How We Met
Victoria University Press, $19.95
Simplicity in writing – as in life – is a very complicated matter, difficult to achieve and uncertain in its effect. Simplicity in poetry is usually achieved by sacrificing content and paring down expression. “Tis a gift to be simple,” the song might say, but too often it is the other, daft meaning that comes to mind, as we are left with a bare text. a sense of frustration, limitation and the not to be discounted feeling that the poet is taking liberties with our tolerance. Look at William Blake, possibly the greatest con-trick in the history of canonical literature. How could anyone think that his platitudinous rhymes and facile maxims were the signs of anything but the results of excess inhalation of printer’s ink. No wonder he saw angels. No wonder the sixties hippies put him on their posters. The bland leading the bland.
The problem arises from philosophical uncertainty as to the roots of the simple. Obviously children are of very little help here. “Childlike simplicity” is an oxymoron and when children write poetry – as Laura Ranger’s book, Laura’s Poems (reviewed on page 1), demonstrates – it is as likely to be complex, self-conscious and allusive. The “primitive” – that source of inspiration for modernist art at the beginning of the twentieth century ‑ is not much help either.
It doesn’t seem to have had the same effect on the poets as it did on painters. When poets like Pound and Eliot looked to the past or to other cultures, it was with a certain amount of Harvard hauteur. Dante, Petrarch, the odd Chinese mandarin were as primitive as they were going to get. Since then we’ve become a lot more edgy about the word, seen it as a Romantic chimera and latterly relegated it to the realms of the politically incorrect. Romanticism itself liked the idea of the simple. Wordsworth scoured the Lake District for the
interestingly witless and he and Coleridge set out to write in “the real language of men”. “I’ve measured it from side to side: 1 ‘Tis three feet long and two feet wide” certainly has no pretensions to complexity. But is it art? Again, the problem is how to be simple and still be profound, clear and precise and yet allusive?
All this is leading to a consideration of Jenny Bornholdt’s latest book, How We Met, and is an attempt to work out why it is so successful. The illustrations (by Noel McKenna) suggest in their style a link with children’s art. And the first section is called “Estonian Songs”, the title of each poem coming from a set of six song cycles from that region. So both the child and the “primitive” are being signalled at the outset. Many of the poems in the collection as a whole are short – a crude measure of simplicity, but a reasonable one, I think. But the poems themselves have a clarity, a spareness, and an unpredictability that make them a delight. Consider “Praising the cook”:
They say the sexual impulse is like a fiery horse. When you break an egg one‑handed into the frying pan it sounds like distant hooves crossing a dusty plain.
Look at the tone. The first two lines combine the clinical, clumsily unpoetic phrase “sexual impulse” with a wonderfully romantic metaphor, ‘the fiery horse”. There is a kind of proverbial authority indicated in the framing, ‘They say”. This is contrasted with the next lines, ‘When you…” The proverbial and prescriptive becomes actual experience. A setting is suggested – intimate, habitual. The skilful breaking of an egg, domestic and small scale, nonetheless, through the authority of the first two lines, is enough to evoke not .sexual impulse” but something that could very well lead up to it ‑ “distant hooves/ crossing a dusty plain”. The fiery horse is in the distance and approaching fast. The contrast of tone is humorous. But then so is desire. Such proficiency and grace, even at the frying pan, are fit to be associated with passionate metaphors. But the final visual image of the dusty plain, justified in terms of the controlling metaphor of the piece, nevertheless concludes the poem on a note of openness and imaginative possibility.
The title of this piece, “Praising the cook”, is one of Bornholdt’s “found poems” from Estonia. The use she puts it to is sly and ironic. Other poems in this section deal more straightforwardly with their suggested subjects. ‘My mouth was singing/ My heart was worrying” she recognises as being a poem in itself and her text for this title is merely the comment
O deceptive mouth covering up for the heart like that.
In ‘A son or a daughter” she seems to assume the diction and stance of the folk tradition of her titles, when the father told of the birth of his third daughter replies:
Girls are good luck said the father If you don’t have a daughter you only know you’re alive because your shoes move.
But in others, the title is a jumping‑off point for something entirely whimsical. In “Urging her into the boat” the poem centres around a wonderfully aberrant Roger McGough‑like rhyme:
I’ll take some of that expensive bric for Beverley, he said.
Beverley? Beverley I cried, quick, get into the boat. O shy and beautiful Beverley, bring your bric and come with me.
The second section of How We Met contains a mixture of these short, lyrical pieces and longer, more sustained poems, reminiscent of Bornholdt’s earlier work. While the short pieces throughout the book have an impersonal, bardic, chilly quality, she shows, in pieces such as “Wedding song”, “Friends”, and “Three fantastic dances”, her control of personal, emotional territory. “Wedding song” has an unabashed sentiment and euphoria, entirely fitting to the subject and the form:
Now you are married
try to love the world as much as you love each other. Greet it as your husband, wife. Love it with all your might as you sleep breathing against its back.
