Scenes from a Small City
Daphne Brassell Associates, $24.95
Lauris Edmond’s poems have always conveyed a strong sense of time and place, so it is no surprise that in a volume based around life in Wellington the writing is even more keenly focused upon the here and now. Her eye for detail and atmosphere has always been acute, as poems set in Ohakune or Menton have attested. In this collection, however, she concentrates her vision upon one city, and upon a small subset of the themes with which she usually deals.
Edmond’s poems have often dealt with the concept of “home”, and with what it means to feel at home in a particular place. She opens the book with “I Name this Place”, a poem that sets the tone for the whole collection:
I name this place
to find it
by looking truly
I can hear and speak my dream
this is where 1 stay
also my journey
The last two of these lines are reminiscent of Clive James’ lines about Larkin: “sitting tight / Until the house around you grew immense” (“Valediction for Philip Larkin”). It is true that Edmond also narrows her gaze to concentrate upon a certain range of human experience, and that this allows her to focus all the more sharply on her subject matter. Unlike Larkin, however, her view of humanity is warm and generous.
Stylistically, “I Name this Place” is unusual for a Lauris Edmond poem. While retaining the directness of speech for which she is known, this poem is written in stanzas of two short lines each, and punctuation is largely replaced by line breaks. Most of her poems, in this book as well as in previous collections, use elaborate, elegant sentences organised into weighty stanzas, whereas this opening poem appears on the page to have more in common with the work of newer Wellington poets, such as Andrew Johnston.
Another “home” poem is “Shifting Ground”:
Wind takes the body of the house
and turns it towards itself –
big and sudden: voluptuous.
I am trying to keep from quivering.
Here, the identification of home with self makes the sensuality of these lines more immediate. The “body of the house”, as well as being “taken” by the wind, is also turned “towards itself” – it is made aware of its physicality and vulnerability. The subtlety and effectiveness of this poem come from the abrupt transition between the second and the wonderful last stanza:
In the street that crosses the valley
sulphur lamps are jigging,
the rain has been swept up
and piled in a corner.
Sometimes your long arms move
the bones are breathless,
I think, with laughing.
By switching suddenly from vivid externals to such a lyrical, personal tone, the almost disturbing eroticism of the poem is heightened further. Despite ending with the word “laughing”, there is an undercurrent of uncertainty here that is emphasised by the title, “Shifting Ground”.
In “Traffic Jam”, a poem that echoes “Epiphany” (from New and Selected Poems), there are some lines that Bub Bridger might have written:
Man in the car in front
you fine thing
oh man in the high padded seat
won’t you turn to me quickly
all largesse and lotion
The businessman is obviously well-off (although with poor enough taste to prefer terylene to linen or wool), but instead of a home there is
of the place where you live.
The word “enamelled” exactly captures the shiny inhospitality of this man’s imagined house, which is probably situated in Palliser Road.
Many of these “home” poems could be set in any city, but they’re not – they are set in Wellington, a city that tends to impinge upon a poet’s consciousness more than most. Whether the northerlies are gusting over the hills, a bitter southerly is sweeping through gorse, or broom pods are cracking on a hot February afternoon, Wellington has a physical presence that can’t be ignored. Some of the strongest Wellington imagery here is in poems reprinted from earlier volumes, such as “Image for Stephanie”, “Round Oriental Bay” and “Wellington Letter I” (“houses tilt to the tides of the rowdy / dark”).
Among the new poems, there is a feeling that humans have to make compromises in order to live m Wellington: ‘This is / a tough place, you live here by learning / to tighten the sinews” (“Certain Flowers”). Wellingtons robust flora (“gorse and / taupata, dog daisies, broom”) provides more than just local colour – it is a symbol for the thickening of our skins as we hold fast through hail and storms.
The wind, of course, is the culprit. But it’s not all for the worse:
It’s true you can’t live here by chance,
you have to do and be, not simply watch
or even describe. This is the city of action,
the world headquarters of the verb –
look at the sea, frantic with masts and sails,
the land galloping down to it, gorse flowers
flying, wind in its mane of flax; and then,
there it is, crags with their feet in
the water getting breath for the next
(“The Active Voice”)
This poem explicitly states Edmond’s love of verbs, a quality that is implicit throughout most of her work. The second stanza in particular enacts the breathless rush of sentences across lines, with some effective animal imagery to follow the abstractions of the first stanza.
Of course, the poet lives not just in Wellington, but also on the earth. Edmond is aware of this: she comments on our “brief habitation, oasis / in the violent nomadic passage / a careless species takes / across its given star” (‘Counterpoint”). The last line of the book sums this up in a compact aphorism: “Earth is its own home; not ours.” (“Last Things”) What does it mean to “own” a place, other than in the financial sense? Edmond knows that one can make a house one’s own, but she feels the presence of past inhabitants, and even imagines those who will follow us (in “The Written Word” from Summer near the Arctic Circle). In “Late Home” she conjures up
the millions you know can never go home:
their spectres crowd the suburban street,
they are thin, their eyes knowing and sharp,
they come close, flapping and brushing –
before arriving home, shaking and feeling guilty. This guilt is emphasised in the last lines: “Your gestures exhibit / the exact, furtive prudence of the thief.” One can’t help but recall her poem “All Possession is Theft” (from The Pear Tree) – is this guilt a consequence of the “faintly lecherous” feeling with which she took possession of her home? If so, this would explain why she feels “possessed” by the previous inhabitants of the world.
