Personal freight, Elizabeth Crayford

Wild Like Me
Elizabeth Nannestad
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9780864738813

One Human in Height
Rachel O’Neill
Hue and Cry Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9780473257569

Other Animals
Therese Lloyd
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9780864738820

Dark Sparring
Selina Tusitala Marsh
Auckland University Press, $28.00,
ISBN 9781869407865

Wild Like Me is Elizabeth Nannestad’s third book, published after a 17-year hiatus. If He’s a Good Dog He’ll Swim appeared in 1996, and Jump was joint winner of the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry in 1986. Born in Auckland in 1956, Nannestad, according to the cover notes, “worked as a forensic psychiatrist, then became a homeschooling mother. Now redundant.” This book charts the territory of the empty nest, an intensely felt rite of passage that alternates between grief and a new-won freedom. Thus, in “That Creepy Old Woman Over There”, the protagonist longs for the touch of “a warm hand”, but more than anything else she longs for “my one child near”. Meticulously observed flowers, insects, birds and domestic animals become metaphors for transience, loss and the departed child; the absent butterflies in the first poem, whose beauty went unremarked, leave “only the flinty sunlight / it’s colder, the lavender is plainer: they’re gone.” In “A Woman Walking”, migratory birds “wind-ruffled, feeding, edge away and cry weep weep.” Hand in hand with mourning these absences is the sometimes terrified glance into the future, as in the aptly titled “One Good Reason to Keep a Cat”, which imagines “some smelly old woman / living alone in a small cheap flat.”

Bleak? Yes, but, as the title suggests, there is also room here for a kind of wild rapture. Other poems locate the author within the continuity of a wider family and, towards the end of the book, she makes a valiant attempt to herald spring: “the first blossom, a plum” which “needs a patch of blue behind it” has the lightness of a haiku, whereas, in “All About Spring Green”, the girl “finds the whole world a kiss / and steps into it.” However, the volume ends with an image of grief: “The wind rises and the rain … . breaks, and washes over the window.”  The double entendre in the title of this poem, “Morning Rain”, tolls over Wild Like Me as, indeed, does the phrase “Now redundant”. Reflections on the act of writing, with titles such as “How This Very Poem Came About”, don’t always carry sufficient weight, and Nannestad is at her strongest when she finds the universal in the quotidian and lets an image speak for itself, as in “On Passing a Cattle Truck”, and the solitary cow “whose clear frightened eye met mine”.

Another, more detached, generation speaks in Rachel O’Neill’s and Therese Lloyd’s work. Both are recent graduates of Victoria University’s Institute of Modern Letters, and for each this is their first collection, although they have both published extensively in literary magazines and online. O’Neill’s One Human in Height is a series of prose poems, interspersed by her own line-drawings: a car, a parachute and an astronaut. Either tethered or in free-fall, these counterpoint the texts which exist in an equally nebulous place: cryptic and elusive, they read as fragments of other stories from which most of the connective tissue and contextual clues have been erased. “Dedication”, with which the book begins, is a work of fiction (the real dedication comes after the acknowledgements on page 55); witty, clever and self-referential, its rhythms, rhymes and half-rhymes deserve to be heard aloud and its list of off-beat dedicatees (“for my cactus … for Willie who didn’t leave me in the tornado, for Barry, the best parole officer a guy could hope for … for Pepe”) suggest some schlonky second-rate paperback Western. “Wicked Witch Idol”, spoken by a suitably miffed competitor who endures the glee of the other contestants, is matched on the next page with what may or may not be a retelling of Hansel and Gretel. Sometimes these poems spin off so far from their axis that locating meaning becomes very difficult indeed; “meaning”, as such, takes a back seat to surreal juxtaposition and the collision of the unexpected.

Always richly textured and surprising, there is a frustrating and tantalising quality to much of this work. It’s a relief to turn to the second section which (one hesitates to say) seems more autobiographical: Mum and Dad, siblings, uncles, a grandfather’s inability to articulate his war experiences, are, if not O’Neill’s own extended family, then at least a family whose voices we recognise. Section three plays again with fictionalised biography and physics, for which a reading of the Notes at the end of the volume is essential; once their jumping-off point is established, this sequence of tragicomic prose poems cleverly conflates the enormity of galaxies with the personal foibles and failings of their discoverers. O’Neill revels in the cadences and ambiguities of English and of life: “an eccentric clot of nouns”, as one narrator calls it, while another struggles to understand a sequence of signs “which seems to me to express a compound obsession with objects or persons of significance and systems of storage.” There you have One Human in Height in a nutshell.

