A breath of fresh sound, Harvey McQueen

Birds of Europe
Andrew Johnston
Victoria University Press, $19.95,
ISBN 0 86473 386 0

These Days
Jenny Bornholdt
Victoria University Press, $19.95,
ISBN 0 86473 385 2

 

Delacroix remarked that to be a poet when one is twenty is to be twenty; to be a poet when one is forty is to be a poet. These two new volumes from Andrew Johnston and Jenny Bornholdt prove his point. Though obviously from the Manhire Wellington stable, they each have their own particular authentic style that marks them as front-runners in the field.

They are two of the four New Zealand poets I selected to be represented in depth in my recent senior secondary school anthology Gifts. (The others are Hone Tuwhare and Roma Potiki.) When asked why I chose the first two, my reply came out unbidden: “They’re a breath of fresh sound.” This was met appropriately with silence, so I plunged on: “They’re tough, they’ll adapt, they’ll survive and they’ll be prolific to boot.”

2

To me the striking characteristic of Johnston’s poems is their resonance. Word and image, as sound, echo, bound and rebound:

                      We lay
side by side, like drawn-up boats

on spring grass, warmed by assumptions
and a wind from the south-west

 

The reverberations continue long after the poem has been put aside. “Lapwing” illustrates his attention to space and detail:

Winter I stay, they
just up and fly. But

look in the book –
a leap and a wink –

there they are. They
look me in the eye.

 

These migratory birds reflect the wider themes of this, his third collection, as in “Sanctuary”:

Spoonbill, plover, godwit – migratory –
flock and gossip, bathe and wade
at the sanctuary, by the estuary,

landing like a shower of arrows,
rising like blown foam.
Salt on its tongue, the river goes on drinking.

 

Johnston’s earlier volumes were thought-provoking explorations of language and image. Of their type, they were near perfect. Deceptively, the lines, indeed whole poems, appeared lucid and uncomplicated. So with this new book:

Soft train talk. A sparrowhawk.
Someone is reading the back of a ticket,

someone is reading St Paul.
Window-words rise and fade…

 

Quietness is another of his qualities: “your wishes will be granted, as wishes are / little by little.” In the words of the blurb, “for a fleeting moment, something comes to rest.” Indeed, he knowingly requests such a mood: “I want to be still as the pond after wind / I want to be still as the heron.”

If there was criticism of the earlier collections, it would be the relative absence of what Yeats so evocatively calls “the fury and the mire of human
veins”. Birds of Europe, with its themes of migration, departure and arrival, moves more into this larger and more dangerous territory, while retaining the clarity of the earlier work. Leaving home where “Taupata scrapes the house all night, / a madman brushing off spiders”, the poet takes the reader on a journey past the Golden Gate where “the plane lands neatly / on its shadow”, and on to New York and London, where “sometimes – / I forget you’re not here / and so you accompany me.” A human dimension is added to the local scene as the poet helps a couple hunt for a lost contact lens in a railway carriage or reads a fax about a relative.

For sixteen months Johnston commuted from North France to Britain. From various villages he gives us snapshots of daily life (“The table’s made from a cider press, / a slab of dark grain with hazelnuts / artichokes, aubergines, grapes.”) as well as the bigger picture:

At high tide the moon comes into the room.
The sea is louder in the dark,

roars like the need for sleep
then turns and carries you out

past supertankers, submarines,
galleons and caravels

to coracles, miraculous
in honor of those whose long journey

the wind leafs through the ferns
reading everything it can lay its hands on.