Edmond is adept at portraying feelings of displacement, even when at home. There is something about Wellington’s wind that makes even the gulls of “The Active Voice” feel out of place:
hardly land,. or if they do that too is a kind
of flight, the arm of the wind coming up
and ruffling their frills – the wind, yes indeed,
incorrigible voyeur that never goes home.
The poet can even empathise with the homesickness of inanimate objects: the ship in “In Harbour” knows that “only the sea is home”, a home with its own “language of oceans / and cargoes”.
These feelings of displacement are related to one of Edmond’s most characteristic themes, that of loneliness. This is a difficult topic, and one that is the source of more bad poetry than almost any other, but she expresses herself with a dignified candour that avoids the sometimes prurient excesses of “confessional” poetry.
half a century of living
and my soul
to find itself alone.
The bareness of the diction suits the subject well and the poem avoids stepping over the line into triteness.
“The Learning Process” is a poem that recounts the disquieting feeling of suddenly seeing oneself from another point of view, as an object rather than a subject, and no longer the centre of the universe. When the author notices that she is the object of a two-year-old’s gaze, she feels displaced from her position as a passionate, living human being (“Challenged, / my heart cries out: these are / my years, my victories, / defeats”), and becomes merely “a landmark / on the road she’s taken”.
It is interesting to compare this with Edmond’s poem about Galileo (“To an Old Rebel”, from Catching It): “what gall, to push off / in your creaky reckonings from the level / earth into a nightmare of stars!”. There is the same sense of disorientation at the loss of a familiar frame of reference. In “The Learning Process” there is a line that says “The room is still”. As Galileo is supposed to have said, Eppur si muove (but still it moves).
As well as focusing her poet’s eye upon a particular place, Edmond uses her writing to freeze a moment of time, often capturing that moment with crispness and clarity. Sometimes she comes close to pure imagism:
The air is a web gauzy
with falling water
not rain, not mist
but some manifestation of air
like a flower so cup-full
of dew that the slightest movement
will cause it to spill.
There is no allegory here, just the message inherent in all such poems: that we should be aware of our surroundings, every minute of the day.
On the other hand, many of Edmond’s poems do carry a message within this careful observation. The passage of time, which has always been a theme in her work, is more explicitly, more physically here than ever before (“Time adding another moment / to the quiet unravelling uproar of itself”‑ from “This Instant”). Death has always been lurking on the margins of her poems, and in this book it often strides right into the middle of the stanzas:
– now I have it, but lightly, loosely,. if I
let go it will escape, and the secret-eyed
will be beside me. Let me tell you quickly:
the music of the Passion falls from that high
window like sweet rain (we must watch every moment,
bitter or gentle, it is all one). Smell this
flower, it is faintly herbal, hold its bunched
daisy head; look over the sea that will glisten
in exactly this way when the waiting shadow has
drawn us away. And laugh in triumph – for ourselves,
for this pale ungraceful blossom; oh yes believe
it, now, at once, and from moment to moment.
Despite the somewhat coy euphemisms for death (Time’s wingèd chariot again), “Shasta Daisies” is one of the strongest, most intricate poems in this book. It is full of echoes of other poems – “Passion falls from that high / window like sweet rain” reminds me of “Waterfall” from In Middle Air (“water, / however luminous and grand, falls fast / and once only to that dark pool below”), “The Ripening” from Catching It (“I’m advised not to fall asleep / under that stealthy rain”) and even Larkin’s “High Windows”. But most important, it is the combination of precise physical description with direct but elegant speech that makes this into fine, memorable poetry.
Edmond has a distinctive voice, and although she has said (in poetry workshops) that “the ‘I’ of a poem is actually a persona, not your actual self”, we are seldom in any doubt that we are hearing the poet herself, speaking directly to us. This is one author who is definitely not dead!
There is a danger, perhaps, that the gracefully flowing rhetoric of her poems makes them too easy to read. They function like a motorway, efficiently transporting the eye from stanza to stanza, whereas a more disjointed syntax (such as in the poetry of Greg O’Brien, for example) acts like judder bars, slowing the reader down so that he or she can “take in the scenery”. In the latter case there is the danger that the reader may stop and reverse right off the page. It is easy to underestimate a poet like Lauris Edmond on a first reading.
Critics who insist upon poetry being above all else a means of communication do not help here. This is like finding a strange and beautiful bottle on the beach, then smashing it to look for a message. Because so many of Edmond’s poems do communicate a message strongly and directly, it’s easy to be taken aback by a poem such as “January”, which achieves its effects by tone and shifts of metaphor (“There are no days / and few desires. The long-legged summer / strolling the hill”) rather than by “meaning”.
Overall, though, these poems are instantly recognisable as Lauris Edmond poems. She writes about home, loneliness, and the passage of time with a gentle wisdom. Her keen senses pick up nuances that most of us miss, and her elegantly modulated writing makes these poems a pleasure to read.
Tom Beard is president of the New Zealand Poetry Society. His poems have been published in Printout, Takahe, and the 1993 Poetry Society Competition Anthology, Black before the Sun.