Gipsy: A Fictional Sequence of Poems
Nag’s Head Press, $22.50
This is an unusual book, not least because it is so handsome an artefact. Hardbound, beautifully produced, illustrated with evocative linocuts by David Nepia, Gipsy is not the sort of book you often see nowadays; it recalls a time when bookmaking was an art form in itself.
Inside is a sequence of poems in five sections, the first two entitled ‘Paenga, 1888’, the third and fourth ‘Paenga, 1892’, the fifth ‘Akaloa, 1967’; the poems themselves do not have individual titles. The dustjacket informs you that the sequence traces ‘the long life in New Zealand of Irish settler Mairi (‘Gipsy’) O’Donnell. In an imagined northern coastal setting her early experiences of the country are as a young wife and mother aged about 20. By contrast, her final years, up to her 99th, are spent at a different southern locality.’
I felt grateful for this brief introductory statement because, apart from the two locations (Paenga, Akaloa), the three dates (1888, 1892, 1967) and a very occasional internal reference (Drumloe, Rangitoto), the poems provide very little in the way of context. It is true that at times they speak with some lyrical force (‘a willow crying in the breeze/ a homesickness so great inside me I could almost touch it’, ‘she digs beaklike/ the roots and the high grass/ at the foot of the tree’), but a much more narrative structure would have given a sharper, more intense focus. Some of the poems are in the form of letters, others resemble fugitive leaves from a diary, and perhaps the impression of brief emotional snapshots was what Kathleen Gallagher was after, the sense of listening to the voice of one of so many traditionally without a voice.
Or so I thought on first reading. Now I am not so certain. There are some peculiar games going on in Gipsy which ‘unsettle’, not very productively, the rather embryonic kind of fictional reality on the dustjacket. Those place names, for instance. Why, when a real Paenga exists on the west coast of the South island, pretend that Mairi is in an imagined northern setting? Why further muddle what was so notional already?
Some of the verse too on closer reading has an oddly parodic ring. ‘When you are old and wise and full of sleep’? Yeats, of course, slightly adapted. Or this: ‘After the cups of tea/ the gentle wracked smiles of mothers/ stretched out/ I have come back from the dead/ and when we are there/ and folded/ and unfolded and folded and hung out to dry/ as the hands unfurl/ I have seen my hand brought in upon a sickle’? Perhaps not quite so obvious but in fact a recognisable recasting (hashing?) of lines from T S Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Pruefrock’.
I am not at all sure what the point is of these hammy, parodic games. To rescue the ‘lost’ voice of a female settler seems a perfectly reasonable thing to do, part of what the American poet and feminist Adrienne Rich would call a ‘re-visioning’ of history. But to clutter up this voice with mangled snatches of male poetic voices seems a waste of time. Gipsy ends up like the curate’s egg in the old Punch cartoon: good in parts.
Harry Ricketts is writing a biography of Rudyard Kipling.
gorse yellow hedges burnt orange leaves
she wants to keep the farm
and raise their child – (Gipsy)
She is inside the world at dawn
her back a slim red line – (Gipsy)