A pre-occupation with family, Ronda Cooper

Swimmers, Dancers
Michelle Leggott,
Auckland University Press, 1991, $16.95

The Other Hemisphere
Jan Kemp,
Three Continents Press/ Brick Row Publishing, Auckland, 1991, $19.95

Orpheus and other poems
Meg Campbell,
Te Kotare Press, Pukerua Bay, 1990, $15.95

Michelle Leggott’s second collection of poems, Swimmers, Dancers, is a celebration of family, new motherhood and romance. Leggott works these familiar territories with a determined intensity: we share magic moments with the new baby, revisit the classic early-60s Kiwiana childhood: ‘Jane is in bubble togs … billies of milk from the dairy icy dippers on the side of the can’. The poetry follows the interweaving anecdotes of family history, and shows an eager sensitivity for the richer textures of domestic life:

what bit of brilliance gets its start standing in a fruit
bowl?
the play should peel tragedy like an orange
she said, and squirt you in the eye …

This writing stays very light on its feet, full of music, songs and dancing: ‘We’re an E-flat family’. Constantly in motion, Leggott turns with precision, picks up an echo of Fred Astaire, shifts and slips away to the next detail, making it true with a late-fifties step’.

Movement becomes an end in itself, as fundamental to the meaning of the poetry as any ordinary meaning:

Boosey & Hawkes
Black & Decker where do we get to
slow nights when the book clears off to Baltimore
unimaginable
in the time of tearwater tea and willpower cookies
Hobans Ahlbergs Lobel Wise Brown I Can Read
two wind-ups with outstretched arms and joined hands
dancing around and around the parameters …

At this restless pace, experience is necessarily fragmentary. This is poetry of the snippet, the snapshot: ‘ourselves c/u in heavy mall traffic cutting a swatch’. Random interruptions are the norm; images and references break into each other; voices are only partially casually overheard.

With some poems, Leggott abandons linear direction altogether. Broken ends of event, scene and idea jostle across and around the pages experimentally, colliding and breaking apart and finding a form as they go. This quick-focus results at times in a curious indistinctness – each brightly coloured shard rattling against the next, discrete and undifferentiated:

up? down? the music
rolls walks gimps falls apart laughing starts over
pelagikos the contact improves
what pictures are the voices making now?

 

Jan Kemp keeps things more under control, more well-modulated (although the cover of her book is quite as violently pink as Leggott’s). The Other Hemisphere is the world viewed from an appropriate distance. An assiduously cultivated sensibility softens the edges of this poetry, polishes over any unsuitable sharpness, precludes any unintended excess. The pace is studied and analytical, the tendency always towards the glossiest of abstractions:

In the other hemisphere Rilke speaks of,
best known to poets and woman whose
unattainable love lives in her mind,
a ghost seen always at his most beautiful,
so gentle he holds her like air, showing
the fullness of heaven by not being there …

This is very well-travelled writing, crossing continents to base itself in foreign universities, making affectionate allusions to other writers. Various poems make little pilgrimages: to Glastonbury for a Guinevere frisson, to Cornwall for Thomas Hardy and to Menton (of course) so that later, Ventimiglia can be remembered from the further exotic remoteness of Singapore: ‘all much grubbier, poorer and differently alive’. Time in Asia delivers the usual postcard cameos: ‘Seascapes, Hong Kong’, ‘Bali Rice & Sky’.

This poetry works hard, posing in richly romantic locations, often featuring a heavily embroidered heart on its sleeve:

My most broken, blessed love
how is it you who seared my flesh
& split my bones, illumine me?

Such rhetoric is proudly displayed as evidence of emotional intensity. Kemp’s intensities, though, will characteristically be rather remote, rather second‑hand. In ‘Self Portrait’ she identifies herself firstly with Emily Dickinson, secondly with ‘Heathcliff’s girl downed in heather’. Other pieces reach for passion through the roles of mermaid, gypsy dancer, and Cleopatra ‘a gold-lidded face (with) lapis eyes’. It’s rather strange, even quite impressive in some ways, to find writing that is still loyal to such hackneyed emotional vocabularies.

Meg Campbell does not need such shrill displays for the poetry to take your attention. Orpheus and other poems, Campbell’s third collection, focuses quietly on more modest realities, finding meaning in the everyday:

I’m glad to be alone with you
in the old house
The wind from Australia paddles
the weatherboards at the north end,
chipping away flakes of paint …

 

Campbell writes about things like weeding and squashing wetas, or raiding a deserted garden for ‘apples to stew, lemons, lavender, roses …’. Such local and domestic environments carry their own particular veracities, their own guarantees. Campbell understands the strengths of the most unpromising, unromantic contexts:

… we sit
in a mud‑splattered V dub
with my red felt hat
squashed in the back …

These lyrics play on the tensions between understatement and intensity, keeping it low-key and calm, allowing the situation to speak for itself. Only very occasionally, in ‘Transport’, for example, or the title piece, does the poetry tip over into mushy self‑awareness and abstract nouns.

As it was for the two preceding writers, family is a continual preoccupation. The collection begins and ends with family pieces, tying together an emotional and metaphysical framework of ancestors, parents, journeys and deaths: ‘your old/ Monkseaton home near the Tyne/ irretrievable …’. Campbell carefully concentrates on actualities, honing each situation still more finely with the crisp clarity of facts – the paradoxical plenty of her absent daughter’s garden, or her father’s ‘favourite handknitted red jersey’, or the ‘tracery of fine white roots/ seeking escape’ when a dead fern is emptied from its pot.

Family and relationships, domesticity and romance, interesting landscapes, other poetry … there are few surprises with any of these collections. The range is really fairly narrow, pretty much the expected thing. It’s almost as if women writers are, after all, under some obligation to keep within the traditional, ‘safe’ areas of experience – well defined, well lit at night. These are, of course, perfectly valid priorities, important issues to consider. But what about all the rest of life on the planet in the late 20th century? If women’s writing avoids the different, riskier kinds of questions, and stays nicely inside the conventional patterns, then it will only marginalise itself. This would obviously be a foolish waste.

 

Ronda Cooper taught English Literature at Victoria University for some years and now works with the Department of Conservation.

 

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