Boys’ night out
Auckland University Press, $19.95,
ISBN 1 86940 189 1
Kitchens”, the first poem in Anne French’s fifth ollection Boys’ night out, is set in her sister’s kitchen: “Pam wants/ to know how I’m feeling.” The poems that follow attempt to answer that question. Her immediate response – “Like/ an amputee in a minefield/ too scared to move in any direction” – implies a battle-scared and shell-shocked poet; but her sister’s presence and her “unexpected kindness” also suggest a new breadth and a more extended emotional range than we’ve come to expect from French’s earlier work, with its clever, bitter, revengeful fury.
Unless I’m a very naive reader, this is not a set-up: I don’t think for a minute that Anne French has actually created a poetic persona, a suffering woman much put upon by scoundrelly men, through whom the author comments indirectly on the war between the sexes. This is autobiographical stuff, and what makes French’s experience of betrayal and infidelity different from thousands of other women crying into their kitchen sinks is that she makes poetry out of it. Like an alchemist, she uses metaphor in an attempt to make gold out of the dross of her personal life.
The third poem, “At the end of a marriage”, uses the analogy of climbing a mountain: “Above you, shale and spikes,/ below you, air, and a bird circling”. “Parallel universes”, like an old Star Trek episode, posits all sorts of futures, including one in which “you/ love me quite as tenderly as I love/ you”. The first section of Boys’ night out, “talking in bars”, ends with “Life with Teflon”, addressed to the unnamed infidel whom she imagines in a speeding dinghy, his “laminar wife” left behind in the bubbly wake along with his “turbulent mistress”.
Some women buy shoes. Others eat. “Thursday is three indulgences” shows how French copes: she has a cleaning woman – “Everywhere clean surfaces/ reflect the empty rooms” – she visits the osteopath: “It hurts. It won’t stay like that. Twisted/ is still more comfortable.” And lastly, “I talk to my analyst long distance.” Echoes of Sexton and Plath, but while French’s poetry lacks their range, daring and formal complexity, it doesn’t shroud a shrieking, off-the-wall desperation either. There’s something feisty and capable under all this, which suggests that the suffering implied by the extravagant metaphor of the opening poem is actually a temporary anomaly. Take for example the title poem of this section, “Talking in bars”, which presents the poet and her companion in an unexpected light, given what’s come before:
It’s perfect as it is: two
beaded glasses on the bar,
our faces eager with stories,
the lovely pause before
the next headlong rush,
& still such pleasure in it.
The second part of the book, “deaths and journeys”, moves away from the fraught interpersonal relationships in the first section. Death in its manifold forms is the subject of the first poems here, or rather, how the living try to make sense of death. French refrains from criticising the grieving mother in “About my friend Monica” who embraces the spiritualist church. Hokum it might be, but
is the alternative? That she should turn aside from
her daughter, lying dead in her bedroom
in the quiet afternoon, just to get on with things?
Equally poignant are two poems about abortion. As in the previous poem, the language and syntax are simple and direct as French lets the trauma of the moment speak for itself:
Until I die there will never be
a time with you in it, little lost one.
You will always be dead now
And I must endure it.
Coupled with these poems is a sequence about a literal journey, from Prague to London. It’s clearly a salutary experience for a writer to be thrown into the deep end of a culture where she don’t speak the language. French makes poetry out of the few words of Czech that she does know, weaving them into poems about Czech history and literature, and is saddened to find the shop windows and street markets of Prague are full of westernised kitsch and the only authenticity is in the faces of the innocent gawping locals. The journey is haunted too by the atrocities of the Second World War. Pursued by her name (“it’s been an embarrassment . . . from primary school days”), she can translate it into various languages until, at the end of “Please identify yourself”, she finds herself “in the charming city of Munich . . . [where] I discover/ that my name could easily be Anne Frank.”
In London at last, she contemplates Turner’s Italian paintings in the Tate, astounded at how readily they evoke New Zealand: “Lovingly, intimately, he paints the glorious/ light of an Auckland evening.” It’s a lovely, unexpected paean to home and homesickness and leads neatly into the next sequence.
