My heart goes swimming: New Zealand love poems
Jenny Bornholdt and Greg O’Brien (eds)
Go Round Power Please
Victoria University Press, $19.95
The birds do it. The bees do it. So let’s be cute neo-romantics, in love with the idea of ourselves in love. Let’s edit an anthology of love poems. Together.
James Bertram did something only slightly similar 25 years ago. But that was in another country and, besides, the wench is dead. This is love for the 1990s with swirly writing and the charm turned up. It is, the editors confide, a “very personal” selection. “Virtually all of the poems are celebratory — many could be read out at weddings and occasions.” Oh, yes? Such as “The tides run up the Wairau”, perhaps?
The tides run up the Wairau
That fights against their flow.
My heart and it together
Are running salt and snow.
For though I cannot love you …
Yet, heavy, deep, and far
Your tide of love comes swinging
Too swift for me to bar.
Some thought of you must linger,
A salt of pain in me,
For oh what running river
Can stand against the sea?
But not at my wedding, thanks. After all, she’s saying no. She’s not just cold, she’s snow-fed, putty-white with mountain grit and moving swiftly on. She knows the last couplet’s a sop. The tide will turn, the river always wins. Virginal, clever, pretty Miss Duggan never married. She was more interested in having a career as a writer and (to judge by her literary papers) may only have been not-in-love the once.
So try something else. Charles Brasch, nicely traditional:
… In the true-knot of your arms
lock me from the world’s alarms
To that narrow room
All kingdoms come.
That’s nice! That’s romantic. Better not read on, then:
I rove, you stay,
Each constant in our own way,
Revolving in the erratic circles we must
Trace from dust to dust.
Brasch, Dunedin’s Dowson, long before the word “cruising” was invented!
The editors have done their best. They avoided “verse that embodied a cynical or disaffected view of love as well as the kind of poetry — not infrequent up until the 1970s — that seemed intent on casting women as either Medusa figures or helpless beauties”. Medusa figures? Are you sure you’ve got the right bit of the Odyssey? (Oh, all right then, sirens. Whatever.) It’s a pity they didn’t give an example of what they meant but, then, it’s not that kind of introduction. Compared with that famous anthology that everyone loves to sneer at, Kowhai Gold, this book is impetuous, pretty, charming, positively thrilled. Almost, you might say, neo-Georgian. Kowhai Gold, on the other hand, has an introduction that is a model of understatement and restraint, with a vinegary academic tone and a sharp sense of proportion. And it’s arranged strictly by authors. No invented chronology or editorial shaping there.
The problem of My Heart Goes Swimming is that the poetry resists being re-engineered to fit the editor’s new purpose. There’ s some simple, happy, pretty stuff in here, suitable for the public functions the editors intend, but much less than you might imagine. Jan Kemp and Bob Orr, Elizabeth Nannestad and — gracious! — Iain Sharp and Keith Sinclair (one likening himself to a glove, the other to a mother gannet — long live the Metaphysicals). But even James Brown, who’s still young enough to be a contender for the editors’ “young love” category which opens the book, is too knowing, too clever, too hip for that:
… It is barely an idea
how skin sails across the body
— a sheet of paper, warm
as a fresh photocopy.
(“Turning Brown and Torn in Two”)
Yet if they resist the editors’ happy categorising, how inadvertently revealing of social mores these poems are. Here’s the married, middle-aged, faithless Fairburn, sneaking off from the picnic with his mistress to “The Cave”:
… all was transfigured, all was redeemed,
so that we escaped from the days
that had hunted us like wolves, and from ourselves
in the brief eternity of the flesh.
There should be the shapes of leaves and flowers
printed on the rock, and a blackening of the walls
from the flame on your mouth..
This is love that Eleanor of Aquitaine would recognise: amour courtois, passionate, adulterous, dangerous, consuming — and not ever leading to marriage. But because of the editors’ stricture against “verse that embodied a cynical or disaffected view of love”, there’s precious little of it in this book. Instead we are offered something softer, simpler, cosier; the thing that happens to you after your degree and before you take out your Next subscription.
Fortunately, for all its niceness, being-in-love can be inadvertently revealing of unconscious intention. Here’s the young and fervent Bill Manhire, usually the self-possessed pasticheur, bricoleur or PoMo surrealist, betrayed by feeling into expressing a tender lyricism:
… Love’s vacancies, the eye
& cavity, track
back to embraces
where the spine bends
like smoke in the earth.
Your tongue, touching on song,
darkens all songs. Your touch
is almost a signature.
It’s the sort of thing you could read at a wedding. “Aaaah,” they’d say when you finished. But you wouldn’t risk reading that tour de force by the former Mick Jagger of New Zealand letters, Ian Wedde, “Beautiful Golden Girl of the Sixties”; fervent in its own way but too gloriously hot and sticky to keep company with speeches and champagne.
… & how could you forget when
we managed it in the toilet
of the old clang-bang all-night Limited from Wellington
to Auckland, must’ve been dead of night
near frosty Taumarunui
… straight, drunk, stoned, stopped, speeding, tripped
sad, happy, tired, daytime, night, morning, hot, cold
fucking & tasting, your huge flavours & groan
our hands & mouths, your bubble saliva, my come
weary & gay, your smell, the bitter fuck of rage
in silence, with laughter, to music …
It’s enough to vaporise the trifle. And it comes about three-quarters of the way through, at the point in the book when complication has begun to overtake simplicity, when the poets start looking back and fondly remembering or are trying to get their partner to do the same and thus take a different line on the less than incandescent present. Not that great poetry hasn’t come of that — indeed, poetry needs that kind of complexity for greatness to happen. The last poem, Baxter’s beautiful poem for his distant wife, “He Waiata mo Te Kare”, written from ramshackle Jerusalem, is art at full stretch, a convincing, graceful arch over the void. It’s impertinent to ask whether it succeeded in getting him back into her good books. It transcends both the occasion and any clever dick questions.
