From The Word Go
Auckland University Press, 1992, $16.95
Small Stories of Devotion
Victoria University Press, Wellington, 1991, $19.95
Murray Edmond’s fifth collection is an uneven performance. This poet’s strength lies in his powers of observation and narrative, which he employs in two contradictory ways. He can be pungent and incisive (as here in ‘The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations’ and ‘Go to Woe’), or wordy and diffuse as in ‘The Life Frieze’, which contains some of the weakest lines to appear between respectable covers since Wordsworth’s long dotage. The problem is epitomised by the closing lines of ‘The Life Frieze’:
… rounding a nothing special bend/ on the way to/ the Ohaupo pub after hours/ you caught a crow/ in the foggy beams and thought,/ ‘Now that reminds me of some/ thing or other’.
Too often Edmond conjures up a series of images but does nothing worthwhile with them; they remain just ‘something or other’. Whenever deprived of a taut situational framework, the poems tend to collapse like soggy puddings, dragged down by the sheer weight of words and a lack of intellectual cohesion. One poem here, ‘Hirsute Canine Narrative’ is dedicated to Kendrick Smithyman; it is hard to tell whether it is lampooning or saluting that master of prolixity, given that several other poems here are very like it. There are just enough successful pieces in this disappointing collection to mark it ‘C-Plus; can do better’.
If it be true that poets ought to explore and illumine what prose cannot, and that they should work towards longer and fuller adumbrations of their ideas and feelings, then Dinah Hawken is on the right path. Her first collection won the 1987 Commonwealth Poetry Prize for newcomers. It confronted our metallic modern world from a spiritual standpoint, in sharp lyric salvoes. Small Stories of Devotion turns further inward to map the psyche of a woman physically and mentally wrestling with this same world. As Hawken puts it:
I’m settling for the premise that the unconscious/ is fresher and less contaminated by history than history./ In other words I’m bound to tell you her dreams.
The resulting dream-landscapes, organised in four ‘Quarters’ and an ‘Epilogue’, make up a fascinating mind-atlas, presented in verse that is supple, resonant and well-matched to its task. Recurring images from diverse sources – Polynesian myths, the Sumerian pantheon, contemporary events, lunar allusions – build kaleidoscopic patterns, hinting at archetypical symbolism (and, yes, Jung is prominent too). Phrases, sentences, whole stanzas recur. The result is not entirely satisfying; there is a sense of an edifice whose architect has lavished more care on the decorations than on the framework, but there is much to admire in this second collection from a significant, fast-developing poet.
Charles Croot is Head of English at Kaikorai Valley High School and Director of Otago University’s Creative Writing Summer School.