handled, describe an acute, unfocused unease. “Memory” layers the slippery idea of “forgetting that we remember”, folding the reader into growing confusion about whether memory is to be treasured or feared. This confusion is anatomised bleakly in “Undone”, with short lines and desolately falling rhythms. Loss “undoes” the old sunny, celebratory poetic, for which this poem is an elegy:

All’s become con-
fusion. All falls dark. The house closed fast
to light. We watch as everything becomes
undone.
Ordinary things that used to be so full of
wonder.

 

Anna Jackson has also taken domestic life as a recurring subject. For her, “ordinary things” (parenting, dinner parties, conversations in the lift) are full of wry comedy and emotional conundrums. In Thicket she explores parent-child dynamics through a mythic lens, and the striking cover captures the project acutely. The title is vividly cross-stitched over a pitch-dark grove of tree-trunks; you find an Anubis figure, a veiled doorway and a mysterious flame when you flip the book to read the interrupted inscription:

[Front cover]I was trying to straighten things
out
but it is like throwing down
combs and having forests
spring up between us –
[Back cover]till it is all so tangled
I can’t tell if you’re combing
or growing.

It’s all there – bright stitchery on an uncertain ground, dark mythic vistas, word-play, and inscribed efforts to tame the tangles and impose some perspective. The comb/thicket simile isn’t straightforward, and neither are the poems, though they typically begin with vignettes of domestic comedy, with the kind of slyly split perspective that rewards the adult reader of the best bedtime stories. We laugh and nod at the game of back-yard badminton:

It’s not a dumb game, you’re dumb
at it, though it doesn’t help to say
that, and you’re getting
better.

 

Jackson’s trademark italic for speech emphasis helps create a faux-artless persona, which you will like or not (I do): but then you are compelled to look through it and engage (inter)textually, intellectually: “over and over, exit, pursued/by my son. Anything to avoid a row.”

Then there are echoes and connections between poems. For instance, a chunk of lines from “Badminton” – “feeling/for the concrete steps buried/somewhere under the grass/ – is pasted into “Let alone”, along with allusions to “Exit, pursued”:

Stumbling into the dark …
how can I even stop to see
who is pursuing me,
let alone make out
the changes imposed
on you by this exile.

 

So much is going on here. The repetition makes us reconsider the lines in the light of the other poems, hindsight turning the badminton game into a metonym. Allusions layer up the complex perspective. There’s comedy, even slapstick; but the child’s distress is validated by allusion to Aeneas’s failure to recognise his mother, her refusal to listen to him (this explored in several poems); and that she casts herself as an Antigonus being pursued offstage by a bear in The Winter’s Tale helps us understand how utterly beleaguered she feels. Then “My Brother, Twelve Swans” supplies the sister’s angle on it all: “It is always my mother who drives him wild/ until, finally, he takes flight”. Echoes and allusions gather into an ominous thicket.

Jackson delights in intellectual speculation and exploration, and invokes diverse kinds of learning in a spirit of serious play. After several re-readings I am still finding (and presumably missing) correspondences and nuances, and being startled by the sheer cleverness – of the poem about growing a maths brain that grows visibly, obeying a syllabic Fibonacci sequence; or the poem about someone saying anyone can write a Frank O’Hara poem which is itself sly, pitch-perfect Frank O’Hara pastiche.

Diana Bridge is another scholarly poet. Like Jackson, she makes connections between classical text and modern family, yanking the legends down to earth. Her Sylvia Plath talks to Medea – “meaning leave him to cope with the children/ meaning stymie his own damn work?” In Aloe Bridge continues her intent scrutiny of things sublime and ordinary, and the act of seeing itself. Ordinary things supply small, powerful metaphors. Opening a tin – “edge/smooth to jagged in an instant” – represents the “rip and twist” of verbal betrayal; and in “Merger” the territorial disposition of pets’ feeding bowls is allowed to stand for the whole minefield of familial allegiances. Then there’s a wickedly comic sketch of the perfect housemate for a writer, who will see to the chores, and drop everything to critique a draft – tactfully.