Now I see you conquer age
As the prow of a canoe beats down
The plumes of Tangaroa.
You, straight-backed, a girl,
Your dark hair on your shoulders.
Lifting up our grandchild.
How you put them to shame,
All the flouncing girls!
The reason complexity takes so long to emerge is that the poems are arranged “roughly according to the age we imagined the writer to be when they wrote each poem”. Which poet? The actual biographical entity, the poet whose name appears at the foot of the page; or the fictional poet, the owner of the narrative voice within the poem? And what does “older” mean here but “more experienced”, which is not a matter of age at all (look at Brown), but merely the stage one has reached in the meta-narrative, the progression from the first dizzy pangs to the last forlorn hope, to place the experience in its classic Troilus frame. Age doesn’t enter into it. Even the witty Greeks inquiring into the nature of love at a famous drunken dinner party knew that, although they considered the only possible object of their affections to be a young boy — mere women being fit only for marriage. The important thing is the sensation of newness (which is part of the experience), that it is as though for the first time; since, as we all dimly recall, the first time itself was probably pretty unsatisfactory.
What does it add up to? If the poems in this book constitute the evidence, love is uncomplicated, happy, delusory, something that happens before marriage or at least before the scales slip from the eyes, is connected with bodies (but decorously) and also clothes, pretty jewellery, rooms, scenery, especially water, being together or alone (but not in a group), is mostly not adulterous or faithless, is not connected with procreation (children are referred to in Baxter and Wedde, but are conspicuously absent elsewhere). In fact, it mostly doesn’t happen in the contemporary world at all.
But should this bother us? If the editors want to simplify things to fit their thesis, should we object? What they have provided for us is a piece of evidence. (So this is how they saw it, late in the twentieth century. Very interesting … And it sold well, too — found recognition and a ready market. Aha, aha.) One of the reasons why not is to be found in the introduction — that earnest remark about avoiding “verse … that seemed intent on casting women as either Medusa figures or helpless beauties”. It seems to be arguing for an equality of access in literature — either women are constructed as equals, or we won’t let you in. No sexism, thank you. But that is to forget that literature is mostly quaintly of its time (as the editors’ very sentence reminds us). Impossible to put Lady Macbeth in a nineties power suit with shoulder pads or even to insist that she be given a first name. And, more significantly, it misreads the convention, in which the woman is no helpless beauty but, in her effect on the smitten male, is all-powerful, hard to impress and with a mind of her own. The convention gave women a power in the private sphere they never had in the public one; a power that significantly has been eroded by the widespread use of reliable contraception and the fictions of equal pay and equal opportunity. Impossible under such conditions to personalise the beloved, as Brown has discovered. At best she is “a perfect reproduction / after a long day”, her “eyes / lines with titles”; indeed, she has become text and not even the original but “a fresh photocopy”.
What happens to love in such circumstances is presumably that the convention is turned inside out by both women writers and men and given a good shake. Presumably, I say, because the proposition is not explored in this book, which simply keeps the “cynical or disaffected view” at bay and puts up instead a sanitised view of a dead convention, gushing brightly to hide the fact that it’s lying on the bottom of the cage, not moving a feather. Further proof, if any were needed, that being in love means never having to engage your cerebral cortex.
That’s not something you would ever accuse James Brown of. If his lively first book, Go Round Power Please, has a fault, it is that it’s a bit too clever. The title is the last thing that the cockpit voice recorder picked up before the plane ploughed into Erebus and Brown, in a radio interview, was surprised we didn’t know that. (“Whoop, whoop, pull up” is the iconic phrase but I guess it seems tacky as a book title.)
That’s a good indication of the book’s approach. Brown, like the rest of the Manhire school, is a bricoleur, a home handy-man with found language; and, unlike many of them, he puts it to proper use, makes poems with neatly mitred corners and doors that are hung straight. If he’s occasionally self-indulgent or obscure, he’s more often witty and interesting. Not that it’s easy to keep it up at the fin de millennium: “Although it appears there might / be nothing left to say, it is said / it is said in quite a funny, clever, / dislocating way.”
Brown is always watching himself suspiciously, in an anti-My Heart Goes Swimming way. Here’s a clip from “Betrayal”, a poem that Greg and Jenny didn’t choose, to persuade you to go out and buy his book:
Easy to watch the words
as they slip out.
They could just be
popping round to a friend’s
or taking out the rubbish.
Which, in a manner of speaking,
But once out, they’re free,
free as you might only hope to be
— meeting, greeting, in a plunge-pool
of coincidental collisions.
Oh, the company they keep,
the combinations they assume…
For all the while
you have been lying
in bed, with your trembling lover
of many years. You had given
your word — so they say.
But now outside a voice
with your signature on it
declaims the most unspeakable
arrangement of terms.
And your silence lies there
hearing the screwed up letters
unfolding themselves in the rubbish bin
— the way your heart unfastens
and moves our through your chest
into the night sky.
Anne French is publisher at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and a Whitby poet. Her most recent collection is Seven Days on Mykonos.