 

There is great variety here. There are found poems, including the breath-taking “Canyon Walk” – tightrope artist Philippe Petit plans to walk across the Little Colorado canyon in September of this year; so this is a poem before the event. There are, as anticipated, lyrics that play on sound, “As if the oo from saying moose / had got oot and aboot”. And he teases critics and reviewers alike with a metaphor of electricity:

You’re right, it’s time I said what it’s about
Or rather said what I was about to say
Before these things got in the way
To which it was and is connected –
Let’s unplug them one by one
Until a single small red light
Tells us that we’ve got it right –
The Subject’s what it’s all about.
But what if all the lights go out?
Which connection mattered most?
Or was it about nothing, really –
A poem’s about a thing, ideally.
(This one – for the sake of simplicity –
Let’s say it’s about electricity.)

3

Jenny Bornholdt’s poems also appear simple for she is truly a poet at ease in her element. Hers is the art that conceals art: rarely a word out of place, little exposition, less decoration, yet complex, as the first poem in These Days illustrates:

It was a year of great sadness
in the garden. A sister
died. Our friends’ wounded
marriage. A sick child. Another
sister died and they wrapped her
in a cloth and we laid her
in the ground.

 

The poem continues with runaway dogs and a dead hedgehog, so it is no wonder the couple hold their sleeping child tightly: “Solace came in small / ways – dealing kindly / with bees in the kitchen.” Then:

After time a vase
entered our lives
as a body of light
its white flowers a kind of
peace we craved and
entered     as the gate
to another garden
on a hillside, tended by
women who looked up
from roses to mountains
and saw snow
blossom there.

 

I picked up the reference to Ursula Bethell, but not until I read the acknowledgments did I learn that the vase once belonged to that poet who kept it full of white flowers. It had been given to Bornholdt on the understanding that she would hand it on in turn to a young woman poet. Many consider New Zealand poetry came of age when Bethell’s poems appeared. Bornholdt maintains the tradition with the same spare economy of language, of somehow transforming the mundane and fugitive everyday into something timeless.

However, Bornholdt’s forte is relationships, incidents and anecdotes, whimsical, elusive, emotional. And beautiful:

You breathe him out
of your habitable body – little
seal, little pup …

You welcome him into this
house, his new landscape
your voices his
memory – all he knew
before entering this din
of light.

 

This din of light. Yes, of course, to a newborn child it must appear that way. Her poems, like Johnston’s, revel in sound and wordplay. The baby talking about the electrician coming to fix the basement light says, “Yight. / Yight. / Fix it. Fix it.” While Johnston’s poems reflect a broadening of interest, Bornholdt’s show an intensifying of focus as two young children absorb much of her attention. A true poet finds fresh lines in whatever situation they find themselves. Bornholdt finds poems in an index, an overheard remark from the radio, or a note in the letterbox.

A number of engaging illustrations counterpoint the poems. They add a further dimension to These Days, which is a sort of poetic diary, a kind of conversational art: “You are pleased with the way / things take on a life / of their own.” Reading her poems we shift houses, meet people on a new street where “Cricket balls release the scent of lavender” and share in escapades with Jasmine the pet rabbit. Visiting an 80-year-old friend, the conversation is “about children, how / funny and forever / they are”. A series of prose poems wryly records Bornholdt’s appreciation of the taken-for-granted miracles of modern life: “Every time you pass the new dishwasher you want to stroke its stainless steel front and murmur something tender …. Nothing gives you more pleasure than the reassuring sound of water travelling through pipes, the click as each machine starts a new cycle.”

But the house also has its treacherous side: “You’d been lulled into a false sense of security by the dishwasher – a relative newcomer on the scene – only to find there’s danger lurking under the very floors you stand on.” The sense of menace that her earlier collections contained surfaces here too.

In putting Johnston and Bornholdt into my anthology, I was conscious of the danger that students’ liking for poetry could be destroyed through an overzealous teacher’s use of their work, because they so superbly illustrate the tools of the trade, alliteration, assonance and so forth. Still, I almost wish I was teaching again to have the opportunity to present these two new collections, where each line is such a self-contained, syntactical and emotional unit, linked to what has gone before and what will come after.

 

Harvey McQueen‘s latest collection, Pingandy, was reviewed  in our June issue.

 

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