In 2007, Therese Lloyd was awarded the Schaeffer Fellowship to spend a year attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, during which many of the poems in Other Animals were written. From the perspective of another hemisphere, Lloyd looks back tenderly at small-town New Zealand – Levin, Takaka, Foxton, Island Bay – while also exploring that sense of being a stranger in a strange land, with its own rituals and its seasons the wrong way round: autumn in October, yellow school buses, the treacherous snow on the crippling sidewalk, which together create a portrait of “a custom-built colony bigger than a sun / bloated on phenylalanine.” Lloyd, unobserved, watches her neighbours deal with a pile of recalcitrant leaves “by the red fire hydrant”: “Strange time to think about the beach in Levin”, she observes, recalling a friend for whom the Horowhenua coast, lost in fog, became “the absolute centre of nothingness.”

Many of these poems resonate with that sense of dislocation, of being lifted out of (what is for us) the known world and being forced, along with distance, to look our way. What she sees through the wrong end of a telescope are vignettes of New Zealand. Sometimes these focus on animals – sheep, with their “tiny child-sized teeth”, eels, muttonbirds, weka, a man who “cupped a baby flounder in his hands … . then let it go”, and, most importantly, “thousands and thousands of dolphins”, poems about which book-end this volume. Like Robin Hyde (who gets a look-in on page 59), international travel makes godwits of us all. Not surprisingly, variations on the phrase “I remember” echo through this book, as Lloyd recalls “three dark / rainy islands” and the people who populate her past: in particular, her father, with his “paint-flecked transistor radio on a windowsill”, also misfits in a motor-camp, and Jane, whose man done her wrong. As with O’Neill’s work, crucial aspects of the back-story are sometimes left out, resulting in elusive poems overloaded with personal freight. At its best, this is keenly observed and finely wrought verse which places the Antipodes at the centre of a turning world in which Therese Lloyd calculates “the different weights of our concerns/and possibilities”.

Selina Tusitala Marsh, of Samoan, Tuvaluan, English and French descent, was the first Pacific Islander to graduate with a PhD in English from the University of Auckland and is now a lecturer in the English Department there, specialising in Pasifika literature. Fast Talking PI won the Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry in 2010, and a quick search on YouTube turns up some fantastic live readings; with her big hair and even bigger personality, she must have wowed them at the London Olympics Poetry Parnassus event at which she represented Tuvalu in 2012.

Of the four books reviewed here, Dark Sparring is the standout; not because it’s accompanied (like her previous volume) by a CD, and not because of its length, but because of the way it overflows with a variety of poetic forms and revels in language as it tumbles off the page. Marsh combines some big, hard truth (suicide, domestic violence, a much-loved mother’s death from breast cancer) with poems that manage to be a glorious celebration of nationhood while avoiding the clichés of one big happy multicultural melting pot. In no way sentimental nor didactic, and never taking refuge in cynicism, Marsh is as at home with the rhythms and diction of the King James Bible as she is with rap, hip-hop and the sasa. Latin, Maori, Samoan, Tuvaluan and a smattering of Thai weave in and out of these poems, and careful placement on the page, as with “Afakisi Archipelago”, adds a concrete element. She makes extensive use of end-rhyme and has a particularly creative way with the present participle: this, from “New Zealand, the Lucky Country”:

bro’Town cartooning on TV
Eagle vs Shark mentality
Jim Baxter Jerusalumming it in Ponsonby
Sam Hunt’s DB Bitter poetry
Mansfield’s Devonshire scones over a cuppa
tea … .

 

The poems in the first section of Dark Sparring describe literal voyages (across Auckland, from Apia airport, to Samoa and back) as well as voyages of the imagination, in which Sione’s Wedding and pop diva Rihanna rub shoulders with Albert Wendt and Witi Ihimaera. The much more personal second section begins with “Genesis”, a supremely controlled account of the way in which, with chilling inevitability, cancer spreads through a body. The cadence of the original Book of Genesis only makes it more poignant:

Then the body said
Let the tumours produce
Seed-bearing cells
And cells in the body
According to their various kinds.
And it was so.

 

“50 Ways to Read a Mother” maps the difficult final journey with infinite tenderness. After the mourning, though, and through the release of Tuvaluan dance, Marsh finds strength in her extended family and in her new passion, kickboxing. This is the “sparring” of the title, and it asserts itself in the last poems in the book. “First Spar”, in five parts, gives brief, sometimes troubled, biographies of the women with whom she shares her martial arts training; “Kickboxing Cancer” and its repeated use of “I am . . .” (a biblical allusion with a particularly New Zealand resonance) shows that it’s possible to come out of a profound rite of passage all the stronger for it. The new beginning implied by “Matariki”, which prefaces this volume, fuels this work with hope. As with Nannestad’s Wild Like Me, these poems rage against the dying of the light, albeit with a great deal more chutzpah.

 

Elizabeth Crayford has worked at Wellington East Girls’ College since 2001 where she teaches English, Art History and Understanding Religion.

 

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