All roads lead to the sea
Auckland University Press, $19.95,
ISBN 1 86940 177 8
The Hungry Woman
Victoria University Press, $19.95,
ISBN 0 86473 327 5
Victoria University Press, $19.95,
ISBN 0 86473 322 4
Books are physical objects as well as language, literature, ideas and personalities and these books are beautiful: slim volumes, as one would expect, feeling silky smooth to the touch and shining with cover illustrations of great beauty. And, as is fitting for three collections of poetry by women, all three covers are illustrated by women artists.
All roads lead to the sea is designed by graphic artist Christine Hansen — a surreal landscape of hill and sky with a Stonehenge-like gateway through which clouds float — most appropriate to the merging of the external and internal world that Kapka Kassabova’s poems set up. Bernadette Hall’s Still Talking has a Jacqueline Fahey painting, “Sisters Communing”, on the cover — two women, a meal, a vaguely New Zealand background of punga tree and lilies and a gesture between the two of reassurance and intimacy, reflecting the emotional landscape of Hall’s collection. Auckland painter Seraphine Pick’s painting, “Wonderlust”, is an appropriate introduction to Rachel Bush’s The Hungry Woman. Its punning title, its fantasy imagery — a naked woman with long red hair sitting on and amidst piles of boxes with ghostly images of figures and objects in the background and a long diaphanous dress hanging in the foreground — suggest a playfulness and obliqueness that is fulfilled in the poetry.
On the back of each volume is a photograph of the author: Bush an elegant slightly amused portrait; Hall, face raised, looking at the camera confidently, with a background of slightly Grimm tree branches; Kassabova close but gazing to one side, her hand resting away and out of focus. All intelligent and direct and challenging us to read on with care. And all, despite the common gender, as diverse as their cover illustrations. Hall prefaces her collection with a quote from Helene Cixous: “I get hold of this tongue which is also my mother and that of all my daughters. And with it I open the mouth of my eyes.” But the diversity of styles exhibited here by these three women really puts into question the whole theory of “ecriture feminine”. Values may be held in common — especially between Hall and Bush — but the language and literary stance that is employed as a means and reflection of those values are particular and distinct.
This raises several interesting issues pertaining to the categorisation of writing. Alan Loney has reminded us (New Zealand Books, October 1997) not to confuse author and text: “The mens auctoris”(he is quoting Gadamer) “is not a measure of the meaning of a work of art”. But this generally recognised piety of literary criticism does present certain problems. Does this mean we can’t — as Cixous certainly wants to — make generalisations about female-authored texts? The gender of the author is, according to Loney’s criteria, an irrelevant biographical detail. What about ethnicity? Is the ethnic origin of the author a pertinent factor in a critic’s evaluation? If so, doesn’t this mean that it is proper to make a link between author and work? If not, why should we worry about Wanda Koolmatrie or Helen Demidenko, authors claiming a spurious autobiography as a testament to their fictional works’ authenticity? Whence does authenticity derive — from the experience, or from the cogency of the literary expression of that experience?
On the back of All roads lead to the sea, Kassabova is described as a “young Bulgarian immigrant poet” and, despite strictures to the contrary, all three of those biographical adjectives seem a necessary way into her work. While not in the Laura Ranger category, she is very young and this is a source of admiration, strength and (probably inevitably and temporarily) weakness in her writing. It would not make sense to ignore it. That she is Bulgarian and an immigrant provides the subject-matter and the tone of much of this collection. So here it is not so much a question of external information as what is there in her writing — textually, internally. Again the writing does not make sense without this frame.
All roads lead to the sea points to an important task for our literary culture, the need to accommodate not just the duality of biculturalism, with its inherent danger of mannered binarism, but the more confused and unformalised multiplicity of a literature of multiculturalism. At the very basic level it is a stance that can show us ourselves in an alien uncomfortable light: “We came and found paradise but something was missing,” say Kassabova’s immigrant voices. We are a place of “only sheep and empty roads / and full shops, but where is the soul?” And our gaze contains in it alienation:
The immigrant is not even dust in the hollow eyes of her country’s bodiless statue
The immigrant exists by definition as other, though she doesn’t know it
Central words in Kassabova’s poetic vocabulary are “elsewhere”, “there”, “home”, “house”, “winter”, “dream”, “memory”:
The dream of elsewhere chokes the heart
and the illusion
of something happening elsewhere
becomes the dream of home
And although dreams are continual…
It is a sign of fluency to dream in a language,
but we like to dream wide-awake and in silence
we think about our dreams in broken sentences
…the articulation of the dreams, the finding of a language is, actually and metaphorically, difficult:
out of the unquestionable
silence those words gush
words of puzzling familiarity
no, words remembered
no, words forever present
no, words beyond words
The poems in All roads lead to the sea are all very poignant, redolent of loss and displacement, filtered through memory and distance:
There was a sense of unease in us
for a long time as we climbed this hill
as the sky grew bigger and windier
there was a sense of ending.
