Being elsewhere, Janet Hughes

Landscape with Lines
Diana Bridge
Auckland University Press, $19.95
ISBN 1869401522

Michael Jackson
Auckland University Press, $19.95
ISBN 1869401581

Surprising the Slug
Bernard Brown
Cape Catley, $17.95
ISBN 0 908561504

Celebrating Stones
Nadine LaHatte
Puriri Press, $25.00
ISBN 0 908943113

Bill Direen
Nag’s Head, $27.75
ISBN 0908784724

Holding Company 
David Howard
Nag’s Head, $27.75
ISBN 0908784716

We don’t admit readily to judging books by their covers; but if you were to be seduced by the outsides of the two handsome volumes from Auckland University Press — Landscape With Lines, by Diana Bridge, and Antipodes, by Michael Jackson — I doubt that you’d be disappointed, for the artwork matches the quality of the poetry and suggests in each case something of its aesthetic. The books invite comparison, since both draw upon the writers’ experiences of life outside New Zealand. Diana Bridge’s poems are about India and China; Michael Jackson writes about Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Africa and sometimes simply about being elsewhere.

The expatriate experience sensitises one to issues of language and communication, significance and value. The broad difference between the ways the two poets respond to this effect is nicely caught in their titles: Bridge’s spatial metaphors are aesthetic, landscape being land depicted, lines being contours or lines of verse. The notion of antipodes evokes geography on a grand scale and invites global contextualisation. Bridge offers us an accommodation to the limitations of perception and understanding, while Jackson resists them, mourns them and reaches out beyond or despite them.

Landscape With Lines explores the business of confronting the otherness of a place and striving to construct meaning where more mutual processes are wanting. Bridge’s scholarly knowledge of Chinese culture pervades the poems and the exiguous brush drawing of a landscape on the cover parallels her idiom aptly. It is spare, sharp, frank in its artifice, fluent yet tightly controlled. Delineation is a profound act of abstraction. The poems constantly balance a respect for the separateness of the Other with a reflexive, ironic consciousness of what is entailed in reducing it to lines of whatever kind.

She has a way with arresting vignettes: “A young man stoops on the hillside. / His skirts crinkle up like a theatre curtain”; or “An old man is discoing / himself warm on a sliver of shank.”  Note, though, what follows: “…and I go on interpreting autumn / in my way”. Though powerfully visual, these poems never stop at depiction. The point is always interpretation, explicitly and often triumphantly subjective, reflexively scrutinised. Take “A transparent evening”, for instance, which begins with a small peopled landscape, and ends with a surreal conceit:

On the periphery some pots pose
like a family of tribals. Terracotta
men talk in knots and bulges. They
are making and holding up the poem.

Typical are the oblique comment on cross-cultural understanding, the sly acknowledgement of subjectivity, the concreteness subverted by whimsy and the self-effacement.

Bridge does not dwell upon frustration of meaning but celebrates its subjective expansion and enrichment. The volume title acquires increments of resonance as the poems scrutinise modes of textuality. Rarely, the “lines” inhere in the landscape; more often they have been inscribed on the land — “a scribble of path” — and its accumulated artefacts, to be deciphered with difficulty by the stranger. Actual lines — folds, striations, ridges — are observed on buildings, clothing, objects, bodies. Local significance is recognised but without speculation: for example “Shore temple”, “an inverted breast / ridged with the stories of men / gods and women”. The interpretation offered is Freudian, explicitly alien and imposed.

Despite the insistence on textuality, the poems are not cold or dry; indeed, there is often a substitution of a humane understanding for a more abstract significance, an instance being the charged wordplay in “Sati marks, Meherangarh Fort”:

To make a panel
some girls once dipped their hands in a
primary colour and block printed them
into a square. Each entrusted her
rudimentary character to a wall the
colour of unbleached cotton. Some
of the hands tremble as if the artist
was doing it for the first time.

In the poems about classical China history, legend, painting and poetry pile up; and lines of verse, song, descent and dynastic succession criss-cross in space and time. Texts and readings accumulate and ironies implode. These are the most demanding poems in the collection, full of surprising conjunctions and allusions; but it says something for their accomplishment that I read right through the volume, with pleasure and only occasional puzzlement, before I found the explanatory notes at the back.

These are poised, elegantly wrought poems, full of lively intelligence. Perhaps the sameness of their method might become a mannerism or limitation if it were sustained much longer, but over this collection it serves to impart a unity which is part of its strength. Some, I suspect, will find them too cerebral, too abstract. I found the voice engaging, for all that it is precise and spare, because it is warm with a passion for wresting sense from intractable material. “Old Hat Impressionist” talks about and exemplifies this difficult pleasure:

The more I look — I haven’t read this —
the more I know about the jump
from story to surface, just
looking at the frosting
on the far side of a branch.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I’m wrestling with the far side,
wrestling with light.

