Generous to a fault, Jane Stafford

New Zealand Love Poems
ed Lauris Edmond
Oxford University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 0195583981

Posthumous volumes invite a certain kind of reading, a feeling that, as this is the last time we will speak to the author, they are addressing us with more than usual significance. The commonsense fact that no one knowingly sits down to write their last novel or poem, or edit their last book of poems, does nothing to obviate this impression. And so it feels fitting that Lauris Edmond’s last work is this anthology, New Zealand Love Poems. It is as if the supremely sociable and painstakingly generous Edmond had set out to give a final valedictory dinner party, inviting as many of her fellow writers as she could cram into her house on the hill above Wellington’s Oriental Bay, giving each of them their hostess’s solicitous attention and sympathy, even those whose mode of writing she may have felt a little sceptical about. Shy, unpublished writers feel flushed with delight at the arrival of the invitation. The young, the complex, the innovative may be a little surprised to be included but succumb to the editorial charm. Old friends mark the date on their calendar and look forward to an evening of familiar pleasures, where their opinions will be listened to, valued and given weight not always afforded in the world outside. Few are left out. And as the evening progresses, the darkness falls, and the lights of the city appear below “this rough hill, / where houses tilt to the tides of the rowdy / dark.”

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The subject of this anthology, love, is a term of wide application, and Edmond has wisely chosen to place few restrictions on her material, describing her sphere of attention as “how [we have] characteristically expressed our most intense, most secret, most powerful emotions”. Her stance is hugely inclusive. In her introduction she says that she initially excluded love of animals but then found Bernadette Hall’s wonderful poem “Duck”, and had to include it. The example is illustrative of the breadth of sympathy that characterises the volume, but also, perhaps, of its pitfalls. An anthology of relationship poetry rather than love poetry narrowly conceived, it comes close at times to being simply a personal selection of favourite pieces.

Comparable local anthologies have been rather more restrictive in their scope. James Bertram’s 1977 New Zealand Love Poems briskly dismissed divine love as a subject unfit for New Zealand writers, but dealt with other forms – including that for animals, or at least cats, Janet Frame’s “Cat Spring” and Baxter’s “Tomcat” reflecting perhaps an editorial preference. My Heart Goes Swimming: New Zealand Love Poems, edited by Jenny Bornholdt and Gregory O’Brien (1996), was avowedly celebratory, politely inviting readers who required a dark or cynical view of the subject to go elsewhere. Edmond’s collection differs from both these antecedents in its scope – over 300 poems as opposed to around 75 apiece for Bertram and Bornholdt/O’Brien. And it also differs in its organisational approach. Bertram, after flirting with the categories of “longing, loving, and leaving”, opted for a conservative chronological arrangement – a conservatism it must be said that belied some of the interesting and unexpected choices he made. This enabled him to begin, rather disconcertingly, with Mansfield’s “Old-Fashioned Widow’s Song” and finish powerfully with Ian Wedde’s “Sonnet for Carlos: After Sir Walter Rawleigh to his Sonne”. Bornholdt and O’Brien, very nicely, arranged their poems in order of the age of the poet when the particular piece was written, thus constructing a trajectory from youthful ardour (Fairburn’s “When She Speaks”) to expansive maturity (Baxter’s show-stopping “He Waiata Mo Te Kare”).

For her part, Edmond expresses a dislike of historical progression or alphabetical arrangement, and has as a working model five possible headings – “full on”; “think again”; “hanging around”; “further off: the effort of love”; and “by no means”. She translates these into five sections denoted by quotes from appropriate poems: “This is my voice, saying your name”; “A straight account is difficult”; “The heart has no corners”; “Time slipped through our fingers” and “Our long voyaging”. I feel these categories were probably more useful to Edmond’s personal mental organisation of the project than they are to the reader, for whom their significance is obscure. But it hardly matters. Each reader makes their own conjunctions and connections, and few, apart from conscientious reviewers, will read the volume sequentially from p1 to p257.