Now we know, it’s because
this is the end of the world
and this the last house on the last hill
before the sky begins.
There is a tone here of traditional folk-songs, distilled, bloodless containers which imply emotion of universal dimensions, but are in their surface language cool and unruffled. And herein constitutes the problem. The collection has, cumulatively, a monotony, a blurring between the actual and the metaphorical. The poems’ abstraction and emotional focus make one yearn for the particular, the literal, the unemotionalised, the humorous — for action or incident to be recorded for itself rather than for its portentousness and general application to life.
Bush realises the appeal of such large issues — for the author as well as the reader — but deals with them in a more complicated and indirect way, emotionally and technically:
And you want something big
life and death and blood and money
This is only today and the washing
machine which stopped because the
council turned off the water is
“Elsewhere”, the other side of the world, for Bush, exists only in verbal patterns, the satirised phrases of casualness and condescension, their relationship to reality tenuous:
Everyone is going to Turkey
they will need passports and
foreign currency and their planes will
lumber into place at the start of
For her it is another kind of absence from another kind of home which is her focus — being away from one’s house, missing what the garden is doing, “sitting in other people’s chairs”. Bush is good on the small domestic details. Her rewriting of the canonical in “Seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness” sets out, as in Keats, a catalogue of autumn senses: — cicadas, tui in the puriri — and adds to that the domestic that Keats either didn’t know about, didn’t have to concern himself with or didn’t feel was a fit subject for poetry:
me with plastic pegs in my hand and the orange plastic bucket of washing at my feet
But the poem takes up the metaphorical autumnal tone in themes of loss and distance: it is a “season of regret and concern for my home”. This is not Kassabova’s Home, not an abstract value, but a particular house and garden…
for the flopped
over dahlias I meant to stake
the blue flowers whose name I forget
…anxiety for the depredations of winter to come, and fear of another kind of exile…
of sitting alone in a tiled square behind
tall buildings, of walking through tall
stairwells to landings and another stair stretch
It would be wrong, though, to characterise Bush as another domestic miniaturist. Just when one feels cosily reassured by the tangible presence of her world, she shifts it, disconcerts us and plunges the reader into a linguistic quicksand. Take the poem “Three Voices”. It begins with the personal, traditionally poetic and metaphorical:
Held in her head her
voice is a tree
is a beech tree
with a black furry trunk.
Wasps on the frail hairs
feed on the honey dew.
inside her mind
her voice grows.
But then we are moved away from the rhetorical and conventionally romantic register to the quirky and unexpected:
In her head her
voice is a small vegetable
pie in wholemeal pastry,
a samosa in a microwave which
& it turns
& it turns
through a glass. Her voice is this pie
in a microwave oven.
Bush is still using metaphor in a technically traditional manner — as in metaphysical poetry, comparisons may be as bizarre as one likes. But Bush’s style is teasing and sly rather than forced or show-off, self-mocking as well as discomforting the reader’s expectations. She often uses the second person singular in an address that could be to herself and could be to us. In “The Real Poet Again”, she tells us/herself: “your heart since you read this letter has been like a cardboard Tampax tube in a toilet bowl. It won’t lie down, just softens and opens”. She is delighted with synonyms, confusions, cliches: — “manger/manager”, “whore/war”, “extra virgin olive oil”, “drizzle with olive oil”, “she’s away with the fairies”, “she’s over the top”.
Bush’s poetic credo, and certainly a good description of what she is doing, is seen in the poem in “Starting with a Frame” (good advice in itself) :
Of the quick and the dead
she writes and of Sunday
drives and wooden houses and
cuts of meat or the heart.
She makes words like bits of jig
saws fit with precise
surprise that shocks us — we find truth framed
In “Script” her young self, her mother and her father spend an evening together, the father learning lines for his part in T S Eliot’s “The Cocktail Party”, her mother knitting, the daughter writing an Enid Blyton story
One realises the enormous difficulty Kassbova’s poetry of the other must counteract. In Bush’s welter of familiar detail and cultural reference, as Eliot quotes, the plot conventions of children’s adventures and the rules of knitting become inextricably entwined:
My plot knots itself, my characters are stuck,
tied up in ropes and sure to drown, afraid.
Dad misses a whole phrase, wants me to prompt.
Mum searches for a stitich dropped rows before.
