A question of literary trust, Harry Ricketts

Water, Leaves, Stones
Dinah Hawken
Victoria University Press, $19.95
ISBN 086473 2899

Much of Dinah Hawken’s rightly acclaimed first collection, It has no sound and is blue (1987) was concerned with balance and the difficulty of achieving and maintaining it, personally, politically and poetically. A feature (and reflection) of this search for balance was Hawken’s willingness to try out a variety of voices, influences and models – Adrienne Rich evoked in one poem, Wallace Stevens or John Ashbery in another; here an unrhymed sestina, there a sequence of Baxterian letter-sonnets. Mostly written during a three-year period when Hawken was living in New York, the poems’ sense of being temporary, of being “not in place”, (central motifs in “Writing Home”, the sequence of letter-sonnets) added a further element to the balancing act.

Small Stories of Devotion appeared four years later. On the back a comment, presumably by Hawken herself, aptly described the volume as “the diary of a woman it takes time to come to love”. As the diary reference implied, this was a deliberately scrappier, gappier collection, made up of short “entries”, many of them closer to prose poetry than any of the pieces in It has no sound and is blue. Overall there was an eschewing (amounting to a distrust) of wit and formal experimentation; a certain homogeneity of style, tone and outlook replaced the variety and general liveliness which had so markedly characterised the previous volume. The gaze of the poems was now increasingly inward; rather than balance, fusion (also presented as “abandonment”, “giving in” or “letting go”) seemed the object; dream and myth, the elegiac and the quotidian, were merged into a series of meditations on women’s spirituality and sexuality.

Now four years later again comes Hawken’s new collection, Water, Leaves, Stones. This recalls and to some degree retraverses the ground of her earlier volumes; the result, like the curate’s egg in the old Punch cartoon, is “good in parts”. “Can I do it”, the poem which opens the first section and serves as a general introduction to the collection, is one of the more unqualified successes. Since the title is also the opening line, the phrase “Can I do it” stands both as a modest affirmation and as a question, part genuine, part rhetorical. All of which neatly mimics the poem’s explicit comparison of poetry writing with a “balancing / act”. For this balancing act, two analogies are offered which, taken together, balance different notions of what writing poems involves. The first analogy is to “the fat kereru” “confident, teetering” “snatching at the whole / sweet flower” – poetry as a brisk, potentially risky activity, but ordinary and natural as eating. The second analogy is to being on horseback on a beach, “waiting for a lull” so as to “make the swift break / to wherever, on this long coast, I am going” – poetry as a gallop with language, requiring control as well as a nerve, but this time a willed, even melodramatic, dash into the unknown.

The other 25 short pieces in this first section, “Small Questions and Poems Gather”, are less convincing; too many simply fail to earn their keep as poems. Aiming for a haiku-like, imagistic concision, they read like jottings that should have stayed undisturbed in the notebook. “Earth”, for instance:

How does the earth do it
how are we
not falling down? 

or “Today”:

It’s a calm day on earth, almost silent.
Only the birds are singing.
Why don’t people go down to the harbour,
stand at the end of the earth’s long breath
and listen?

or “The Seminar Room”:

From the seminar room confident male 
laughter is booming forth making more 
confident male laughter come booming 
forth.        

There is a lull   
which is lovely.

Or “Let me Put in a Word for Trees”

Let me put in a word for breathing. 
Let me put in a word for trees. 
Let me put in a word for breathing.

How is the reader to respond to these? Or how is the reader all too obviously expected to respond? Nod and pass on? No, clearly not. In “Earth”, “Today” and “Let me Put in a Word for Trees”, something grander, more profound, is intimated, however briefly; the poet, it is implied, has had an experience of elemental simplicity and the poem is the surviving record. Which is fine except that this relies on the reader doing almost all the work – trusting that the poet has felt deeply without there being anything in the language and the rhythm to back it up. This is not of course to imply any attempt to deceive or tell lies, but merely the self-evident truth that experience and experience linguistically recreated on the page are not the same thing. Poems, especially very short poems, which aim at profound simplicity (or simple profundity) have to earn the reader’s attention just like any other kind of poem; such attention is not a given. Real sincerity is no guarantee of literary sincerity.

Blake, Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, Ezra Pound, HD, William Carlos Williams are examples of poets who have sometimes produced short poems which achieve an elemental simplicity. It’s not easy; and what is particularly difficult is avoiding the heavy-handed hint that “there’s something more to this, reader, than meets the eye”. Even Williams in “The Red Wheelbarrow”, probably the most famous “modern” poem of this type, clearly felt the need to give the reader a good, democratic, lower-case shove in the first line:

so much depends 
upon 
a red wheel 
barrow
glazed with rain 
water
beside the white 
chickens 

Closer to home, take Ursula Bethell’s “Detail”:

My garage is a structure of excessive plainness, 
It springs from a dry bank in the back garden, 
It is made of corrugated iron, 
And painted all over with brick-red.
But beside it I have planted a green Bay-tree, 
–A sweet Bay, an Olive, and a Turkey Fig, 
–A Fig, an Olive, and a Bay.

Here an equally plain statement of homely particulars again provides the reader plenty to think about with even less of a feeling of coercion, of emotional and other buttons being pushed. By comparison, the concluding question in “Today” (“Why don’t people go down to the harbour / stand at the end of the earth’s long breath / and listen?”) really only works if you read it in a special, “sensitive” voice – otherwise it just sounds morally superior. And the smile solicited by “The Seminar Room”‘s “confident male laughter” is merely a stroke to the converted.

