Unwinding the Labyrinth
Hazard Press, $19.95
ISBN 1 877161 08 X
Hazard Press, $19.95
ISBN o 908790 97 X
Dividing the Light
Hazard Press, $19.95
ISBN 1 877161 05 5
The Ambiguous Companion
paintings by Joanna Braithwaite
Hazard Press, $29.95
ISBN 1 877161 04 7
Diana Neutze’s Unwinding the Labyrinth begins with the epigraph:
ancient myths provide no gridlines
for my woman’s journey –
rejected from Ithaca’s shore
I must name my own homecoming
must unwind the labyrinth
on my own undertaking
The poems which follow are personal attempts by Neutze to find a way to express her personal journey. She makes no apologies for this: the back jacket of her book tells of how she began writing following the death of her only son and the end of her remission from multiple sclerosis as “a kind of well-crafted therapy exercise. But then I found I was writing about all sorts of subjects, although the inner life always predominated.” She is in fact at her most memorable when writing of her personal pain. A poem such as “Downward Mobility” approaches awkward beauty when she describes herself as being
Unlike the clown, who stumbles
with unco-ordinated grace,
my clumsiness has not been choreographed.
Instead, a street busker on stilts,
I dance stiff-legged to silent music . . .
She can also be powerful when writing of her son’s death – she names grief “an alter ego” and grieves with her “body still torn from the labour pains / of his dying”.
The passion which gives these poems strength is not transferred, however, into Neutze’s more general meditations on subjects of the “inner life”, which tend to be too consciously poetic and philosophical. Words such as “loneliness”, “suffering”, “image” and “sky” predominate. In “Winter”, “symbols adorn the day, / transforming the merest drawing / into a literary collage”, and “Meaning” ends, “and the day is flooded with meaning”.
Part of the reason for the loss of intensity in these poems may be due to the passivity of the first-person poetic voice which dominates. The first poem “Life Sentence” begins: “The Romans knew what they were about / when they made the verb ‘to suffer’ passive, / patior: not something which I choose to do / but something which is done to me.” This is perhaps a very natural response to Neutze’s experiences but it does mean that the pursuit of her woman’s journey, the naming of her homecoming, cannot help but become victim-centred. So in Unwinding the Labyrinth, women of ancient myth such as Demeter, Dido, Eurydice, Arachne and Penelope, any of whom might have provided possible models for Neutze’s “woman’s journey”, all become images of waiting, praying, weaving women.
On the cover of Mike Minehan’s suicide season there is a painting by Grahame Sydney of a woman who is said by the poet to be waiting. In “the painting” Minehan describes the landscape behind this woman as “a terrain as dry and cruel as death / stretching out forever”. However, unlike the waiting women of Neutze’s poems, one of whom says “at least I live without hope”, for this woman there will come a time when what she awaits rides “over the last ridge / purpled in the falling night”.
Minehan’s focus is on women as the collective oppressed rather than on her personal woman’s journey. One poem, “someone doesn’t like us”, is a list of women’s deaths: “all over the country women are dying / or are dead…/ somewhere someone is watching / someone out there doesn’t like us.” Poems like this one and others with titles such as “Art as therapy… Art as anger” tend to ring strongly of seventies feminism and like Neutze’s poems suffer from their emphasis on victimisation. However, Mjnehan has a more powerful and skilled voice than Neutze and she moves beyond describing women as victims towards seeking to give them expression. Her book is “their song / it is mine / it is ours”.
Ironically, considering her political stance, Minehan is at her best when writing of domestic situations and love. It is here that her sense of irony comes to the fore, as in “prodigal”:
so you have returned
the taste of tortillas still on your tongue
your hair bleached yellow by the sun at Carmel
and an accent i cannot place
they tell me you danced on tables
that tom cruise winked at you over a diet coke
In “piha 1965” teenage lovers stand together on the veranda until .the girl’s mother calls and “you scampered like a puppy…/ O romeo you coward.”
