Taking off, Paola Bilbrough

The Inland Eye
Mary McPherson
Pemmican Press, $14.95, 
ISBN 0 473 05869 3

Oh My God I’m Flying
Johanna Aitchison
Pemmican Press, $14.95, 
ISBN 0 473 05610 0

The Long Sleep is Over
Jan Hutchison
Steele Roberts, $19.95, 
ISBN 1 877228 09 5

A talent for flight
Glenda Fawkes
Steele Roberts, $19.95, 
ISBN 0 9583712 9 6

Reading these four books, each of which is a first, I 
 thought a great deal about the elusiveness of that particular quality which makes a poem really successful and memorable. For me, the best poems include just enough detail to intrigue and tease. I want glimpses of other worlds, to live briefly in the world of the poem while I’m reading it. The litmus test seems to be how much you think about the poet. Poems that constantly draw attention to their creator in some way, whether through self-consciously clever or funny language, or by being overpersonal, are disappointments. Many poems in these books do manage to live and breathe quite separately from their authors; however, just as many don’t.

Initially, I was more interested in finding the individual voice in each collection than immediately looking for similarities; however, all have some preoccupation with landscape, a landscape that is a uniquely New Zealand one, whether it is tough and urban or rural and idyllic.

At 24 and 23 pages each, the two Pemmican Press collections are chap books – tasters – yet this smallness is one of the things they have going for them: there is just enough here for the reader to want more without feeling fatigued or bored.

Mary McPherson has the eye of a visual artist, an eye for colour and small detail. I am not familiar with her actual photographs, but the poems in The Inland Eye are like softly lit photographs or dreamy water colours:

It’s raining and there are blue
pictures on the wall – ghost
horses circled by trees,
a boy fading into the land.
(“Blue Pictures”)

Water seems to be a metaphor for movement in the poems, and there are small hints of travel throughout. But these are not conventional travel poems – McPherson is not concerned with drawing our attention to a myriad of exotic locations – she is more interested in our desire for travel, and the fluidity of being/dislocation of identity that sometimes results:

You dream of different lives
that happen under this low-slung sky
and under the wash of daylight
at home. Your image is in water, air,
glass and earth. You break apart
like fast moving cloud over land.
(“Judgement”)

Or:

a bird calls – sweet sweet, but
you don’t know it, can’t name it.
You wait under trees
uncertain of your location.
(“Continents”)

McPherson says a lot – beautifully and with seemingly little effort – and many of the poems have a disturbing enigmatic quality:

Outside
the tree caught
by bars, a daughter
dangles (“Lost”)

Often, she writes about that other side of beauty – the imperfection of things, and our constant search for answers in the face of that imperfection. These poems are self- assured and immensely absorbing. Just occasionally, I found them a little too pleasing – like miniatures, there is a tendency for a note of preciousness to creep in – but this could just be me trying to find fault.

2
Johanna Aitchison’s Oh My God I’m Flying has a bright orange cover decorated with an accelerating red car, which sums up the book’s overall tone of jaunty cheerfulness. The poems have an exuberance that buoys the reader up, even when Aitchison is writing on more serious subjects:

It’s more honest this way, you say,
Because my bones are closer to my skin.
I’m like an X-ray –

Jesus crossed with Flash Gordon.
And we look out at the sky.
Pretend to paint the stars & moon.
(“anorexia”)

Her best poems combine a delicacy of description with urban details and unexpected images. Less successful are those poems where Aitchison seems to be consciously playing for laughs and approval – like the poem entitled “if only poetry had a cock” or another that compares a tree to pumpkin soup, a sunset and a killer whale. These are rather strained because of their cute self-consciously comic tone. Aitchison is a lot funnier and more poignant when she’s not trying to be:

I met a girl like a match
I didn’t realise she was a match
until I struck her and her head caught fire
(“from the house that built itself”)

There is a beautiful whimsical absurdity, and condensed emotion caught in these lines. It’s a shame that the poem then gets bogged down and ordinary with details about neurotic relationships, student flats and fucking (or rather, the lack of it).
But then there’s the splendid silliness of the title poem:

let go the birds!
let them all go

especially the ones
with pale blue wings
beaks red as balloons
blown to twice their normal size

crossing the sky

like a handful of raisins thrown
like a bag of fists exploding
at the centre of the cold universe

Not about a whole lot, but still very enjoyable. Although I think that there’s potential for further crafting here, the energy of Aitchison’s poems really works to their advantage.

A journal editor once told me that as a rule she didn’t publish poems with people’s names in them. She felt that this touch of personalness excluded the reader in some way, made it more difficult to engage. She was of course making the assumption that all poems are about their authors. She wasn’t acknowledging that poems can also be like small fictions, and as such contain character sketches. Names have the potential to exclude, but they can also add shape, colour and rhythm to poems:

She’s in the car
to Invercargill –
with Kev & Jase
& a couple of mates,
with stolen names
from building sites
(“southern lass”)

Kev and Jase are integral to this poem’s humour, its contemporary urban feel. This feeling is typical of Aitchison’s most successful poems. Some of them would work well as pop songs.

