Certainties/doubts, Kate Camp

the long road to teatime
Anna Jackson
Auckland University Press, $19.95,
ISBN 1869402235

Writing Lives – Ending Silences
Mike Minehan
Hazard Press, $21.95,
ISBN 1877161853

I have admired Anna Jackson’s poetry in various journals, and as part of the AUP New Poets series. Her work combines careful observation of the here and now with a sense of context both local and international. Magic is found in mundane places, while the grandest myths and most revered works of literature turn out to harbour hard-edged and surprisingly banal chunks of the commonplace.

the long road to teatime is Jackson’s first solo collection, and it focuses, as the title suggests, on domestic subject matter, the family in all its incarnations.

The book opens with a sequence called “Pakeha Waka” that begins:

Just as Maui chanted the Hiki to make heavy weights
light
and so from his waka pulled up New Zealand on his fish
hook

so Robert Sullivan has the way with words to make light
the whole heavy mythology of New Zealand …

I paddle my waka in his slipstream.

 

The poems look back on Jackson’s ancestors, and those of her partner Simon, moving into the recent past with the birth of their son Johnny: “England is Johnny’s Hawaiki … / He was born there, but remembers only here. / He asks, ‘Is England the olden days?’” It touches on images at once familiar and unique: the ship from Nova Scotia that brings the poet’s forbears, the search for the hospital that no longer stands, the stories of the doctor teaching Dante and the poor cobbler making his fortune in shoes.

The salute to poet Robert Sullivan fits the subject matter, but I wonder if Jackson too could have benefited from some of that chant that makes “heavy weights light”. The sequence at times seems to founder under the weight of its own significance. In a world – or perhaps just a country – where people will tell you at length about their Spanish or Celtic ancestry without the slightest invitation, any account of “Pakeha Waka” needs to offer something more than just the family history. At times, it does. Perhaps because of its less traditional focus, I loved the account in poem number 7: “We would call our baby Elvira / After the pinball game we played / at Urbi et Orbi.”

The section entitled “the long road to teatime” begins on the road to Karekare beach but soon takes a rather alarming detour into Jackson’s version of Dante’s Inferno. At first the poet thinks she is on Ponsonby Road: not the usual location for the underworld but reeking appropriately of the “greasy cheesy smell of food”. In these early stages of hell, I enjoyed the way the speaker sees people she knows: a character who sounds suspiciously like an ex-boyfriend pops up in “I meet up with the spineless” and a few woebegone friends appear in the wonderfully named poem “Pain hosts the party the romantics cannot leave”.

As we moved down into the inferno though, I started to part company with the speaker. With so many genuine ratbags competing for space, it seems highly unlikely to me that Beelzebub has reserved any room at all for

bad therapists
who are hidden
in the flames of guilt that consume them
for the harm their wrong advice has caused.

 

My own dear Mama and Papa will be relieved to know that I also find incredible the space in hell allocated to “parents who betrayed their children, / who turned away from the good in them / to complain about them to their friends”. Surely a minor sin in any catalogue!

Most unconvincing of all was the presence on the lowest level of hell of “the traitors to their calling. / Here the artists who gave up painting, the poets / who were too busy teaching”. This stanza had me searching the back of the book for a date of birth: from the ancient wisdom of my own 28 years, it seems breathtakingly naive – and just plain wrong. While I reminded myself of the special place in hell reserved for reviewers who confuse the poet with the speaker in the poem, I felt let down by this wrongheaded righteousness.

My favourite section of the book was “Teatime with the Timorese”. It is probably no coincidence that it is the part that looks most directly outward to the world, rather than inward to the family or works of literature. Giving what seems to be an account of research into atrocities committed in East Timor, the poems in this section are written as a series of meals with changing personnel: Coffee and Fudge with Allan from The New Yorker, Bagels with General Panjaitan, Fish fingers and carrot sticks with the Timorese people.

I enjoy Jackson’s poems most when they are at their least cosy, when the speaker is least sure of their position, least at ease with the world and their place in it. I suspect that says more about the reader than the author.

2

Mike Minehan’s Writing Lives – Ending Silences also has a focus on the personal life. The poems – and handful of prose journal entries – deal mainly with life’s tougher textures: the death of the poet’s mother, her time in psychiatric care, the large and small harshnesses that come like frosts to ensure each season’s fruit.

That uncharacteristically rustic last image of mine reflects the environment of the poems, which are largely set in Minehan’s lovingly but unsentimentally rendered South Island: “The tree surgeon says the poplars are ‘perfect’ and will last a few more years yet.” The poems remind me at times of Lauris Edmond’s: the same emphasis on family and loss, the same ability to strike a chord, the same tendency to descend – in their weakest moments – into conventional imagery and language. There was a time when I might have found these poems less affecting, when I might have searched them in vain for linguistic fireworks or true originality, but those things seem less important to me now. Without wishing to imply a lack of poetic technique or intellectual rigour – for Minehan certainly demonstrates both – these poems go unpretentiously to the heart of the matter.

The collection starts with childhood memories:

In the early morning, before daybreak, you can hear the
lake
lipping the shingle of our bay
and my grandmother’s soft snores from the next bed
in the tiny room of a bach perched on a hill

 

The speaker wakes to go out fishing with her grandfather:

and tearing the thin knife down the belly of a fish
pulling out warm innards with my small hands
into the cold air, looking for eggs
the dead stunned eye of a trout, is outraged …

 

No matter how many I read, I don’t think I will ever tire of poems that so clearly and precisely evoke a child’s view of the world. The sense of the morning’s stillness in the first stanza is one I – and probably every reader – can remember well, the time when sensible adults snore in their beds and children wake and wait for the day to begin.

Several poems dealing with the death of Minehan’s mother walk an uneasy line between evocative, moving anecdotes, and lines that, for all their sincerity, turned me off by overstating their case. “little bits of mum” begins wonderfully:

Once she was a girl bride & now she’s not.
Last week she managed a tune …
held her purpled hands over the keys
and gentled, tripped some notes.
This is a sad month
music trying to sing and leaves falling.

 

The final lines, “We are both twinned / giving birth to an inevitable death”, undermined the quiet authority of the specifics given at the start. Both in the poems and the journal entries, Minehan’s voice is most powerful when speaking of specifics, most prone to truisms when dealing with abstract concepts.

3

A friend of mine complains that she can never find a good novel to read these days, and has already read all the great novels of the 19th century. “Why doesn’t anyone write ones like that anymore?” she asked me recently. The answer is, in my opinion, that the appeal of the 19th century novel is in its easy assumption of a shared point of view, an assumption no contemporary author can make. Unfortunately, much as we may feel in our hearts a craving for that constancy, we cannot help but recognise that the fixed moral and emotional constellations of the past are now wheeling over our heads.

While Anna Jackson’s and Mike Minehan’s books are very different collections with very different strengths, they share what to me is a similar weakness: there are times when the poetic voice seems to be imparting to us some great truth of which the poem is so sure that there can be no room for doubt. I enjoyed these poems most when they were, for one reason or another, nudged away from that centre of certainty.

 

Kate Camp is a Wellington poet.

 

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