In one poem Bridge declares herself “simply addicted to looking”, but to take this as the whole story is to risk missing the urgency with which she claims our attention, and the feeling that bursts through the shapely line and metre. Music takes her “close to the ceiling”, to “the raw edge of wonder”. The short, casual, surprising verb is a trademark. The Buddha’s knees are “looped”; a sleeve is “colour slicked over effort”; architecture can “tilt us out of comprehension”; and faced with a wall of ancient erotic sculpture “even the camera is fucked senseless”. These little words mine her smooth contemplative terrain with explosive feeling.

Family is one of Bridge’s major themes. In a small group of tender poems about a grandchild, the tone is poised acutely between affection and quiet reverence. A pre-natal scan is sketched in startling terms, hinting at parallels with prehistory and evolution:

He is somewhere behind the canoes of his lids.
The mouth gathers fullness, the rest of him
tails away – and is lost among the branches.

 

In “Sightings” the infant occupies a place of transition, still resembling fish or foetus: “Your sleeping self is blunt-tailed,/a bag rippled by fins.” Family resemblances flicker and fade: “these first days, your eyes/hold sightings of what came before,/slipping back below water.” In another poem, the child mispronounces his grandmother’s name, echoing her late brother. She asks, “Is this some hand-me-down trick of the genes/ to overthrow a sister freshly through the hoops of loss?” and the nursery anecdote grows an elegiac layer.

Similar questions of ancestry, learning and naming underpin the group of vivid, affectionate poems about a grandchild in Dinah Hawken’s collection. New-born, Elsa is evoked with enchanted precision. She startles “like a skink in a beach garden”, and her “long/oblong feet are shoving the air”. Exactly. At 16 months, she is mimicking adult behaviour, and learning to speak.

Together we are on a Möbius strip:

she is before and after us and we
are before and after her. While she is
no one other than herself she is also getting
us where she wants us – in her head, her
hands
and in her manifesting language.

 

The gaunt, incantatory “Peace on Earth” sequence elaborates Christ’s words from the cross. Written to accompany Haydn’s “Seven Last Words” quartet, it is still powerful read separately. The variations on the mother/son relationship are especially haunting.

In Hawken, “ordinary things” are often natural things – trees, stones, birds, landscape – invested with a mystical, personal charge. This I confess is usually where she loses me, but it is not the dominant note in this volume. The sequence of chirpy “Building Sonnets” is entirely about the built environment, detailing the process, materials and equipment of a building project with a delight in sheer novelty. The delight itself, and the comic touches, are endearing. But, finally, I felt shut out by the particularity that is meant to draw you in. Among other tradespeople, “Then Murray came”, referencing Bornholdt’s comic poem, but he is given no voice or presence. In the end there is too much cataloguing of things, names and tasks, and I want to perceive their novelty, not just know the fact of it.

Airini Beautrais has a quirky, confident voice, an affectionate eye for ordinary things. She wishes on a washing-line thief a future of mismatched socks, with “holes to harden your heels”, and shirt buttons dropping off “in places you never return to”. She warns a power-tripper, “The little screen you feed behind/ will be removed”; and a pessimist: “Death shuffles up behind you/like a dark camel./… The crossword is full of empty squares.” The strongest poems, or part-poems are evocative and resolved, like “turning tricks”:

All the drivers in the dark
seek glimpses
as they pass the old hotel
groping the windows with their eyes.
What is to be seen? A dusty wall
half yellow warm ….
The hall of human longing
always has lights in the windows;
it is a bank that never shuts.

 

Many of the “love poems”, “charms” and “curses”, however, felt as though they needed weeding or polishing to imbue their ordinary things with … something. But I wonder if a generational divide is opening up here – perhaps digitally native poetry readers share a new aesthetic. It occurs to me that younger readers may not want their “ordinary things” transmuted or enlarged upon; that jump cuts, juxtapositions and fleeting multiplicity make more sense to them than making connections, holding things still for patient scrutiny, or seeking or imposing order. Cataloguing may be the defining mode for a generation that avidly but casually embraces obsessions. And people who use random as a term of approval may prefer randomness to wonder.

 

Janet Hughes is a Wellington editor.

 

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