Finding the poetry, Michael Hulse

Gleam 
Sarah Broom
Auckland University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9781869407704

The Baker’s Thumbprint
Paula Green
Seraph Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9780473236311

Family Songbook
John Newton
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9780864738394

Enough
Louise Wallace
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9780864739131

The sad story of Sarah Broom has already entered into the canon of contemporary poetry’s mythologies. In her mid-30s, in the late stages of pregnancy, she was diagnosed with cancer and given months to live. That was in early 2008. The daughter, her third child, was born safely; Broom herself survived for more than five years beyond the diagnosis, and died in Auckland in April 2013. Her first collection of poems, Tigers at Awhitu, marked in its pages the fearful watershed of the diagnosis, and was well received both in New Zealand and in the UK: W N Herbert’s phrase, “the fragile sanctuary of the imagination”, catching with memorable delicacy the nature of the space all of us occupy – whatever happens in our mind and spirit has but a frail and relative tenure, and is contingent on the physical realities that the body faces.

Gleam, published posthumously, must necessarily be read in the light of what we know of Broom’s end. In the obituary that appeared on the website of Broom’s UK publishers, Carcanet, her Irish friend, Selina Guinness (author of an applauded memoir), wrote that Gleam, which she had seen pre-publication, “contains some of the most beautiful and startling poems about dying I have ever read”, and singled out for quotation these closing lines from “vigil”:
and when I walked out last night
it was cold, the coldest night this winter,
and when the stars asked me to join them
in the sting of their bareness, I let them
take me, and they carried me between them,
clusters of stars all along my body, and I
arched
right back and pointed my toes and fingertips
and was as long as ever you could imagine,
and they did not let me go

 

Guinness is right. In lines such as these, Broom achieved an arresting and starkly simple beauty. How like naivety the phrasing of that dark invitation is! – “the stars asked me to join them / in the sting of their bareness” – and yet how rich in knowledge: knowledge of the sting that is death, knowledge of the nakedness in which we all go into the dark, knowledge, too, of the vast emptiness that the stars stand for.

There are other passages in Gleam where Broom achieves a comparable power:

I look for that place
where breath becomes so light it vanishes,
pulls away like a small plane turning steeply
and heading up, straight up,
fishbone thin in a thin blue sky

then gone.

 

Or, in a poem that includes an explicit variation on John 3:8 (“The wind bloweth where it listeth”):

and though every cell
of my newly bare bones
cried out for protection
I wanted that wind
more than anything

it comes and goes
as it pleases.

 

She became aware, with a fierceness resembling passion, of the materiality of the body, and the fact that it would rejoin the material world; and her meditations on body and spirit took her to a primal, pared-back vocabulary of wind and water, sea and moon, body and bones, and the different kinds of leave-taking. It would be wrong to claim that everything in Gleam is genuinely interesting as poetry, but Broom’s journey possesses a universal existential meaning: “so is every one that is born of the Spirit”, as John put it.

I mean no disrespect to Broom’s memory if I say that, as readers, we must face up to the fact that this is poetry that depends very heavily for its impact on our knowledge of the poet – and, what’s more, since Broom lived with her diagnosis for several years, it is poetry that was written in the knowledge that we would be reading with that knowledge. Much of the vast body of poetry written out of terminal illness is both conceived and received in this way, in the confidence that the person of the writer is at the centre of attention. Now that we have wearied of pointing to the sublimity of Nature (eco-poetry has substituted a different language of response), and now that the juxtaposition of “poetry” and “pity” no longer seems a complete response to the extremis of the self in war, illness and dying have become the principal site of the Romantic ego.

Paula Green looks, at first glance, as if she isn’t especially interested in the Romantic ego, since Plato, Copernicus, Einstein, Florence Nightingale, Simone de Beauvoir, Mick Jagger and others stroll in and out of her poems as if conspiring to prove that the self is no more than an assembly of personae. But, in fact, there’s a good old-fashioned ego at work in The Baker’s Thumbprint, and any use of the masks and costumes of multiple identities is chiefly for the party fun of dressing up, rather than for any engagement with philosophy, physics or nursing reform, just as any resemblance to the real Plato, Einstein, Florence Nightingale etcetera is purely coincidental. So we read: “I have warm jam sandwiches in my yellow lunchbox / homemade raspberry or plum, a soft apple and a little box of raisins.” And “I think I have the moment in me / that I want to last like the instant the light / catches the hills to make them sharp ….” Or, early in the book, this poem titled “Bethells Beach”:

Sammy is eating sandwiches with me
at the lookout point.