Only a miracle, extraordinary events,
can help my parents, save the story line.
Bush’s collection is an innovative confusion of poems, diary entries, prose pieces and short stories. “In the Driver’s Seat” a story about an encounter with a doctor and HRT deserves to become a classic. And if traditional readers feel uneasy about the fragmentation and slides of register, Bush sets out their unease in the final piece in the voice of Aunt Elspeth in “What People Want”:
But I must tell you I don’t honestly care for what you’re writing at the moment. They’re just little bits. Now is that what people want? I don’t think so. What people want is a good story and they want characters they can believe in. That’s what I could do, characters and a good story. Not just little snippets in the middle of nowhere about characters who are, well, frankly peculiar.
Hall differs from Kassabova and Bush in that this is fourth collection of poetry. While Bush acknowledges and exploits her uncertainties, Hall’s is a confident, mature voice displaying its range. Her opening quotations are instructive. There is the Cixous, cited above, with its connotations of a feminist tradition. There is Nicole Ward Jouve: “If we cannot make something out of what we are, out of what we know, how shall we ever cease to colonise others?” And from Michael Leunig’s A Common Prayer: “ God be with the mother … her soul shall be the most painful birth, her most difficult child and the dearest sister of her other children.” These quotations lay down parameters which are, I think, personal and autobiographical. It seems likely that Hall is not speaking of “mother” in her writing in a generalised or metaphorical sense and several poems include personal names or dedications. One does not need outside information, simply a shared tradition and emotional culture, to lead one to recognise in these works an expression of the value of family, friends and relationships and the inevitability of loss:
you’re not sure
who are always so sure
what to wear anymore
you are so changed
I pluck in panic
at my old brown jersey I want so much
to keep you here
There is confidence here: “O to move so freely, so fiercely / within the shape that holds you”. There is a sense of self which is actual and physical:
My narrow brown feet
are barred brown by the sun
through my sandals,
the left foot slightly
longer than the right,
the right ear slightly
lower than the left
and a tiny barb
from a dentist’s probe
broken off in my jaw.
I tell you these things
so you will recognise
As in Bush’s “Seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, Hall is not afraid to take on, in parodic form, the canon — in this case James K Baxter’s “Poem in the Matukituki Valley”. Baxter’s piece is a rhetorically over-the-top meditation on the glories of nature, Man Alone meets Shelley on speed:
For those that come as I do, half-aware,
Wading the swollen
Matukituki waist-high in snow water,
And stumbling where the mountains throw their dice
Of boulders huge as houses, or the smoking
Cataract flings its arrows in our path —
For us the land is matrix and destroyer,
Resentful, darkly known
By sunset omens, low words heard on branches…
Hall deflates and ironises such a grandiose view of the natural world. Her “Poem in the Matukituki Valley” is addressed to a woman, presumably her mother, and Hall begins by stressing her pragmatic commonsense. She would “rather have seen a rotary / clothesline in my garden than roses” and turns aside the dedication of a book of poems:
So coming down from the mountain
when Rae asked me what you would have thought
of it all, the grandeur, the excess,
the jade water, the yellow starred flats,
the black peaks with snow like orca leaping,
I had to say that I didn’t have a clue,
perhaps something like what a fuss about nothing!
The landscape is evoked and then deflated. As in The Hungry Woman, this ironic juxtaposition does not narrow the emotional range of the writing and contrasts with the absoluteness of Kassabova’s tone. This is particularly evident in the “Tomahawk sonnets”, a series of poems of grief and celebration articulated by a tough intelligence:
I’ve gone with you as far as I can in my replica
body. In Australia last century, an aborigine,
I’d’ve gone even further in a seven pound white
clay cap and gashed my thigh, shark rip,
to stand beside you in the doorway. How will I sustain
the loss of your disapproval?
My favourite, a bravura piece, is the long poem “Duck”. I heard Hall read this at the Christchurch Arts Festival and it has great dramatic as well as literary force. It begins:
there’s a duck on the road
its head sticking out of the shiny dark
twisting like a tap turned on turned off
There is a narrative — the speaker’s attempt to rescue the duck…
WOMAN KILLED IN RUSH HOUR TRAFFIC
SHE WAS TAKING HER LIFE IN HER HANDS
SHE WAS HOLDING A DUCK IN HER HANDS
SHE WAS OLD ENOUGH TO KNOW BETTER
…and a subtext concerning, perhaps, mothers and the imperatives, however ridiculous, they operate under:
I say I’ve got a runover duck in the car
and I need a blanket and they all start to laugh
and make helpful suggestions like
it won’t make any difference
These three women and their artists will make a difference.
Jane Stafford lectures in English at Victoria University.