Yielding to the surges, Miranda Johnson

Shaking the Tree
Roma Potiki
Steele Roberts
$19.95
ISBN 0 95837125 3

The Paper Road
Julie Leibrich
Steele Roberts
$19.95
ISBN 0 95837122 9

the ordinary magic
Vivienne Jensen (ed)
New Zealand Poetry Society
$14.00
ISBN 0 47304787 X

Critics have side-stepped Roma Potiki’s shaking of the political tree. In the second edition of The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English, Elizabeth Caffin, while assessing Potiki’s love poetry as “fine” and as showing “well-judged restraint”, is less definite when evaluating her political poems. These are “directly political, the poet speaking polemically as representative of Maori or of women and confronting a powerful enemy, deliberate assertions of strength and dignity”. This does not tell us whether Caffin regards these poems as equally fine (presumably they are excluded from exemplifying restraint, angry as many of them are), or whether such polarising pieces are beyond literary qualification.

In some ways these questions could seem superfluous to a discussion of Shaking the Tree, for, despite its title, this volume (unlike her first, Stones in Her Mouth), is not so overtly and predominantly political. That is not to say it is less angry, but these new poems are more subtle, more complex, the sentiments less definite. This makes for a more interesting collection and for more inclusive appeal. Empathy with these poems is much easier and more deeply felt, whether or not the reader shares Potiki’s political sympathies, because of her awareness of self-contradiction, of irony, of paradox. They are not, on the whole, pieces which simply demand assent or dissent, too obvious in intent and execution, a criticism which can be levelled at some of the poems in her earlier collection.

In “Mere Pounamu”, for instance, Potiki describes the “speeding bullet” life of a treaty negotiator. Admiration is obvious – “Her driving just keeps improving / Nobody does it better” – yet this admiration is tempered by teasing:

Her cellphone matches her
quick off the mark, efficient, and loud enough
to be heard. Quite effective, I’d say,
but then I am her cousin.

Bemusement with and distaste for fast, efficient technology (and implicitly the mind-set that goes with it) is a theme continued in several of the poems. It is often accompanied by disgust at the corporate world – one, I think, many people share. It is of course a stance that is difficult to maintain, and can be easily compromised – as Potiki is aware. In one poem she discusses leaving a job (before she can be accused of hypocrisy):

Sacrificial, self-righteous lambs are pretty
boring
but black sheep
in cream cardigan corporation
need to think
about
why they are there.

The underlying theme of all these political pieces is one common to most artists: alienation. For Potiki, this feeling becomes political, and often turns to anger. “You are so secure / even if you say that is not so,” she accuses the “still not sated” appetite of colonialists. And yet again, the situation is not that simple – it cannot merely be described in terms of us against them, for she too is descended from those same colonisers:

And we are descended from that generation
grateful and bastardised,
graceful dancers
who understand sand
and the way it shifts.

But what is the literary merit of these pieces? Despite the increased complexity of ideas in these poems, many of them still tend to be obvious rather than metaphorical, strident rather than lyrical. It is really Potiki’s descriptive poetry, which she offers as a salve to the anger and alienation of the political work, that makes up the best pieces in the collection. These poems are also the most exacting on the reader, and in some ways make much stronger political statements. The salve Potiki offers is an extremely enticing one – a return to the natural world. In particular, a return to the sea, “the sandy world … sobriety and salt water”, and the voices of ancestors, motifs which appear again and again. “Toetoe Turn” opens with:

Moon cloaks
pale and incandescent
waving above the bedroom window

and continues with:

I dream of old women marching,
they hold the toetoe, toetoe above them –
in a procession they walk the earth
up the hills
to the meeting places
where she&he she&she he&he might be found.