What makes poems like these work (or not) is largely a matter of literary trust and literary trust is as tricky as any other kind. All sorts of variables can come into play, many preceding our reading of the particular poem. Have we come across the poet’s work before? If so, what did we think of it? What literary reputation does the poet have? Who is the publisher, etc? If we know we’re about to read a new poem by Fleur Adcock or Elizabeth Smither, say, we’re likely to give it a different kind of attention, be prepared to look for (and therefore find) more and deeper levels of resonance and meaning – to give the poem, in short, a greater degree of trust than a new poem by someone we have never heard of in a dog-eared magazine.

There are other ramifications, too: period and gender, for instance. It is only relatively recently, and of course long after her death, that a poet like Ursula Bethell has been publicly bestowed the kind of trust which allows her work to reward a subtler appreciation.

The second section, “Water, Women and Birds Gather”, also raises questions of literary trust but of a slightly different kind. This series of 29 poems, mostly in sets of five unrhymed couplets, recalls “Writing Home”, the central sequence of letter sonnets in It has no sound and is blue. But whereas the poems in “Writing Home” allowed the reader to feel as included as “Bev”, the friend to whom the poems were ostensibly addressed, the poems in “Water, Women and Birds Gather” are hermetically sealed units, leaving the reader little alternative but trusting assent. The underlying assumption seems to be that reticence is inherently interesting and significant, that less is more – that to develop an idea, an image or an argument in a poem risks giving too much away. So instead we are offered either gnomic statement (“Cruelly grace can be lost by a body”) or plain description (“A small flock of birds is flying past”) with silences between. But the trouble is silences are only resonant in poems if what is said is sufficiently suggestive. Bill Manhire’s work offers a case in point. His “The elaboration”, to take one of numerous examples, is both memorably reticent and “elaborately” articulate without the reader feeling short-changed:

there was a way out of here: 
it went off in the night 
licking its lips

the door flaps like a great wing 
I make fists at the air 
and long to weaken

ah, to visit you 
is the plain thing 
and I shall not come to it

Here by contrast are two pieces from “Water, Women and Birds Gather”:

Thank god there was a height – in high Gothic 
beyond which it was dangerous to go.

Now we are parting the wild horse’s mane. 
The word elusive is singing its song.

River stones. Warm avocado lunch. 
Vigorous flight. Aquamarine wing.

So there you are, tui. 
Oh be there in the end.

Make the last word we both utter 
the last one we want to sing.

Or:

Sunsets are for poets and there’s not a thing 
I can do with this one.

Why are gulls gathering 
along the cold estuary at dusk?

Language is natural too you know. 
Tai Chi Chuan in the scented garden.

Take my face in your hands. 
Ask me what I want to be?

If I am careful your whole being 
will open fearlessly like a flower

In fact, only the first of these (No 29) is a genuine poem. The second I concocted by taking the first couplet of No 16 (chosen at random), the second couplet of No 15 and so on back to No 12. Perhaps this sounds a mean thing to do, but it seems telling that on a first attempt I could produce a “poem” which would in no way look out of place in this sequence. If this arbitrary rearrangement of couplets does so little violence to the rewards of the poem, what remains? A sequence of interchangeable koan-like units which rely for their literary warranty on credit carried over from Hawken’s earlier two collections? That’s all right up to a point. Accumulated literary trust earns at least a second reading, but here, even second time round, the reader is left bringing almost everything to the poem and receiving little.

To show what I mean by these discrete couplets being virtually interchangeable, I tried the same cut and paste game with the “Writing Home” sequence in It has no sound and is blue and the result was complete gobbledygook. And the reason it was gobbledygook is because in those poems ideas, images, arguments are followed through, are challenged, tested and worried at; the poems go somewhere. Here, by way of example, is No 10 of “Writing Home” and Hawken thinking about trees (also a recurrent preoccupation in Water, Leaves, Stones):

Since you left the trees have been standing against the snow 
making those small inexplicable gestures

children make in their sleep. Today they were strictly 
still. They gave nothing away, as if

they themselves were the dead 
of winter. The sirens, the long echoing boom in the sky,

the angry traffic, made no impression on them, and I stood there, 
as still as they were, acutely aware of my human breathing,

watching the birds move in them, moving them, making, them move, 
and I knew that too many people had given up, that

too little had been simply given and I decided, tossed back 
onto my own faith with absolutely nothing

to go on, that their outstretched branches were not, 
as they seemed, an empty gesture, but a sign of life.

The faith so tenaciously clung to here openly acknowledges doubt and even the possibility of being wrong. Consequently the reader is offered several points of contact and (very effectively) the sensation of precariously clinging on through the twists and turns of the final nine lines. There is no impression that everything has been either sorted out or decided in advance; whereas in “Hope” (a tree poem from Water, Leaves, Stones), there is almost no sense that her belief in the beneficent power of trees could ever be put in question. This is a characteristic extract:

You can see that trees 
know how it is 
to be bound 
into the earth 
and how it is to rise defiantly 
into the sky.

Of course trees are wonderful, but a poem should have more than just that to offer us.

Apart from “Can I do it” and a few others, the poem which rekindles my literary trust is the one which concludes the collection, “Light is the Word for Light”. Here an idea, a speculation about living and language, is set up and tentatively allowed to develop. As a result the reader is given some poetic argument to respond to and is therefore able to enter into dialogue with the poem rather than being asked simply to acknowledge the poet’s fine feeling:

There could be 
a few central words

Light is one

Others lean/ incline 
          towards them

I like tree 
and one could be one 
      since others come 
            and rise 
        around it

If light is one 
     and others cannot be 
          without it 
what about dark?

O death is calm and light              
is one.

 

Harry Ricketts lectures in English at Victoria University of Wellington.

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Posted in Literature, Poetry and Review
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