He likes the combination of
cos lettuce, pecorino shavings and

anchovy dressing, and the way
the Tasman Sea lifts the imagination

like an old-fashioned washing machine
willing to take any load.

 

The sandwiches sound delicious. And I can relate, as they say, to that washing machine image, being the one in our house who does the washing, drying and ironing. But I’d better come clean and admit that I’ve changed a word in the poem – the name that starts it off, which ought to read “Einstein”. Einstein? She can’t mean the Einstein, so either she was at the lookout point with a friend she’s renamed Einstein, or she was there alone and found the poem more interesting if she inserted Einstein into it. If she was there alone, presumably the taste for these sandwiches and for the resemblance of the Tasman to a washing machine were Green’s own, and she finds it – what? amusing? enhancing of some point she’s making? – to assign her response to an alter ego. But, if she was there in company, why not use the actual name of Sammy (or Jenny or whoever)? The quirkiness of substituting Einstein, if that’s what happened here, would epitomise the age’s trademark privileging of effect over truth. I find I prefer the poem as above, with Sammy (or whoever), not Einstein; and the best poem of all would have been the unwritten one that gave us Green without mirrors. The Baker’s Thumbprint is an energetic and engaging book, yes, complete with sestina, villanelle, and poems set in Rome and New York; I loved it, hated it, loved it again; and I feel certain it would have been stronger stripped of some of its tricks.

The two books from Victoria University Press are very slim volumes, and feel thin in other respects, too. In one poem, remembering a writing retreat to “the wilderness” and an aborted long walk, John Newton writes,

In the end Ken came to rescue me. Man,
was I pleased to see him! He had a half
ounce of weed and an inch or two of scotch
and we sat on the roof (for some reason)
and played our guitars ….

It’s possible to imagine the reader who would think this tone resembles that of late Baxter – the foregrounding of matey attitude, the use of “Man” (which, in Baxter, was the language of the day but, in Newton, possesses a museum quality requiring quotation marks), and the profile of Ken, all bear a superficial similarity. But Newton has no interest in rhythm, his language lacks the savour and sinew that were in everything Baxter wrote, and nothing in Family Songbook suggests he takes the hard-wiring of poetry as seriously as Baxter did. Three of the four parts of this poem, “High Lonesome”, are written in lines of 10 syllables, but the dynamics available to syllabics are absent. I find this very disappointing, not least since Family Songbook is packaged as poetry of landscape, “New Zealand pastoral in a different key”, and I opened the book with real interest. I, too, know those drops of poisoned carrots that Newton refers to, and once, on a dark trail not 20 miles from Alexandra, I met the strangest of apparitions on a motorbike, the rabbit counter, with a second headlamp mounted on his head so that he could survey the impact of the poison on the rabbit population. They froze in the light, to be counted, as he walked the hillsides in the night. But that is another story; and Newton is frustratingly niggardly with his stories.

Page for page, Louise Wallace’s book reads like a set of early drafts; it made me so cross that I had to hide it from myself. “Dear Wellington” is the last poem in the book, and it reads:

We have taken the time
to get a tan
and now
we are coming home.

 

Well, that’s nice. But in all seriousness now: where’s the poem? I tried to imagine telling Ariosto or Chaucer: one day, poets will be admired for this. There are poems in Enough on the poet’s late grandmother with Alzheimer’s, and I took as particular an interest in these as I did in Broom’s collection, since I have co-led the Hippocrates initiative for poetry and medicine these last five years and have a serious concern with how poetry reflects the experience of illness and dying. Prose poetry also interests me greatly; but the samples here put me in mind of Glyn Maxwell’s sardonic definition of it as “prose written by poets”. How I longed for Wallace to borrow an elegant stanza from Herrick, or write a poem on Karl Popper in Christchurch, or simply startle me with a fresh image – the Tasman Sea as a washing machine, say.

 

Michael Hulse co-edited The Twentieth Century in Poetry in 2011; his latest collection, Half-Life (Arc, 2013), was named a Book of the Year by John Kinsella. 

 

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