The sliding door in the dark, Airini Beautrais

The Lonely Nude
Emily Dobson
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9780864739292

Cinema
Helen Rickerby
Mākaro Press, $25.00, ISBN 9780473276485

Waha/Mouth
Hinemoana Baker
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9780864739704

I have often wondered how far poetry can stray into the mundane, before losing its status as poetry. Although the days of poetry being synonymous with higher thoughts are long gone, risks still exist. How domestic may I be? How profane? How bodily? Emily Dobson productively explores this knife-edge in her new collection, The Lonely Nude. Dobson was Glenn Schaeffer fellow at the University of Iowa in 2005, and many of these poems were written during that time. Afterwards, we are told, they “spent several years in Emily’s wardrobe”. Here the crucial incubation must have occurred, and a polished collection has emerged.

The Lonely Nude runs the free verse spectrum from short-lined, haiku-like lyrics to prose poems, often making use of smallness in both form and content. Dobson’s eye for the miniature reminds me of some of the work of Joanna Margaret Paul and Jenny Bornholdt, and she has a similar ability to render nature or home life without being twee. The nude on the book’s cover is photographed in an unflattering position: three limbs obscured, the remaining leg strangely shortened. This is an accurate reflection of the poet’s treatment of the human body. The nudes that appear in these poems are not highly sexualised female figures, but real people. Dobson’s descriptions are often wonderfully unromantic: “his arse like seawater”, “the leathery old nudists”. A recurrent motif is the bum: “my pale bum bobbing”; “nothing but blue sky/and a soft bottom”; “my bum was squarely planted on the couch/and I could feel it spreading.” And the shocker: “I tear at/(there’s no nice way to say this)/ my weeping anus”, with its clever off-rhyme. What a poetic feat to get that in.

Other poems move away from realism: one of the best is “We hold back the rain and release it”, which takes its title from the Bhagavad Gita and quotes from the Penguin Book of Norse Myths. Descriptions of rain are followed with “I look, and it’s not raining at all. It’s dry and warm, and the little gold leaves are blowing down, blowing into heaps in the edges of the streets.” Short poems can run the risk of incompleteness, and some of these reach outside of themselves. As a whole, though, this collection will delight fans of the brief lyric.

Helen Rickerby’s Cinema is part of the three-book “Hoopla Series” put out by Mākaro Press this year (the other two poets in the series being Michael Harlow and Stefanie Lash). Rickerby’s fourth collection of poems centres on the theme of film. Clearly Rickerby is an avid moviegoer, and knows her material well. The book is packed with references to films and directors, but even for a less film-obsessed reader there are sentiments which will resonate, and Rickerby’s enthusiasm for her subject matter is infectious. In some of the poems, the speaker is the viewer: “When the lights go down” describes various memories of the cinema; “The audience” tells the story of a girl who wants to live “in one of those old-school grand picture palaces” and spend all her time watching movies. In other poems, the line between fiction and reality is blurred. A series of poems at intervals throughout the book deals with the lives of the speaker and her friends, “as directed” by various well-known directors. These are often entertaining: when being directed by Ken Russell, Chris awakes to find an ant-eater tearing at his throat, which Ken tells him is “the ant-eater of self-doubt”. Brian is directed by Sergio Leone, but refuses to relinquish creative control: “what you gotta do is/zoom in – a close-up on my face/and I’ll be chewing something”.

At the heart of this collection, and possibly its best poem, is the extended narrative sequence “Two or three things I know about them” about François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. The sequence begins with the directors falling out, then explores the back-story through various angles, often employing parallel syntax and simple sentence structures to draw attention to the similarities in the characters’ personalities:

François has a deadline

Jean-Luc has a deadline

François must finish his critical film review by

5 o’clock

Jean-Luc must also finish his critical film

review by 5 o’clock

“How might we help one another?” François

wonders

“I will race you,” says Jean-Luc

And the tap tap tapping of their typewriters begin to sound like the slapping of feet on the

pavement

like the staccato of hooves

like the roar of an accelerating engine racing through avenues of deciduous trees on country

roads

 

“Nine movies” is a love story in episodes linked to particular films, which also sustains interest through its narrative. Film can polarise, though, and what is appealing to one viewer can be repellent to another – I baulked at the mention of the floating plastic bag in American Beauty. Rickerby’s casual, conversational style makes good use of Gen-X vernacular (“manky”; “styley”) and neologisms (“somethingth”; “eccentricker”; “strangerly”), and much of the time walks in the borderland between poetry and prose. This collection’s strength lies in its celebratory qualities and its varied approaches to viewer, viewed and viewing: as Jean-Luc has it, “At the cinema, we do not think, we are thought.”

Hinemoana Baker writes of her third poetry collection, Waha/Mouth: “I’d like to think that opening this book to read is like standing at the mouth of a cave, or a river, or a grave, with a candle in your hand.” The sense of descending into darkness, with only a fragile light to guide the way, is borne out in many of these poems. The first poem, “Candle”, opens with lines evocative of loss: “By the time I reach the basket of rose petals/held by the young girl with the green sash/there are none left.” Loss retains a strong presence throughout the remainder of the collection, sometimes filling a poem, sometimes manifesting itself through a single line, such as “I think the thoughts of hunters driving home empty-handed” or “My heart is in the laundromat.” Many of Baker’s lines are transposable to song lyrics, and it is always tempting to read the work of a poet/musician as musical, rhythmic, or sound-driven. But Baker maintains the formal versatility and inventiveness found in her earlier collections, often turning to prose poems, sometimes to found material, and alternating regularity with irregularity.

The book’s unusual format is due to her frequent use of long lines, and it is pleasing that Victoria University Press has been willing, or even delighted, to accommodate these. “Estuary” is made up of beautiful couplets spread across the page, and can be read vertically or horizontally. “There are almost no risks associated” is a skilful found poem, chopping its source text into small units and rearranging them in various permutations to distort the original meanings, or to invite new ones. Sound is more prominent in some poems than others. “What the whale said” is full of rhyme and off-rhyme. “Tinkerbell”, ostensibly about running over an animal, paraphrases Julian of Norwich (perhaps via Eliot) in its final lines: “Tinkerbell, you say, Tinkerbell/all will be well and all manner of things will be well.” There is ample evidence of craft and control throughout the collection.

The poems which leave the deepest impressions are those which “make light”, while, like the candle at the mouth of the cave, drawing attention to something uncomfortable or unknowable. “Follicle” opens with a description of the miraculous ovarian follicle, “a fullness that looks empty”, then abruptly shifts to a doctor’s small talk about his garden. Through the description of gardening as “not my strong suit …. Not my superpower”, we are made aware that the doctor’s performance with the follicle has also been unsuccessful. “Manifesto” is perhaps one of the darkest poems, which deals with the difficulties involved in creating: “Poetry waits in a crate with a lock.” The poet does not take her creations, nor her artistic success for granted: “‘Hell that poem’s in good nick,’ they say. ‘What do you feed it?’/‘Bones and offal. Leftovers,’ I say.” Poetry is left outside the sliding door in the dark, and told to “Wait”. This is a confronting and often difficult book, but one that will reward its readers.

Airini Beautrais’s latest collection of poems, Dear Neil Roberts, appeared from Victoria University Press in late 2014.

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