Michael Jackson’s eloquent and various poetry is less of a piece than Bridge’s, harder to characterise by example. Again, the cover artwork is telling: an impressionistic seascape of agitated scumbled colour, looking into a moody distance. These are moody poems, though they are plainly spoken; and they are full of distances. They reach beyond the immediate object into the past, towards the Antipodes, generating a traffic of implications over the implied horizon. Inglewood, Los Angeles invokes Inglewood, New Zealand, Auckland zoo the one in Sarajevo; old photos cast the shadow of age over young children; absence and exile call up closeness and home.

Bridge tends to arrest movement in a still or tableau, whereas Jackson is comfortable in a narrative mode. Many of the poems suggesting an anecdote, a letter, a foreign correspondent’s report. They set down particulars, but always with an eye to moral and emotional ramifications. “Kinsey Institute” protests expressly the stripping of emotional meaning from museum exhibits: “Abandon love all ye who enter here”; and Andy Warhol’s “…world / is what happens / to us / when we forget there is / anything we can do / but sign”.

What we can do, however, is not always clear; Jackson repeatedly confronts the dismaying consequences of processes beyond his control. In “At China Camp” it is the Australian colonial legacy; the Aboriginal storyteller has come to an accommodation with his circumstances but typically the end of the poem admits disconcerting reflections: “…bloodwoods and crushed sand — / things no one’s made / of any wilderness”. In “Sudan” it is war and a starved child’s death, and the ending is blunter:

A handful of earth and stones
thrown over her
to keep the vultures off until we’d gone
To where undoubtedly
we’d collect ourselves
slaking our thirst with unpolluted water
And write home. Or sleepless
for thinking of that hell, go out
in search of a falling star, and find none.

No wonder Jackson seems to understand so well the suicide of the Magnum photographer, whose “emptiness / pre-empted Africa; the war was in him when he went to war.” Sometimes the challenge comes simply from age, illness or mischance. Empathy is given restrained expression and an openness to possibilities of compromise lets in the light, keeps these poems from being overly sombre despite the wary pessimism. “Stroke”, for example, expresses helplessness before a loved one’s memory loss, but then goes on:

…we do not need
the dates and names: you are
abundantly and absolutely Bryn
whom we begin to live with
with no map, without a library,
standing in the same blue light…

The more intimate poems about identity and relationships tend to be less straightforwardly discursive. “Troppo Non Troppo” is a case in point, making a more deliberate use of form, integrating the intimations of otherness instead of introducing them toward the end of the poem:

The tamarind’s antimacassar shade
finds me falling apart
at the edge,
nothing but green
at the centre
where I sit
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
as my small son plays.
How could I
ever regret
the spice trade
I gave away
for this tamarind…?

These accessible poems with plain surfaces offer rich rewards. Out of their variety emerges a kind of portrait of an acute sensibility at large, finding ways of encountering the world humanely while avoiding excesses of emotion, managing life without withdrawing from it.

Bernard Brown is yet another poet with something to say about living elsewhere, in Britain, Malaya, Singapore and New Guinea. The preface to Surprising the Slug glosses his world view with an anecdote about a slug and hedgehog. The gist is that the world is a predatory place, simple survival being therefore something to celebrate. His wide-ranging poems explore the bitter ironies of history, sometimes from the perspective of the bemused, defiant survivor (kids in the blitz, the finder of the body, the eater of the body), sometimes focusing on the predator (Pontius Pilate, Herodias, Lee Kwan Yew, fate).

The learning, understanding and invention are substantial and the craft impeccable in these poems; the tone boisterously irreverent or cheerily sardonic. At a safe distance and while the going is good Brown jerks two fingers (should that be feelers?) at the predators, his weapons being wit and impudence. The Joycean wordplays and mordantly reanimated clichés are purposeful but also invoke meanings out of sheer mischief, generating a halo of iconoclasm and impertinence. On bored eleventh-century monks:

began unfrocking rival
in spanking new cloisters
while they should
have been minding their manors.
My kingdom
for an erubescent ass!
Donkey’s years

The gestures are satirically effective, often wickedly funny and deployed with considerable metrical and verbal skill. But at times the note of irreverence sounds so loudly it drowns out variety and subtlety. Much as I enjoyed the mischief, what sticks with me is the humane irony of such poems as Pontius Pilate’s monologue, “Waters at Baiae”, and especially of those exploring dark corners of colonialism in Malaysia and Papua New Guinea, where the blackness all but overwhelms the humour.

Nadine LaHatte’s second collection, Celebrating Stones, shares with Surprising the Slug something largely absent from the other volumes reviewed here: a sense of theatricality, of poem as small-scale drama. LaHatte uses a range of voices, projected or intimate, more or less formal and deploys them with a sense of occasion. Her skill is uneven and the poems succeed in degrees but those in which this dramatic aspect is most evident represent the least qualified successes.