3
In The Long Sleep is Over, Jan Hutchison uses names in quite a different way. Hers are extremely personal poems, gentle musings which, apart from two poems about Nelson Mandela, are concerned with family and friends, pets, gardens, and baking.

As such, they are sprinkled with the names of those close to her. I don’t have a problem with this in itself, but I think these are poems that will particularly appeal to those who know Hutchison, those whom they are about. Occasionally, reading them, I felt like a trespasser.

Her poems, firmly anchored in an appreciation of nature, are filled with details of flora and fauna specific to New Zealand and at best have an idyllic exultant feel to them:

A small wind rafts through the manuka’s
white flowers as the day starts and you
in a spoon of sun, settle on the back doorstep

fan out your flax, and scrape at it with a sharp-
edged mussel shell.
(“Waiting for my kit”)

Or:

You clip manuka, Gavin’s favourite flower, dig up
convolvulus. I weed by your lemon tree, watch

a ladybird, spruce and blue jacketed, dawdle
on a leaf. My fingers browse through shepherd’s

purse …
(“Staying with my daughter”)

These names of plants have a certain poetic loveliness in themselves, but this is not always enough to sustain the poems, which sometimes suffer from being a little prosaic and ordinary. The very plain titles don’t help either.

Yet there are hints of more vivid, whimsical expression. In ”School Days”, Hutchison writes, “most / girls hid inside their tented selves”. In “In the next room” she describes a baby as “a tiny skiff / moored in your arms”. There are gaps where Hutchison does not directly tell us how she feels, and these are the most interesting parts – the poems start to gain momentum on their own through the image or the specificity of the detail:

I measure
distances inside jagged

seams of sea and blue
heron sky. Love
is a loose shirt

which gives me room
to track the skid
of gulls’ cries …
(“A lesson on the beech”)

 

Or:

He kept chalk in his
trouser pocket and would
sometimes take it out
and mark crosses
on odd lampposts with
surreptitious strokes.
(“Grandfather”)

The lines from “Grandfather” promise a great deal. There is a story here, and it is told with just the right kind of simplicity and pared-down-ness; however, the personal nature of the other lines in the poem make it more of a memoir than an independent “story”.

There is also a strand running through the book about language; Hutchison’s delight in learning Maori, and in her granddaughter who is apparently bilingual:

We two Pakeha stand at the
back and wait for Aniwaniwa
to begin her talk. A few boys
skitter Maori words around
the group until a silence falls
as when, for a moment, a wind

on a dark pool stops breathing.
(“Listening to Aniwaniwa”)

There is nothing spectacular or extraordinary here; the lines are just quietly lovely and rather affecting.

Reading these poems, I found myself wishing they were a little more abstract, a little less tidy. I do not believe poems should be opaque for the sake of it, and many people will find the accessibility of these appealing, but I was left feeling that there was a sense of mystery lacking. It is difficult to be really moved because there is nothing left to puzzle out or feel curious about. Hutchison has not left enough space for us, the reader.

4
As one would expect, flying is a motif running through Glenda Fawkes’s A talent for flight, generally as a metaphor for self-expression and creativity (which is not always appreciated by those with more mundane, earthbound concerns):

She has stepped out
into the sky
with confidence having
practised for years …

They said
poor thing and isn’t
it sad as they rested
the shopping

on convenient gates
and their eyes crawled
busily over the house.
(“Neighbourhood Watch”)

Images by Claire Beynon offer an effective complement to the poems: domestic objects such as a vessel or a stool placed in slightly abstract windy landscapes or a finely detailed drawing of shell-like and feathery shapes. These poems cover similar territory to Hutchison’s – family, friends, plants, animals – but they are more abstract, exploring a larger world and range of feelings. They also have an agenda – something that is largely absent from The Long Sleep is Over. I got the feeling that Fawkes is intent on getting messages across on a variety of issues: eco-consciousness, metaphysics and the soullessness of economic rationalism are all here:

Now we prostitute the lecturers.
Those who choose with conservative
smiles to turn the ivy-covered towers
into office blocks, built
comfortably close to the ground,
are those who never sought to fly.
(“Changing the Profile”)

Unfortunately many of these poems come across as preachy and didactic, which as a reader makes me react perversely. First of all I want to argue; then because the writer is not present, I want to close the book. I’m not belittling what Fawkes wants to say, but perhaps there is a subtler way to get her concerns across. Oh My God I’m Flying strikes me as a good title for Johanna Aitchison’s book because of its implied irony; A talent for flight would be much leavened with a modicum of this irony.

Although Glenda Fawkes’s poems are very different from Mary McPherson’s, I was struck by the similarity of these two descriptions:

The sky sails past                                 Imagine clouds
dragging pale clouds on                      loose in the sky
a long line. The willows                      gathered to earth
are kneeling now.                                with long strings.

(Fawkes)                                               (McPherson)

This similarity pinpoints a certain formula in the way nature imagery can be used. There’s a tendency amongst many contemporary poets (and I do not wholly excuse myself) towards a complacent prettiness: poems that appear to 
have been churned out like willow-pattern plates.

Paola Bilbrough’s first collection of poems, Bell Tongue, appeared last month from Victoria University Press.

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Posted in Literature, Poetry and Review
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