Vivienne Plumb and Paola Bilbrough (eds),
Calliope Press, $13.00
Seven women, young enough to be able to use a word like ‘km’ comfortably and all of them talented, combined to publish this book.
When I first read it, a sentence in Lynda Earle’s poem, ‘Dementia Praecox’, stayed in my mind. ‘I wondered/ at the semiotics/ this was new and exciting/ rhetoric and I was naive/ and middle class’. It’s a curious, raunchy poem, but I still wonder what connotations I miss in Earle’s choice of title.
The first poem, Jennifer Compton’s ‘A Star on the Canvas’, is well chosen. Its picture of the circus performer who is just coping with the risks she takes is disarming. Everything about the courage and flair of the circus performer applies also to the writers as they take their chances with the printed word.
To read Paola Bilbrough’s poems is rather like stepping into a Chagall painting. Beautiful images touch on things I recognise but never stay with them very long. Occasional lines from a different, more ordinary world are disturbing and startling in this context. The memory of a mother using spit on a handkerchief to clean berry juice from her daughter’s face has this effect and so does the conversationally gossipy, ‘”he left Mae/ and ran off with Anton’s Vogt’s sister”‘. Sometimes, comparisons seem too contrived as when a green telephone worn around a man’s neck is described as a ‘post-modern fur’, but Bilbrough is a writer of great energy and many surprises.
Particular poems stand out. Vivienne Plumb’s ‘Back to Scheveningen’ contrasts a visit in summer with one in winter to the same resort on the North Sea. Plumb writes very well of the process of making her experience of this European beach her own, ‘by turning it around and upside down/ until it was mine’. She has generally a very clear feeling for a recognisably real world. Less successful is ‘Mrs. Gittoes’ Eight Parts’ where Plumb seems very distanced from the old woman she writes about. Images of Mrs Gittoes’ ‘DEKA flannelette nightie’ and ‘sausage legs’ as she dreams about being a beautiful white swan seem only sad. No wonder Mrs. Gittoes felt ‘caught’ by the writer. Emma Neale’s ‘Old Lucia’ also takes an old woman as its subject. This woman obliges her occupational therapist by regularly learning to make pikelets. Fragments from a painful memory are mixed with her experience of her present illness.
Julia Wall can suggest very quickly in ‘Saturday Afternoon’ a couple, unhappy in their separate dreams, and how anger erupts between them. In ‘Break-In’, though, the dismissal of the language of a police investigation as ‘mere illusion of words’ seems too easy. When she describes the people who broke in as ‘Two young boys/ with pig-ignorant faces’, her idiom seems just as predictable.
Like Wall, Katriana Mulholland has a directness and authority in her first lines. ‘All day it snowed’ she writes at the beginning of ‘The Pass’, a poem that seems at first simply descriptive, but becomes more mysterious with each reading.
In a fair and sympathetic introduction, Lauris Edmond remarks that an image can sometimes lead writers ‘a little too far away from the poem’s base in reality’. It is true that while images compel these poems, reading them is, at times, like being lost in someone else’s dream. That said, these writers sit easily side by side, but remain strong and distinct voices. At the end of the book, I am left wanting to read more and hoping that some individual volumes will come from these seven.
Rachel Bush is a Nelson writer and teacher.