There are also some lovely, unexpected twists. “Christmas, / time to plant a tree / and decorate my mind” refreshes a poem that is otherwise unsatisfying – bemoaning in too prosaic language the travail of life. This is the greatest complaint I have about Potiki’s political work. As poetry, it is too one-dimensional to draw the reader in and demand a second reading. The rest of her poetry – which often achieves the same political goals – is much more effective. The climax of the collection, the long poem “Pirates”, mostly achieves both political ends and emotional needs very economically and powerfully. Indeed the most memorable line of the whole volume is here: “Pacific women as beautiful as / plump sirloin marinated in guava”. This is language you can eat and (perhaps more importantly) makes you hungry.

2
The Paper Road by English-born (and bred) Julie Leibrich is most definitely the collection of an outsider looking in – although interestingly she does not express the same depth of alienation that Potiki does. Moreover, these are not at all political poems, but a personally guided tour of Leibrich’s family and her journeys. The autobiographical nature of the volume is emphasised through the use of accompanying photos and short explanations of some of the poems. The photos in the main are interesting and helpful (especially in the case of “A photo now and then”), the explanations are mostly superfluous and often detract from the poems. To my mind, interpretation should be left entirely to the reader, or if further explanation is absolutely necessary, then endnotes should be used instead of cluttering up the text.

In fact, Leibrich writes very accessible poems, and none require further clarification. They are jaunty, friendly and with a warm humour that is comforting. Occasionally there is a twist that gives a welcome jolt. “The plate” describes in loving detail a china plate, the colours, coolness, and ends:

Bleak Saturday you became an object someone thought
to teach me a lesson with. Macho man.
Big time stuff. Converting his rage to pain.
First yours. Then mine.

A girl who collects china
can’t afford to have a lover who throws plates.
VIII
Today, I planted peonies in my garden in remembrance of love.

The humour and the sadness in this poem are both used to good effect. Unfortunately, Leibrich has a tendency to vagueness and platitude. Her use of language could be more economical and more original. Some lines fall into easy rhyme and are dangerously close to cliché. “That was my only crime. That, and stealing time” is rather twee and vitiates a poem that is meant to convey a sense of loss. And again, when she is trying to use metre to comic effect, she merely falls into ordinariness:

The track was right.
The form was good.
I changed the name.
He didn’t know I could.

In “The smell of macrocarpa” – a poem for a photographer friend – Leibrich delineates their different (cultural) artistic outlooks:

This is you, surging through the bush
in search of the meaning of light.

Whereas I dream of hollyhocks, lose myself
in bluebells, wake to the sound of the moors.

Perhaps Leibrich needs to take on a more New Zealand approach then – more surging and search for definition might give her poems the memorability they currently lack.

3
The poems in the ordinary magic do not reveal much surge either, despite the vast majority of New Zealanders in attendance. This is not a criticism, however, for there is an enjoyably quiet and reflective tone to most of this aptly titled collection, along with a good dose of humour. If there is any definition that can be given to the New Zealand psyche, I would suggest it is our self-deprecating and ever-so-slight silliness.

John Allison does this very well. His poem “Eeyore’s Tale” made me giggle. Describing the yellow house across the road, he notes very A A Milne-ly:

and several times lately.
it’s leapt out at me, growling …

Maybe it was
only playing at being Tigger;

still, it’s not much fun
being bounced by a house …

The winning poem (these New Zealand Poetry Society collections are entries from the previous year’s competition) by Louise Wrightson certainly deserves mention. Like much of Julie Leibrich’s work, this poem looks at childhood from the perspective of middle age. While Wrightson’s use of trees to denote age is not original, she reinvigorates the metaphor. The result is a beautifully crafted and warm reflection.

The collection ends with entries from the haiku section of the competition. I am not a great haiku fan, but I did enjoy some of these – particularly the children’s entries. There is an ominous tone to many of them (something children often do well, I think). Brendon Clarke submitted this:

The moon smiles at me
He watches me silently
Then morning kills him.

You can’t blame that on television.

Miranda Johnson is completing a BA in History at Victoria University of Wellington.

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