There is a storytelling voice, holding empathy and irony in a taut balance, for the tale of the disappointed immigrant, “Joshua Robinson … 1842”, and that of the elderly patient in love with her young nurse, “She never told her love”; Dramatic monologue is handled with skill and compassion — Nietzsche in his asylum, Clara who “decided to renew herself” after a sermon — and a fine edge of irony. And there is a tart comic voice, variously adaptable, a nice example being “Pub poetry”:

The poet reads from his work
in progress.
He speaks of writhing,
He seems entangled in thighs
and smothered by legs and breasts
and various pieces of body.
I think
there is a woman in there
though these offcuts are confusing.
He invites us to see her,
a sort of

The tragic voice is less assured, perhaps because the occasions are so personal that pitching it for an audience of strangers is hazardous. A poem about visiting a grave almost succeeds and one about coping with the breakdown of someone close just succeeds; but some fail to arrive at a satisfactory decorum. Wit, eloquence and technical skill mark the best of these poems but some would have been better excluded. I find those which, like the title poem, are unqualified by wit or irony the least successful — not bad but entirely forgettable.

This volume is an elegant piece of production and typography: well chosen faces, coloured titles, a generous, unconventional layout, immaculately printed on cream paper. It is let down, however, by the weak design of the integral dust jacket, which neither works in itself nor in any way complements the typography. The two other hand-printed limited editions, both from the Nag’s Head Press, are less ambitious. Though cased, they are budget-conscious, unpretentious designs — the dustjacket, again, of the David Howard volume, is substandard, but at least you can lose it. The typography is well matched to the poems — modest and chunky for the Direen, more elegant for the Howard — but my copies of both had too many smudged or uneven impressions. Hand-setting does not excuse amateurish standards.

In Evolition Bill Direen gives us, I suppose, pub poems, though not the sort Nadine LaHatte deplores. They are accessible and direct, and there’s no problem spotting the woman — or the wittily observed zoo animals or the vividly sketched birds. Evidently these poems are written to be spoken aloud; the versification delivers manageable chunks of sense, with little attention to subtleties. The language and imagery are engaging, but without polish. The best of the poems are laconically observant, balancing bluntness against lyricism.

twilight draws out the reds in my bricks
the sandy mortar has skinned
the ends of my fingers
they’re throbbing under sticking-plaster
as the moon comes up.

These lightweight, unpretentious poems wear a daytime aspect; others emerge out of darker places and deal with the seamy side of emotion in a rather dated counter-culture idiom. There’s rejection and dejection, diatribe and urban fable, surrealism and hallucination and a recurring touch of splatter — I quickly tired of unruly body fluids. These are poems which might well work in performance but on paper they fail to persuade. So, for entirely different reasons, do the “New Lyrics” concluding the book. Their material is often just as gritty but the touch is lighter, the wit more engaging. Metrically, however, they simply do not work independently of music and the separation of lyrics from poems seems to tacitly acknowledge that this might be a problem.

I approach David Howard’s Holding Company cautiously, since I read it with as much frustration as pleasure, yet I recognise it for confident work in a sophisticated postmodern vein and it includes some elegant, inventive poems. It has common ground with Landscape With Lines, the collection I enjoyed most among these, so perhaps the difference may be illuminating. While she ventures constantly into the rarefied intricacies of textuality, Bridge grounds her imagery always in concrete particulars. In Howard’s poems the substance is often attenuated, concealed or dissipated in the fragmented verse and especially in the negative, evasive quality of the imagery.

The poems are full of unanswerable questions, vacancies, denials and absences. A sampling from the first few: “Don’t say it”; “blue / fills your eyes with even more emptiness”; “No, you are not there”; “The light has lost / what? It cannot locate, say, the woman…”; “she is still / invisible”; “the wind missed you”; “more alluring than real”. The argument in each case seems to deny the possibility of supplying the deficiency, fending you off rather than encouraging you to meet the poem imaginatively. Might I be forgiven for feeling that communication is being wilfully evaded?

Having said that, I must emphasise that the best of the poems put the fragmented, strung-out form to very effective use, manipulating line-breaks with wit and subtlety. It works best in the poems about intimacy, interacting with earthy, sensual imagery, to capture the elusive volatility of erotic dynamics. From “Subtitles”:

I wanted to begin with the word
lover but surely
you see the difficulty: I…
Don’t say it. Remember the day
we set up house by spelling out
yes on the air: I
dragged demolition timber for two
kilometres. You had to tease
splinters from my fingers: only then
could I stroke you slowly with no
flinching. I wanted to begin with the word
lover but slipped
silently inside you. Say it was
forgiveness: say it.

“Abstract” similarly explicitly privileges physicality, speaking of refusing “love in the abstract”: “Your dress was already /empty, your body / shuddering for mine // while I rehearsed the perfect line”. But the habitual rhetoric implies quite the opposite, so often do abstraction and absence prevail over substance.

Janet Hughes teaches English and writes. 

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