Wakeful Nights: Poems Selected and New
Vintage, Auckland, 1991, $19.95
New and Selected Poems
Oxford University Press, Auckland, 1991, $24.95
Oxford University Press, Auckland, 1991, $24.95
In their range and assurance these volumes confirm the importance for our literary tradition of three well‑established poets. The fact that Kidman and Edmond also write prose today makes their selection of particular interest: reading them is to discover high points of their lives, to trace the paths of their development.
Kidman’s poems in Wakeful Nights have lyrical echoes reminiscent of Dylan Thomas and, closer to home, Sam Hunt. These lend a somewhat rakish charm to poems like her near-classic ‘Return to Waipu’, where sharp-edged realism counterpoints elegy:
One stark cabbage tree, fifteen hundred/ above sea level, black/
mists and driving rain …/ I rode into town on a Road Services bus/
Like the heroine of some Western movie,/
The unknown stranger, who yet knew all.
Memory, the pain of separation, the recognition of the otherness of others, provide the thematic undertow. Often she takes her emotional bearings from vivid, cameo landscape descriptions; just as powerful are striking images in poems like ‘About a Marriage’. In the less densely textured new poems, past and present subtly interweave. By loosening up the line and introducing a discursive syntax Kidman projects a more highly inflected, even ironic voice, as in ‘Bulls provide semen for breeding programmes’:
you’d think wouldn’t you/ that the semen would come gusting out/
as if the creature were/ an All Black or a champion/
fencer somehow different
Lauris Edmond is known for her late start as a writer and for her prodigious output: since marriage and raising six children she has produced nine volumes of verse in sixteen years and two volumes of autobiography. The transformation she underwent in dedicating herself to the muse was so momentous – there are archetypal dimensions to this process of self-discovery and liberation – that it has remained a crucial emotional and intellectual focus of her work.
New and Selected Poems updates her distinguished Selected Poems (1984) which won the International Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1985. In addition to the original selection it contains poems from two subsequent volumes and 23 new poems: 87 more pages altogether. In these she sustains her momentum and, working from the centre of her experience, perfects a diction and style so distinctive that her voice announces itself instantly as in ‘Long Distance’:
The small enveloping question/ Are you all right? your voice/
twisting latitudes of air into/ that tiny syllabic skein. The line/
clicks, pauses, distance catching/ us up – and I without an answer;
Her skill is to particularise a response while simultaneously indicating its broader significance. Thus themes of love, death, family, loneliness and old age, articulated by the enquiring mind, are developed through sensual imagery or, as in ‘The Hour’, expanded by cosmological allusions. She also employs verbal strategies to prolong the moment of impact or hold it up to scrutiny. Take ‘Late Dinner’:
still this rolling easy plain all round you/
is only a place, which is to say no place;/
and the silence that looms up beside you,/
look you now quietly, it is only death.
The phrase ‘only a place which is no place’ and the assonance of ‘still’, ‘rolling’, ‘all’ heightens anticipation of the final revelation. This is not so much a substitute for feeling as a reordering of its dimensions into a linguistic surface. Edmond’s trajectory from loss and suffering, to recognition of impermanence and transience, to the wisdom of acceptance, means that wordplay, allusion and figurative language in individual poems acquire the resonances of a larger, more comprehensive vision.
Fleur Adcock is well known for her dry wit and the needling accuracy of her rhymes. In Time Zones she travels back and forth between the present and the past, England and New Zealand. The volume is dedicated to her father, Cyril John Adcock, who died in 1987, a loss which she explores with single-minded devotion in the lovely ‘Cattle in Mist’ and ‘My Father’, the latter written after visiting his birth place in Manchester:
A small man,/ though a tough one. He’ll have needed a small coffin./
I didn’t see it; he went to it so suddenly,/
too soon with both his daughters so far away:/
a box of ashes in Karori Cemetery/ a waft of smoke in the clean Wellington sky.
Other interests loom large: pollution from the over-population of cats next door, wrens, her love for toads, a visit to Romania; a number of poems reflect her concern for the environment such as ‘The Farm’ about the Windscale disaster. Here is the infamous ‘Smokers for Celibacy’ – quintessential Adcock in its witty, incisive humour:
We’re opting out of one-night stands;/ we’d rather have a cigarette in our hands./
If it’s a choice between two objects of cylindrical shape/
we go for the one that is seldom if ever guilty of rape.
Dwelling on the best of Adcock leaves one with the impression of witnessing a joyful union of fluency and elegance, inspiration and talent. Provocative, precise, perceptive, Time Zones is a sparkling volume.
Janet Wilson lectures in the English Department of the University of Otago.