Decoys of simplicity, Terry Sturm

Miss New Zealand: Selected Poems
Jenny Bornholdt
Victoria University Press, $27.95
ISBN 0 86473 323 2

One of the earliest poems in this selection, “In the Garden”, Jenny Bornholdt’s subject is that bane of all gardeners, the common onion weed. Her interest in such a plant, however, is not what might have been expected. In an unpredictable image, she compares the roots to “thin streamers / partying down through the soil”, and concludes:

So we have a white flower
propped on top of a green stem
a plain enough thing
while underneath
the feelers are out
hooking into other systems
forming the network
the flower an undercover agent
posted on the watch
a decoy of simplicity.

Quite a few elements of what was to become a distinctive “Jenny Bornholdt style” are present in this early poem. First, an unusual and quirky alertness of observation. Miss New Zealand is packed, throughout, with richness of observation of commonplace events and behaviour in natural and human (especially, domestic and urban) settings. The opening section of “The Cottage”, from the sequence “Sophie travels backwards on the train”, registers the silence and emptiness of a house after the death of Sophie’s grandmother in terms of the preternatural clarity of every sound, each sound a marker of Sophie’s aloneness:

In the cottage every sound is a definite sound. There
are no quiet scufflings or silent steps.

The thunk of a lightswitch

The filling of a kettle with the sound stretched from
the first dark splashes to a higher lighter tone as the level rises

Steps are solid and heard from heel to toe she hears her feet fall in every room
No coming or going is a quiet one

Sound radiates out

But mostly it is the light switches – the solid flick of sound
which decides yes or no, light or dark.

The last poem in the volume, “Please, pay attention”, reaffirms the value of cultivating such alertness:

A boy on the bus carries
six sandwiches in plastic
wrap on his knees. Such
lack of inhibition! You could
learn from that.

Also apparent in such poems, and much remarked upon by Bornholdt’s reviewers and critics, is the seeming simplicity of their style, a function not only of the vocabulary but especially of their fastidiously ordered syntax. The poetry often avoids conventional punctuation and capital letters; it occasionally deploys variable spacings within and between lines; but the syntax invariably remains absolutely pure, taking readers phrase by phrase, cadence by cadence, and line by line down the page. The same fastidiousness of syntax marks the prose-poems, or the poems which mix narrative prose and poetry, throughout; indeed narrative seems a natural development of a style so strongly based on the unit of the sentence. Such features of her writing suggest qualities like poise, containment, completeness. They also make, at one level, for accessibility, and explain, at least partly, why she is such a widely read poet.

They might also suggest that she offers a more conservative, less risk-taking poetic sensibility than that of her contemporaries like Dinah Hawken and Michele Leggott. One answer to that might simply be, so what? It would be truer to say, however, that the risks she runs are different ones, the risks of her chosen style: banality, perhaps, or sentimentality. In the conclusion to “In the Garden”, quoted above, another kind of poet might have stopped the poem, more open-endedly, at the line “the feelers are out”. The title of Miss New Zealand appears to be derived from a quotation sourced, in an epigraph, to Miss America (Mary Margaret O’Hara): “Joy is the aim”. Some of Bornholdt’s more sentimental readers seem to me to miss the implications of the quotation, mistaking the thing aimed at for the thing achieved. Bornholdt’s enterprise is indeed risky, since a joy aimed at, like a joy identified in retrospect, is always an absent joy.

At their best the poems are continually aware of themselves in this way, especially conscious of the provisional, shifting relations between words and feelings, of the constructedness of feelings in language. One of the early love poems, simply entitled “Poem”, is a fine example:

So far
it has worked
by imagining you
in all the places I would
like you to be

*

this is the one I love.
He is not here
but the air is still warm
from where he
might have been

The constructedness is there in the word “worked” in the second line, in the deliberately unstated referent for “it” in the same line, in the shift of pronouns between “you” (direct outward address to the lover) and “He” (distanced, at the very point where he enters the internal fantasy world of the speaker), and in the doubleness of reference of “this” in this is the one I love” (either the lover himself, or the woman’s constructed, fantasised image of him, or both). The provisional, potentially precarious nature of the speaker’s imaginary dealings with the loved one’s absence, announced in the opening line (“So far”, a temporal reference also implying spatial separation), is located in the following lines specifically in language itself:

We have spent hours
circling each other
with words – thinly
vowelled embraces

how to translate these
words into silences
or the silences
into words

where “vowelled” clearly signals “disguised”. Maybe it is the quality of the poet’s attention to the instability of her (of any) imaginings which makes the poem so powerful a love poem in the conventional sense. But there is no missing the sense of loss, absence, vulnerability which motivates the poem, whatever the “joy” it aims to construct by way of compensation. Many of the poems have this fragile underside to them.

In this selection, from four volumes published over the past decade – This Big Face (1988), Moving House (1989), Waiting Shelter (1991) and How We Met (1995) – Bornholdt has gone unerringly for poems in which language works in such knowing ways across the gaps between self and other. The process of selection has been rigorous, especially as far as the shorter poems are concerned, since it includes only about a third of those published in the four volumes. If readers miss some of their favourite poems (mine would include “West Coast”, “A Woman missing, presumed missing”, and “Australia”), the compensation is in the decision to select more generously from the longer poems and sequences, and, surely rightly, to include each of them in toto. There are six of these altogether, ranging from “Sophie travels backwards on the train” in This Big Face to the “Estonian Songs” in How We Met.