After this initial, universalising statement, the rest of the poem suggests a variety of objects, likely and unlikely, that might, hi the newly-wedded state, become focuses of,loves nails on the wall of your house, a weta on the path, your grandmother ‘ when she tells you/ her hair is three-quarters “cafe au lait’ “. Happiness is as difficult to deal with in literature as is simplicity (and is perhaps the same thing.) Bornholdt skirts round sentiment the directness of her expression, by problematising the seriousness of her tone:
Try very hard to love your mailman, even though he regularly delivers you Benedicto Clemente’s mail
and even playfully undercutting her own authority as poet:
7~7y to love the world, even when you discover
there is no such thing as The Author
But her confidence is such that she can return to the serious and the celebratory:
Love the world of the garden
The keyhole of bright green grass
where the stubborn palm
used to be,
bees so drunk on ginger flowers
that they think the hose water
is rain your hair tangled in
heartsease. Love the way,
when you come inside,,
insects find their way out
from the temporary rooms of
It would be trite – and thus I am not going to do it – to try to position Bornholdt as a Woman Writer. But it seems to me that in this poem, as in many others in this collection, there is a confidence in sentiment, in the local and the particular, in the ritual of the domestic that, for want of a better term, has been characterised as women’s writing (or ~criture.f~minine ‑ which is French for ‘women’s writing”). As Bornholdt playfully reminds us, the author is, if not dead, then at least a lot less confident than s/he used to be. And certainly, the universality of Bornholdt’s perspective precludes any specific gendering of her poetic stance beyond the obvious. She writes of her own and our slightly mythologised experience. ‘You” is a common pronoun, in the sense of ‘us” – author and reader. No one is excluded. But likewise nothing is heavily prescriptive, made abstract or intellectualised without good reason or without tongue in cheek irony. The natural world is particular and approachable, consciously filtered through an incredibly disciplined use of language. Juxtaposition rather than the elaboration of relationships (between things, ideas, people) is her preferred form of argument. And her textual self-consciousness is humorous rather than pretentious. in tentatively suggesting the icriture fjminine tag, I am reminded of Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals, with their straightforward diction, resistance to moralisation and avoidance of ego. She would have liked the image at the end of “Wedding song”.
It would be interesting to read Bornholdt against other contemporary New Zealand women writers. My impression is that there is generally quite a strong generational difference between women writers here. Those of the older generation write descriptively and realistically in terms of their own experience, minutely and illuminatingly observed, with an unforced but still quite insistent moral implicit. The younger generation seem to prat around a bit, preferring play with form and language over the reflection of experience. Paradoxically the older generation are the politicised ones, often writing from an essentialist feminist position or taking on the poet as social commentator role. Bornholdt seems to be an exception to this paradigm, in that she follows the patterns of the older generation, with her small‑scale specific reference, the (surface) order of her narratives, her willingness to engage in the personal and to write within the framework of the communal. However, she takes their writing practice a step further. She resists at all times a moral, or even an assertive position on her material. She associate images but backs away from a simplistic interpretation, even denying that possibility to the reader. And although her writing is in some sense experiential, she has an awareness – albeit a very individual one – of the way that language and literary convention shapes the record of experience. In “The third person” she writes:
The third person is singular, amused and afraid. We have an hˆg of her at the bus stop some days, she is always running out of small change.
Here, in the kind of misunderstanding children make, the term ‘the third person” is iina,‑ined as a woman, the grammiatical term “singular” slides into the romantic frame of reference and a visual image is constructed of her, slightly disorganised, at the bus stop. But there is nothing beyond this word game. We are not asked, for example, to give the fact that she runs out of small change any metaphorical force. Bornholdt does riot politicise her material or ask her reader to. Unlike the older generation of women writers, questions of social politics are largely absent. The tone of her writing, and the playfulness – in the very serious sense of the word – of her stance preclude this.
How We Met is Bornholdt’s fourth collection of poetry. This Big Face came out in 1988, Moving House in 1989, and Waiting Shelter in 1991. She is a widely read poet ‑ people quote her. Those who profess to dislike poetry make an exception for her. A Wellington hairdresser has a blown‑UP copy of “Scrub cut” (from This Big Face) on his wall to encourage his customers:
This bristly crop tells of nothing but beginnings. Here it is, here I am grinning out at you from this big face.
To read the earlier collections is to realise the strength of her writing, the consistency and individuality of her tone. In How We Met (there is incidentally no poem of this title in the collection – another joke) these virtues, these simplicities offer themselves to us in all their complexity.
Jane Stafford teaches in English at Victoria University of Wellington.