Auckland University Press, $19.95
ISBN 1 86940181 6
Unfamiliar Legends of the Stars
Victoria University Press, $1 9.95
ISBN 0 86473349 6
Auckland University Press, $19.95
ISBN 1 86940187 5
So, its spring. Everything in the garden is seething and zingy. It is time to plant seeds of basil and blue cornflowers, to read recipe books for their edible language. Or better still, to read the recipe poems of Paula Green in her luscious and beautifully designed first collection, Cookhouse.
As the title suggests, this is a convivial book, rooted firmly in the earth, its sour/sweetness, its sprawl. These tensions are well caught in the segment of Michael Hight’s artwork, “Partial Landscape”, shown on the front cover. A section of geometric kitchen tiles scarred and smudgy with the spillages of day-to-day living. Other drawings play with images suggested by the poems: the FAT WILD HEART, the heart as a raspberry, the heart as a tomato, the heart as a weather vane. In both text and drawings there is a refreshing energy:
the poet measures the heart
the gift of a daughter
the whiffs of other writers
take moonlight reading down
a genealogy of women
we who have sat bolt upright
boils herself sweet
simmers herself acid
This, a self-reflexive “found” poem made up of segments and themes from the book, serves as a programmatic note on the back cover. It is a clear statement of Green’s obsessions and her stance, particularly in her sense of community and of integration, and in her optimism – “my life is pressed and draughty” works through to “little by little the spinning wet returns/ the pavement the rhythm the wild life alight” (“fish and chips at Waihi Beach”)
Most of the poems in this collection (and here I mean the 46 pages that make up the first section, the main menu) would not, I suspect, survive as discrete pieces. Rather they work in together to make a strong, coherent statement in which there is mobility and a subtle control.
I was impressed by the assurance and poise of this new writer. She knows where she stands, with whom she is aligned. In little afternoon-tea poems, she chats away with Virginia Woolf, Dinah Hawken, Michele Leggott, Anne Kennedy, sharing with them what I can only call a religious attitude. Feminist theology, if you like. Or a reworking of ancient myths like the Garden of Eden or Paradise, fashioning a fresh language with which to clothe old insights.
Instinctively using familiar religious iconography such as the mother and child, the broken bread, the shared meal, the washing of hands, Paula Green brings to our attention the sacred that indwells in the common, the profane. She uses gorgeous language: “you were born / my dream /.I roll out the crush / between now and evening” and
we feast upon urgent winds
coiling the lustre
of photograph albums
scrapbooks to explain
each cluster of name
face and spilt kiss
the old wind moving
a grammar of cold
across our shaken lawn
(“celebrating three birthdays with my daughter and her parents”).
Making poems which “[caress] the musical ear” can be a risky business. And working against the occasional overblown phrase like “the damp-veined lark of a day”, Green adds a little acid to her collection by the use of antithesis and by the inclusion of “listing the breathless women” – a construct of nine segments which focus on an elderly woman’s dying. She ends by swinging back to the celebratory, a configuration of love, a four-page, richly worded, baroque love song, studded with Italian phrases, words flung loosely over the page like the nuts and flowers thrown at a Roman wedding.
In sharp contrast are the poems of Wellington writer, Kate Camp. Unfamiliar Legends of the Stars, published by VUP, is a first collection for her too, but there is no primavera pasta on the menu this time – instead a sharp curry. The heart emerges as a symbol in this collection too, a deeply segmented scarlet diamond flashing on the childishly scrawled cover, but it is wised up, battered and mending in its own self-sufficiency.
Where Paula Green makes sense of the world by naming it organic, coherent, beloved in its connections, Kate Camp writes it as much more dangerous. Outside the walls of the garden she notes the ambiguities, the accidental cruelties, the bizarre which all must be countered with wit, a wry black humour and a twisty language carefully wired and pinned in place. As in the writing of Emily Perkins, the personal fascinates but must be handled with a distancing irony and the brain working overtime.
Her book is divided into three sections in which the poems pretty much go about their own business. This does mean that each must carry its own full weight and I found the poems in the second section of the book disappointing, constrained by technique. (Oddly enough, the poet herself comes up with a definition of the problem when she writes, “Up at 2am feeding that baby / language / its formulas.”)
The pieces are uninhabited. There is nothing in particular going on in them, nothing that insists. They could quite usefully be recycled as classic exercises for a creative writing class: write a listing poem, a bumper sticker, a postcard, a “dear John” letter, etc, etc. Tempting recipes, no doubt, and some excellent ingredients but not a substantial meal.
