Talk with the dead, Rachel Nunns

Letters to Doctor Dee and other Poems
James Norcliffe,
Hazard Press, $16.95

The KM File and other Poems with Katherine Mansfield
Riemke Ensing,
Hazard Press, $16.95

Kapiti Poems Six
Meg Campbell (ed),
Rawhiti Press, price not given


In his preface, James Norcliffe explains that the Doctor Dee who is addressed in two of these poems was a distinguished Elizabethan philosopher and mathematician. Like Dee, Norcliffe has a curious, inquiring mind. His reflections about parts of China or about Oara on the Kaikoura coast are at once mysterious and clear. The connection with Dee living four hundred years ago is never forced. Norcliffe’s tone is assured. The comparisons he makes are momentarily surprising and then apt. He writes of a stream, for instance, which like a thought trickles through meadow flowers and in its context the image is exactly right. In ‘dump toad’ he celebrates the grubby joys of living in a place rich with rinds and flies and bits of polystyrene. Norcliffe focuses on something like the pleasures of a toad’s life, or the paradoxes and peculiar nature of soap, or on a whole cooked fish and makes the reader refocus too. Soap is no longer just soap; flies at the dump become ‘delicious amethysts’, and the cooked fish is seen as containing its whole past on a plate. He is often playful in the way he uses words, as for instance when he recalls the French primers of his youth, (and of mine), complete with Toto and the word ‘puff’ written as ‘pouf’. Rhythm and sound are used in subtle ways. He writes in ‘the frogs at Beidaihe’, of how their chaotic laughter anticipates thunder and here the near echo of the words has in it something of the disturbing sound made by the frogs before a storm.

In her fourth collection of poems, Riemke Ensing also addresses someone dead and admired and like Norcliffe. She is weka-like in her attraction to strange and bright bits of knowledge. Information about Beethoven’s obsession with bathing leads her to speculate about Katherine Mansfield’s bathing habits. Ensing uses portraits of Mansfield, her friends, stories, letters, and journals as the starting point for her poems. Although notes in the margin often give the source of a particular line, the more familiar the reader is with Mansfield’s work, the more satisfying this book will be. While the poems can stand alone, reading them is a little like being a guest at a party where it does help to know a few people.

Ensing writes of Mansfield with respect and affection. ‘Liebe, let’s make out/ We’re friends’ she says in ‘The Lady’s Not For Burning’, the poem written to celebrate the centenary of Mansfield’s birth. This poem ends with the colloquial but here, moving, ‘Wish you were here’. Ensing can take a cliché or an ordinary phrase and use it in such a way that its meaning and significance are uncovered. ‘Zen and the Art of Gurdjieff’ ends with advice to the ailing Katherine Mansfield to be careful of cold or you might catch your death. She writes well of Mansfield’s vulnerability in ‘With Middleton Murry’ where she compares Mansfield to an acrobat ‘working without a net’ and with her eyes measuring the space to fall.

Ensing’s and Norcliffe’s books are satisfying in that they give a sense of the scope and the craft of each writer. Kapiti Poems Six is an extraordinary and fascinating mixture of poems by more than fifty writers, mostly women, each of whom is represented by no more than three poems. Some, like Lauris Edmond and Meg Campbell herself, are already well-established writers, but many of them are not. There are poems by nurses, teachers, grandmothers, editors, video makers, high school students and octogenarians. There are poems among other things, about having an operation, the death of someone special, (several of these), the weather, changes in a city, tracing ancestors, a quarrel between brothers and in Sam Hunt’s relaxed ‘Working the Genesis Week’ there is even a quick glance at the creation of the world.

Familiar scenes and situations are often presented freshly in Kapiti Poems Six.

Ruth Brassington’s friends in ‘The Day my Mother Died’ are shown, apparently making conversation, but in fact listening only to what is in their own heads and referring everything back to themselves. Most of the poems in this book use the vocabulary of ordinary speech, but Ruth Brassington is unusual in the skill with which she is able to incorporate the rhythms of casual conversation in her poem. Diane Brown’s ‘I never mention the frogs of Kawerau’ is quietly sinister with the presence of the frogs and their deaths underlining an unresolved tension between a husband and wife.

What stands out about Kapiti Poems Six is their exuberance and variety. There is no shortage of people writing lively poems. It is a truism that it is difficult to find places that will publish them. A book like this gives some writers an incentive to continue.


Rachel Nunns is a Nelson writer and teacher.



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