The discourse of security, Alistair Paterson

Red letter
Janet Charman,
Auckland University Press, $18.95

Keri Hulme,
Auckland University Press, $17.95

These two books, both from Auckland University Press and markedly different in their method and concerns, share a common factor in exemplifying the confidence writers can have in their art when they know they have an audience and that the audience is likely to be sympathetic. Both books are written by poets operating from such a position of security and, in their differing ways and to varying degrees, from a feminist stance: they have the luxury of being able to relax in their practice and of being able to afford to take risks.

As a result, Charman pursues an aesthetic which employs a sparse, almost minimalist form of language while Hulme increasingly veers in the opposite direction and towards the barbaric’ yet masterly ‘yawp’ of Walt Whitman. Both books are (appropriately) divided into sections which give demarcation to the differing periods in which they were written or the differing themes and events on which they are based or from which they have arisen.

Charman’s red letter begins with a series of poems on the theme of childbearing, child rearing and maternity. The minimalist method, with its reduction in language and often abrupt changes in phrasing and direction seems as a result of the heightened perceptions and shifts in view point, particularly appropriate to this theme: ‘good needle epidural/ make me swim below the hours/ to the swift change surface/ brash fresh midwife morning . . .’

The other four sections deal with related and intercepting lines of action and event. Always the central issues arise from (in the pieces set both here and overseas) and illuminate the stance and value of a woman’s experience: seeing, responding to, and participating in everything that happens in the world. The reader must work at these poems, but their rhythms, insights and attractiveness provide often and in the same way as do the poems of Emily Dickinson, a source of pleasure and delight.

Strands, on the other hand, provides the reader with a fascinating insight into the way in which the poet has recently developed and how her reading both informs and enriches the poems she writes. The first section, in comparison with the others, shows the differences a few years of reading and writing can make. ‘Fishing the Olearia Tree’ is a miniature tour de force in which Hulme’s maturity and confidence allow her to throw words round the page with all the flair and confidence manifest by both her contemporaries and the American poets of the fifties and sixties.

Her ‘influences’ appear to be in the main, Whitman and Yeats: the former for the adventurous line structure; the latter for a good deal of the emotion and philosophy. The rest (except for her more recent reading of Blake) is Hulme herself – her location on the West Coast of the South Island and her personal attitudes towards, and feeling for what she sees and experiences: ‘It can stand leant forward, dagger beak poised/ so intent you hold your breath, so long you gulp air/ and lose it and wait breathless again . . .’

The second section contains a number of poems published previously (‘Lullaby for a Stone Doll’, ‘He Hoha’, etc) and the most impressive, ‘Papatuanuku e Tu’. The third part is a selection of ‘winesongs’, perhaps designed to be set to music and sung, composed in shorter, more traditional stanzas with a sprinkling of end rhymes.

Both books – Charman’s and Hulme’s – are splendidly professional collections and provide a renewed demonstration of the valuable contribution the Auckland University Press is making to New Zealand poetry.


Alistair Paterson, poet, editor and critic, is a full-time writer currently working on a novel.



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