Out of this world, Elizabeth Crayford

Snow White’s Coffin
Kate Camp
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9780864738882

The Odour of Sanctity
Amy Brown
Victoria University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9780864738905

Snow White’s Coffin was written when Kate Camp held the Creative New Zealand Berlin Residency from September 2011 to October 2012. The city is ever-present in these poems, which are populated as much by the silhouettes of cranes, chimneys, office towers, leafless branches and ferris wheels as by the neighbours she doesn’t meet, the women in headscarves in the street or the lost child in a park. There is nothing in this book to identify its author as a New Zealander but each poem carries an awareness of the weight of the Old World, which seems heightened when the perspective of both writer and reader is antipodean. Thus she can write in the last poem in this book, “I know about the streets, their dangers / and the synagogues they hold”. This sense of living “on the rollercoasters of historic Europe” is impossible to escape and permeates Camp’s experience of Berlin: even the park across the road is “built over a mountain of bunkers / that were smashed and filled with rubble / once the war was over.”

This might be a travelogue, but not in any conventional sense. When she says “this is the way you travel through the world”, Camp doesn’t have a Baedeker or a Lonely Planet guidebook in mind. Her report on experience is much more singular and personal. She seems constantly amazed by the fact that we can both be in the world and of the world; that we can observe, experience and reflect in the blink of an eye; that we are both within and without. Time and again in these poems she remarks on this with a mixture of wonder and awe. Oddly for a poet, whose stock-in-trade is words, this sense of simultaneity and strangeness is connected with sight: “How can it be that we must walk through this world / with this little gelid world to lead us?” The voice in this book inhabits that liminal space between experience and the awareness of experience, a sensation heightened by immersion in another culture, where disjunction becomes an everyday experience.

These poems are also a meditation on time, in a similar vein: that sense of being borne back ceaselessly into the past which is heightened in a city where every cobblestone and corner resonates with history. She is fascinated by “how time, like everything else, gets overtaken by time”, and that “to understand this life you need another whole life.” A poem such as “Double Glazing” exemplifies the dislocation, when the utterly known shifts and reflects back on itself, creating a doppelgänger of a room in which

                                                             doors
which once by day appeared to open outward
start to open inward and within themselves
within again.

 

Camp prefaces this book with a question posed by Rilke, clearly apposite given the preoccupations discussed above: “how is it possible to live when after all the elements of this life are utterly incomprehensible to us?” Perhaps what Camp does in this volume is show us one way to live when all your geographical, linguistic and personal touchstones are removed. She entreats us to savour the mysteries of our flesh (“bones and body parts”), to listen for but not fear time’s winged chariot, knowing we are always inside things because “there is no outside”, buoyed up by wonder but shackled by time.

These poems don’t give up their meaning lightly. On a first reading, the opening sequence “The loneliest ol’ song in the world”, centred on a prose poem about Willie Nelson, seems incomprehensible. That it’s followed by “On reading Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” suggests that the schlockiest country-and-western lyrics and the meditative memorialising of Gray’s poem come from the same source: that we have all loved and lost, or that we will all love and lose, and as Bob Dylan puts it, “he not busy being born is busy dying.” At the same time there is a sort of sweet melancholy in the awareness of this fragility. Camp’s tastes are eclectic: Tom Waits and Elvis Presley rub shoulders with Rilke, Marcus Aurelius and Miroslav Holub in this collection, and the title suggests the darker side of Grimms’s fairy tales in which death stalks the innocent. It’s a book that’s well worth persevering with, a report from the front by a remarkable and idiosyncratic sensibility.

There came a point during my first reading of Amy Brown’s The Odour of Sanctity when I found myself skipping forward to find out what happened to one character in particular, wondering all the while how the author had managed to make this such a compulsive read. And while it’s definitely not a verse novel in that it doesn’t really have a plot, it is so cleverly and deliberately structured that it teases the reader on, creating mystery, tension and suspense.

The Odour of Sanctity is an exploration of hagiography: the process by which the life of a saint is documented, miracles recorded and attested by witnesses, the evidence then presented to a canonising pope. In the first section, Brown takes us through the lives of six candidates for sainthood. Some speak in their own voice, as when Christina Rossetti turns boredom and frustration into a game with words: “My pining evolved into self-pity, / pity into piety, piety into poetry.” Elizabeth of Hungary, married at 14, widowed at 20, dead by 24, washes the bodies of lepers in the hospital she founded, and even takes them into her bed. Meanwhile her confessor flogs her to test her faith, and she does not wince: paradoxically, “it is wrong to enjoy bodily pleasures,” she reminds herself. Saint Augustine castigates himself in a similar vein: “My putrescent flesh / rubbed whatever / it could”.

The second section consists of six witnesses to the miracles so necessary for canonisation: a nursemaid in seventh-century England who vouches for the new-born infant Rumwold, “a talking baby” who spoke “hymns, prayers, sermons” constantly for his three short days on earth. The sanctity of Margery Kemp, 15th-century pilgrim to the Holy Lands and one of the first women to write an autobiography, is attested to by a fellow scribe who notes that she was called, amongst other things, “Whore. Liar. Actress. Con. Mad / woman. Visionary. Holy seer.” Lastly, a contemporary candidate Jeff Mangum, lead singer of the American indie rock band Neutral Milk Hotel, is vouched for by a geeky 20-something emo kid, who considered attendance at Mangum’s performances “pilgrimages” and whose music “made me feel brave enough / to slice myself; a line of red across my arm / following dad’s soapy razor.” God examines the evidence in section three, and examining physicians and those individuals miraculously cured also get to speak, before the five historical canonisations are confirmed: the book ends with the six saints paired off in conversation. Brown has meticulously added an appendix, references and a bibliography.

At 240 pages, this is no slim volume but a substantial book and an impressive tour-de-force from a writer not yet 30. Brown demonstrates tremendous skill across a wide range of verse forms, from extended interior monologues in the style of Robert Browning, to the careful half-rhyming quatrains in “Every bird”, which describe a miracle associated with Rossetti. Narrators multiply and their voices overlap giddily in time and space as Brown ricochets from 21st-century America to medieval England and fourth-century Africa. Words pour out of them compulsively. Fascinated and repulsed by the corporeality of decaying flesh, the urge to self-harm, the thrill of sado-masochism, the self-denial of anorexia,  Brown explores the fine line between faith divine and extreme neurosis. This is unlike any other book of poetry I’ve ever read, and it’s a remarkable achievement.

Two literary antecedents spring to mind. One is Nabokov’s Pale Fire, a much more conventional verse novel than this, but one which also makes great play out of its own fictive nature and in which a close reading of footnotes and endnotes becomes crucial to the unravelling of the plot. Brown gives a nod to this in a poem of the same name in section five. The other is David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, six nested stories that also span time and space. Fine bedfellows indeed for a remarkable New Zealand talent. The Odour of Sanctity merits a place on the world stage, and I hope Victoria University Press can facilitate the international acclaim this book deserves.

 

Elizabeth Crayford works at Wellington East Girls’ College where she teaches English, art history and understanding religion.

 

Snow White’s Coffin was shortlisted for this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards.

 

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