For Bertram and for Bornholdt and O’Brien, the discipline of length meant that their collections functioned as consciously arranged sequences, the rationale for which could be utterly that of personal taste. The size of Edmond’s undertaking means that she is required to address more public and general questions of canonicity, at least within her chosen subject. Her introduction suggests a certain reluctance for such evaluative exercises – she positions the work “away from the question of who is important and who is not”, and argues that her subject matter will necessarily rearrange conventional poetic league tables: “It is true that some major poets have not been very much drawn to love poetry whereas writers less significant in the ‘canon’ sense might have written beautifully in this genre.” This is the rationale for her inclusiveness, which does not always, it must be said, accord with her stated requirement that a successful poem should have “the finest emotional and intellectual balance”, and results in a somewhat uneven standard.

Despite the large number of poets, the unfamiliar names, and Edmond’s stated intention of “shaking up traditional anthology patterns”, the poems which dazzle are from the famous. Baxter’s “Let Time be still”, the second poem in the collection (after a rather histrionic opening number from Hyde) sets a standard met by his later appearances – “My Love Late Walking”, “On the Death of her Body”, “He Waiata Mo Te Kare” and, in a completely different tone, the second of the “Pig Island Letters”: “From an old house shaded with macrocarpas / Rises my malady”. Bill Manhire’s spare yet lyrical pieces serve as a reminder that love is as much about saying it as feeling it:

                                            Oh if she were only
sweet sixteen and running from the room again,
and if he were a blackbird
he would whistle and sing
and he’d something
something something something

 

Ian Wedde’s contributions powerfully combine intellectual seriousness with surges of romantic rhetoric (“I’m not good I’m not peaceful I’m not wise / but I love you.”). Jenny Bornholdt ranges from the gentle surrealism of “The Loved One” (“Ah you / the loved one / coming down out of the sky / like rain”) to the social comedy of “The Boyfriends” (“The boyfriends all love you but they don’t really know how”). This is not an anthology strong on the satire and humour of love. Fleur Adcock’s “Against Coupling” (beginning “I write in praise of the solitary act”) is not included; there are two very mild examples of Kate Camp but not her “Still Life with Blow Job”; and nothing from Anne French’s Male As Evader  collection. On the other hand, there are some well-known names, chiefly male poets of an older generation, who are perhaps over-represented, and not well-served by their personal and romantic verse. M K  Joseph’s “Romeo and Juliet (Duet)” is a representative example of how not to do it:

We are life’s minions and the lords
(Clothed in a dark and scented air)
Of death’s dominion …

 

Love is at once an emotion, a cultural phenomenon, and a literary subject, and one feels, at times, reading through an anthology of this length, that love poetry should only be written by those who aren’t in love, never have been and never will be. That way they can pay proper attention to the words. Edmond, in her poem “Doubletake”, talks of “leaving all things in their familiarity, / giving each a surpassing strangeness”. But this is hard to achieve. There is a temptation evident in this anthology towards heroic use of figurative language to convey the strangeness, the intensity, the newness of what is felt. At times this is woefully unsuccessful, as in Bob Orr’s “In your eyes / there is a balcony // In my heart / there is a hammock”. At times it can be charmingly idiosyncratic, as in Robin Healey’s “I want to be your little black sleeveless pullover” or Vivienne Plumb’s comparison of agapanthus buds with penis tips. At times it is  stunning, as in Manhire’s “Poem” which reads “When we touch, / forests enter our bodies. // The dark wind shakes the branch. / The dark branch shakes the wind.” Cilla McQueen describes the combination of emotion and craft, love and language: “I have made of words a lightning tree / to earth my dangerous love through poetry”.