John Allison places greater distance between his own emotional position and his poetry than either Neutze or Minehan and is more ambitious in his engagement with ideas. The middle section of Dividing the Light is made up of poems of varying quality about art works. “The Spiral Jetty”, for instance, tells the story of what happened to Robert Smithson’s famous 1970 jetty without going much further than a descriptive chronological narrative of events. Other poems are more interesting in their engagement with the art they relate to. Mark Rothko was interested in the perception of the viewer, and so Allison’s “The Rothko Testament” is centred in the mind of an observer of Rothko’s work. In “Mondrian” Allison attempts to negotiate and absorb the problems of the painter into a poetic form. Through a series of short pieces based on particular paintings by Mondrian, Allison tries to trace and mirror the changes in Mondrian’s style and ideas between 1909 and 1913. The final piece is called simply “Oval Composition – Trees (1913)”:
leafing / unleafing
light into scintillating
forms / here/ also not-here
forever active in the foliage of
consciousness in me / it is living
(this unity in single consciousness)
The annihilation of our tragic vision
occurs when every di/vision is resolved
in an act of art embodying the universal;
this tree dissolves towards idea / as I-
my senses emptied – see the cosmos tugging
at the pigment \ becoming / more than I am
: the intersection of a drama / Autumn now
has come to the process of the paint : the
forms, subjected to the restless flickering
of my thought across the open surface of
this canvas / perceiving leaf / not-leaf
in the light of our human dis / position
(determinate image of the universal)
I can no longer work this way : the
abstract shall be abstract always
and now in my future mind I see
flat planes of primal colour
delineated by the vertices
and black the void
The third and final section of Dividing the Light deals with similarly complex ideas of space and light but without reference to other works of art at times it becomes mere abstraction.
The opening sequence of the collection is more like Allison’s earlier volume of poetry, Both Roads Taken, with its easier blend of abstract contemplation and images more imbued with emotion. In “The Fall”, the speaker explains the feeling at the end of a relationship with an image of evocative immediacy: “Often in the night my shoulder-blades / ache”. The very first poem, “Ambivalence”, describes a figure who “seems to slip between / the light, evading . . . / your attempts at any /definition” and ends with a feeling characteristic of much of Allison’s poetry: no union, no definition is achieved but “when she goes / the light’s no longer / so divided by / your loneliness.”
If Allison is interested in the relationship between image and text, Weston investigates more dynamic and concrete interactions between the two. The stunning black front cover of The Ambiguous Companion has on it, in only slightly smaller letters than Weston’s name, “paintings by Joanna Braithwaite”. Throughout the book Weston’s poems and Braithwaite’s darkly evocative paintings engage so that the meaning of one shifts in light of the other. “Spring”, a poem about a suicide, is opposite a painting of a shadowy figure standing beneath a tree. There is no rope connecting the figure to the branch but as Weston warns on the inside front jacket, “There is no standing back, we are all in the show”; and so it is the reader who links poem and painting and as interpretative observer supplies the rope.
At times the syntax of Weston’s poetry is elusive. Tenses and meanings shift in a way that can be disconcerting. The beginning of “Departure” is fairly typical:
The shambling man kissed his hand
for the bullet
When in came…
his wide tie, floribunda bright
oh! how living
in the sun
you never knew the sweat of
Other poems, by contrast, lose their power by becoming too sentimentally explicit. In the final poem “Blindness”, for instance, indicators of loss and death are so delicately woven into its first stanza by autumn and the smell of “my father’s leaves burning at the end of the garden” that the line “She’s died, he says. Gran’s died. A small smile, embarrassed” comes with disappointing heaviness.
However, at its best Weston’s poetry is represented by his poem “So it is”, which begins, “Language is what you notice first”. This is more the case than in the work of the other three poets discussed here. Language and form are an inherent part of Allison’s expression of ideas but only occasionally surprise the reader with beauty. Neutze’s language lacks vividness except in her most personal images, and although Minehan’s poems are about reclaiming a voice, often their meaning is too overt to allow the language alone to sing. Weston’s poems are enjoyable not so much for the ideas they express – often the poems do not quite come together in the end – but for the images, the exquisite moments which punctuate his language. The suicide in “Spring” is described unsentimentally as a willing transaction / across a counter, while in Tokyo”, “Within minutes the street has blossomed / into umbrellas like wet petals.” As a participant in “So it is” and a reader of Weston’s poetry,
You recognise the feet of birds in the sand,
and the fact
that the hibiscus is red
with a stamen like a hummingbird
Ingrid Horrocks’ first collection of poems, Natsukashii, was published in April  by Pemmican Press.