Needless to say, there are deliciously tasty poems in the collection, texts full of interest and surprise. A favourite of mine is “Postcard”. It opens cunningly, pushing the colloquial ever so slightly askew: “Hope weather is good etc all is well and dog is wagging.” The irony deepens: “I thought, being beautiful, nothing could hurt you.” Then, after a narrative of love lost in Greece and sympathy arriving from the Hokianga, comes a final refrain just bitchy enough to provoke that snort of laughter which is a sure sign you’re getting over it: “And you were too good / And you were too good / And you were too good for him anyway.”
I really enjoy the subtle distortions of the expected which mark this work, lines like “We save our affection, you once noted, / for those who would most depreciate it” and “More than once there was a man who was born to be copied.” This last is from a long poem, “Mr America”, where antithesis and ambiguity are used in a deliberate mumbling of precise fact to produce a very funny, shifting text: “In this version he loves her cheaply” – a hideous pun and a calculatedly cool dissection of a relationship.
In the delightful poem, “Lazy Eye”, the distortion of a sound raises fascinating questions about random events, cause and effect, the power of word over subject, and subject over word. On the way to Waikanae, the family say, “look at the swans” and you see the swamps; they say “can’t you see the swamps?” and at that instant a thousand birds fly up! In this, and the wonderfully unconstrained “1-4-U” with its manic jingle, I found a particular energy, a distinct poetic voice which is certainly well worth celebrating.
The lyric, released and visionary in Paula Greens book, and tightly buckled down in that of Kate Camp, lies at the heart of Sleeper, the long awaited successor to John Dickson’s 1988 publication, What happened on the way to Oamaru. Poems from this earlier collection have been treated with a well-deserved respect, appearing in the last three major anthologies of New Zealand poetry. Which goes to make his subsequent twelve-year silence all the more intriguing.
I was present at the launching of Sleeper at this year’s Wordstruck festival in Dunedin, during a wonderful weekend, which also included a reunion of Burns Fellows (Dickson held this fellowship in 1988). The music of the poet’s voice with its deliberate measures, its intensity and its laconic humour resonated in my ears as I turned the pages of his new book.
AUP have come up with another lovely cover, plain black with a stained-glass window on the front, a painting by Eion Stevens titled “Lyric”, and yes, there, in the centre, is a tiny chocolate brown guitar. Music and song are the binding elements in this collection. The poet locates himself in his musical world with droll humour – I’m not an unsuspecting tenor from Oklahoma / singing, Oh what a beautiful morning”, while insisting that the singing be done: “To be simple, a song is merely a breath escaping from the confinement of our ribs. It is much more terrifying to let others do the singing for us.”
In two stunning prose poems he meditates on the figure of the legendary pre-Homeric poet, Orpheus: translating him in “grand old orphy” (what a delicious pun!) into the country and western star, Hank Williams, and, in “the song of the sleeping man”, setting him up in a star-spangled cowboy shirt in the Mosgiel Tavern, where his song “recuperates the earth crumbling from the over-stocked paddocks, the forced sale of farms. Blind and playful, it sings of a hare’s striped flesh, of the way its shoulder turns green where the shotgun pellets have hit”. As for the singer himself,
between his lips he will taste the tongue and groove ceiling which is painted cream. Yes, he will swim between the dresser and wardrobe, he will empty out the feathers of the quilt, he will lie down on a bed in which a child is falling asleep, he will rest his head on a small blue woollen rug which has a rabbit sewn on to it, he will make a song of his mother’s skin.
There is a deeper tenderness in this new work, a greater confidence which is shown in the spacious structures and leisurely rhythms of the poems. And thank goodness there remains that distinctive gravitas, the concentrated regard, the respect, for want of a better word, which I find also in the work of Graham Lindsay; a quality which has absolutely nothing to do with politeness, the dictates of fashion or the suppression of humour.
Dickson’s stated aim, and one in which I think he succeeds, is to write poetry that is complex in its simplicity, supple and able to carry lightly the weight of his preoccupations. These range from theology (a “cattle-god called JahWeh” weeps and a flood rises in the city of Ur or the town of Balclutha) to ecology to nuclear war to a punchy Socratic dialogue on the nature of poetry to a funny and perceptive post-modernist meditation on the nature of “apple” (“Here lies a Cox’s Orange Pippin. /It was munched by thirty-two nouns”). And somewhere along the way is Miles Davis playing jazz in Auckland – “in scriggles of sound /cracking more notes than he should / he plays his bereaved music.” This particular poem is a seven-page energy rush, dramatic in its narrative, dialogue and conflicts. I love the way it ends: “one time, Coltrane said: / When I start playing / I don’t know how to stop. / And Davis said: / Don’t worry John / Just take it from your mouth.” For a musician, a writer, a reviewer, what a wonderful way to pull the plug. Just stop.
Bernadette Hall is a Christchurch poet.