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The other way in which this volume claims an authority beyond that of personal taste is by virtue of Edmond’s insistence on the significance, in her choices, of the local setting. She writes, “each poem chosen must be good in itself, genuine and powerful in the feeling it expresses, fresh and disciplined in its language. And … part of a broader picture of how we see ourselves.” Romantic discourse, she suggests, is not exempt from the stringencies of place, and can be positioned in the national narrative: “we are in some ways, perhaps now largely hidden, a pioneering culture, and pioneers need one another.” Historians who see colonial New Zealand as a place of hostility and anomie might disagree with this disingenuous argument. And it is a little in contradiction with Edmond’s ensuing observation that New Zealand love poets are “inventive at avoiding the direct statement” – that is, we need each other but can’t say so? – but are also capable of “robust, direct, ardent expression of powerful feelings”.

If Edmond’s anthology asks the question “What does a New Zealand context really mean?”, does her selection provide an answer? I’m not sure that it does, and this is perhaps the fault of the subject matter. Is being in love – happily, unhappily, with the man of your dreams, or with a duck – an intrinsically different experience in Manakau rather than in Manchester or Manitoba? Or rather, is writing about being in love different? How far is the personal voice of the romantic poet contingent on the social and physical landscape? Harry Ricketts’ “How Things Are” (“This is how things are: / if you leave their mother / the likelihood is you’ll lose your kids”) or Anne French’s “Kitchens” (“I didn’t know what hit /  me – just a false step I took / loving and believing regardless / of the evidence”) are simply and most properly located in modern urban life. To give them a particularly New Zealand reading would be inappropriate.

It seems to me those poems that do signal to some local marker are not necessarily the most successful in the anthology. And interestingly, it is often those nationalist poets of the 1940s and 50s who are most awkward. Keith Sinclair’s wonderfully clunky line “She has a bellbird in her breast” is reminiscent of the worst excesses of the Maoriland writers of the late 19th century. (There is a manuscript poem in the Turnbull Library from this period with “bluebird” crossed out and “bellbird” written in.) R A K  Mason’s “Flow at Full Moon” uses the physical setting, but with no particular local markers:

your spirit flows out over all the land between
your spirit flows out as gentle and limpid as milk

 

flows on down ridge and through valley soft and
serene
as the light of the moon that sifts down through its
light sieve of silk.

 

Perhaps it is the ponderous tone that is the trouble, the uneasy sense that the speaker is being the voice of the nation as well as the boyfriend. Alistair Paterson’s “I see you in water, where the mountains grope in cloud for rain, / hear your voice above the fluting of the wind” may locate the beloved in the landscape, but the conjunction is not  significant or productive. Place works better in later poems – Hone Tuwhare’s almost onomatopoeic “When the Karaka Trees Whistled and Said to Us: Kia Kaha!” or Ian Wedde’s bravura “Beautiful Golden Girl of the Sixties”, the latter replete with cultural and historical markers, figured in landscape tropes both iconic and ironic:

Beautiful
golden girl of the Sixties
I remember your mouth
under Pacific stars

I remember your delicate pale breast
in some dark old car backseat
the salt beachparty flavour of you in sandy tussock

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This volume is a companion to New Zealand Love Stories, edited by Fiona Kidman and published in 1999. Both books are beautifully presented – in the case of New Zealand Love Poems, with a gorgeous Joanna Margaret Paul painting on a blue cover. But open the book, and one has a disquieting feeling that Edmond has not been well served by her publisher. Oxford have for a number of years pioneered a kind of unpleasant grey typeface – thin, shadowy, with minute punctuation marks, and, in my copy, smudged in many places. The only information about the poets, many of whom are unfamiliar, is contained in the Sources section, and here, the citations are inconsistent and unhelpful. It is of no use, for example, to give someone interested in Mary Stanley the date of the reprint of her volume, Starveling Year and Other Poems (1994) rather than that of its original publication of 1953. Some kind of minimal biographical or bibliographical information is needed. There are a number of embarrassing proofing errors. Page numbers in the index give only an approximate guide to the location of poems in the second and third section. Anne French appears as Anne and Ann on facing pages. Andrew Johnston appears as Andrew Johnson throughout, and in one instance, A R D Fairburn becomes A R P Fairburn. The World According to Arp?

 

Jane Stafford teaches in the School of English, Film and Theatre at Victoria University of Wellington.

 

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