At this point I return again to the early poem “In the Garden”. In one reading the poem might be seen as a registering of the otherness of the natural world, accepted as complete and self-contained, roots and bulbs rioting, even partying, as well as creating their own complex underworld systems independent of their human observer. Earlier generations of New Zealand landscape poets (with only one or two exceptions, like Hone Tuwhare) tended to register such alienness as a threat to identity, to be warded off, contained or neutralised in some way or other. At this level Bornholdt’s poem (like all of her nature or landscape poems) is very much the expression of a contemporary sensibility, beyond the dilemmas of the isolate self.

In another reading (taking its cue, perhaps, from Ursula Bethell’s garden poems) the poems linguistic knowingness might prompt the idea that it is a kind of parable of the poetic process itself as Bornholdt conceives it: “a plain enough thing / while underneath / the feelers are out / hooking into other systems”. In Bornholdt’s poems the feelers are always out (whether aiming at joy, or not), but how do the poems hook into other systems, and what, typically, are these systems?

One such system is, clearly, language itself, manifest not only in the lands of complexity noticed above but in the delightful variety of comic play with words throughout. The longish sequence “Tourists often stop” is full of puns and paradoxes:

Each day we wake up younger than the day before. Years are being taken off our lives.

Or

Men propose to women in the park outside the window.
Sitting under trees they say will you marry me. Every day there are some very nearly Mrs.

In fact “Tourists often stop”, in which the poet observes at a distance people and events in the park and road outside her house, is premised on not knowing what people are actually saying, so that attributed speech, as in the example above, becomes pure invention. In “Trees in America” the invention is a fantastic and hilarious version of New Zealand stereotypes of American identity. At such moments Bornholdt’s writing comes closest, perhaps, to that of her early mentor, Bill Manhire:

American tourists walk down the road and look at the trees in the park.
Wow. Wow. I can see them say.
There are no real trees where they come from. In America they pay people to dress up in outfits with
trunks and branches and as you walk past the trees say ‘howdy’ and shake your hand.

In “The Boyfriends” (“The boyfriends all love you but they don’t really know how.”), love itself is a self-deluding fantasy constructed out of Hollywood movies (“You suspect they have seen too many westerns with too many cowboys riding off into too many sunsets”). In “The body as intention” (from the knowingly titled “Reading the body”), a witty play of perspectives is introduced through the punning ambiguity of words and phrases, and sentences whose meaning changes as they unfold from line to line:

The body
means well.
It means SO well
that it falls
backwards
over itself.
The body
is full
of good
intent.

Another system, hooked into throughout but especially in the longer poems, is the philosophical discourse of self/other, subject/ object, encapsulated in an epigraph from Italo Svevo to the volume Waiting Shelter:

The train had been clattering along now for ten minutes
and the little girl . . . whispered: “Mamma, I want to see … “

The mother asked: “But what do you want to see? You can see everything, can’t you?”
The little girl burst into tears: “I can’t see the train”.
. . . To see the landscape, the train and oneself at the same time – that really would have been travelling!

It would be a mistake, also, to underestimate the extent to which Bornholdt’s feelers reach out, and hook into, contemporary social and political discourses, though first impressions might suggest otherwise. The discourse of gender is one such instance, though it is rarely (except in poems like “The Boyfriends”) approached directly. More often social discourses are approached allusively, as if through invisible quotation marks, though hardly the less provocatively or surprisingly because of that:

My father is a whale.
I want to save him
from extinction.
(“Whale”)

Perhaps the strongest of these discourses, the most visible marker of Bornholdt’s contemporaneity in the 1990s, is their postmodern (or is it post-colonial?) play with the breakdown of national boundaries, especially in the later poems written during and in the wake of a trip overseas. (“Miss New Zealand”, the title, might itself be a pun, a phrase scribbled on a postcard from Elsewhere.) “Breakdown” suggests that what is registered is loss, but that isn’t how the poems witness to the globalisation and mobility of culture. The “Estonian Songs” are not translations but free inventions sparked off by the suggestiveness of song titles on the cover of a CD. The long sequence, “We will we do”, celebrates the discovery of Danish/ German origins: “The long arms of the family rest / along the shoulders of the world.” And, as always, there is wit and humour in registering the constructedness of cultural concepts:

Her cousin bought the New York State and the Chrysler buildings
in Wellington, years ago.
The Chrysler building he assembled in Wellington but it
was recently moved up the coast to Waikanae.

The New York State he made one cold winter in Tokyo
and now it’s in London in the main room of his Kensington apartment.
It’s lit up at night and you have to be careful
not to knock it over as you go through the door.
(“Overseas”)

Bornholdt herself commented about her poetry, in an interview in Quote Unquote (March, 1995), “People say it’s accessible, and I like that. I also like the fact that it works on a number of different levels.” It’s the different levels which fascinate this reviewer, though these levels are less in the poems – as if they were archaeological sites to be dug down into – than a function of different acts of reading, different interests brought to the poems. It’s a truism, of course, that acts of reading reveal the reader. (That is one of the reasons why we are always fascinated by the constructions poets place on their own poems.) But in Bornholdt’s work, it is more than usually the case. It is also why she is such a distinctive, and distinguished, voice in contemporary New Zealand poetry.

Terry Sturm is Professor of English at the University of Auckland. The 2nd edition of his Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English will be reviewed later this year.

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