The third section of Boys’ night out, “being bicultural”, comes as a bit of a relief after so much Sturm und Drang, in spite of its daunting title. French is currently working at The Museum of New Zealand/ Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, where she is a concept developer and publisher. “The new museology” is an ironic look at what many have seen as the dumbing down of what’s on offer at Te Papa. I particularly like “The Britten bike”, with its whiff of sexual politics that harks back to the first section:
you wouldn’t normally get in here
have sat on the floor in front of it
for ages, just looking
and they don’t do that for paintings
This collection ends with the poem French chose to read at Landfall’s 50th birthday bash at Wellington’s City Gallery last year. “When I die I want to be Canadian” is a little gem, full of Canadian icons: waffles and maple syrup, snow angels and figure skating, and a real affection for the Canadian accent – “I want/ to be able to pronounce correctly/ the t/at the end of second and the u in Montreal.” (Is there a Canadian poet out there who could do the same for us?) It was a real crowd-pleaser and is a great, upbeat way to end a book that traverses a huge range of human emotions.
Anne French has been a presence in New Zealand poetry for over 12 years. Her first book, All Cretans are Liars (1987), won the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry in 1988 and was followed by The Male as Evader (1988), both books falling into a genre later dubbed by Mary Paul in Landfall as “female-revenge-writing”. These “stylish weapons in the battle of the sexes” with their “sharp ironical perspective” now read as rather sad documents about a series of hopelessly unrequited loves and awkward ménages-à-trois in which, to her credit, French admits her own ignoble part.
The second book is even more vitriolic, its very title suggesting something clinical and anatomised. At this distance, I find all that going-on about how unscrupulous and self-serving “the male” is a bit tiresome – you can only be angry for so long. Well aware of this herself, French wrote in the cover notes of her next book, Cabin Fever (1990): “When I finished the poems in the Male as Evader sequence I began to crave fresh air”. Very different from those in the earlier books, French describes these poems as “journal entries from my first voyage”. A literal voyage, this one, in which she learns to sail and the sea breeze blows a new lexicon through her verse: “The tack, the clew, the luff, the leach./ Everything has a name.” There is a looking outwards and looking harder in these poems. And while there are still poems to a lost lover, they’re softer and more resigned, as though a dose of fresh air has done her the world of good: “Supposing there’s no one who’ll recall/ my love for you when we are dead: then/ let these words stand as its memorial.”
Seven Days on Mykonos (1993) has an even broader scope. Poems set in Hong Kong, America, Greece and Europe rub shoulders with love poems and more barbed insights into that latest mutation, “The New Age Evader” who
is naturally sympathetic to feminism –
a self-declared fellow traveller
– and apologetic about being male.
Returning to Boys’ night out: no matter how many times I reread the opening poem, I cannot see in it what Jane Stafford in New Zealand Books has called “French’s familiar tone . . . ironic, aloof, slightly mocking (but often self-mocking)”. Rather it simply shows two women finding solace in shared unhappiness. Perhaps this directness, “feeling the truth of it well/ up in me as I say it”, is in fact the key to a new direction for French. Shared sympathy and the telling of stories (as in the poem “Talking in bars”) indicate an absence of blame. There is nothing shrill or bitter here. The ending of the second poem in this latest collection, “Ansett’s Invercargill”, sums it up admirably:
All the way home I think cool thoughts
which summarise things between us
admirably clearly, as my analyst would say,
without rancour, and with only the faintest
tinge of regret.
This is a very long way from the voice in The Male as Evader that claims triumphantly, “Writing well is always the best revenge.” There are poems in this collection that hark back to that earlier tone, but certainly fewer than in the past. It’s undoubtedly a hard-won emotional freedom but it sits much more comfortably in the late 90s when held up to the knowing, cool detachment of writers like Emily Perkins, Catherine Chidgey or Jenny Bornholdt.
Of all French’s poems, the ones I like the most are what might be called the “incidental” poems – for example, a wonderful poem about jogging in the first book called “It’s”:
running for the first
time in new shoes springy the earth rolling
under your feet tuis chonking in the trees
the burr of cicadas loud as cheering . . .
Others in Boys’ night out are the ones about the Britten bike or the way Turner’s paintings unwittingly capture the New Zealand landscape. Perhaps it’s that the emotional baggage accruing to much of the other poetry, the “female-revenge-writing”, and the “limping survivors asking after each other in kitchens”, is too raw. Or maybe it’s a lack of what we’ve become used to lately: obliqueness, distance, having to read between the lines to bring meaning to texts. For me, too much of French’s work in the past has been – not exactly didactic, but it just doesn’t leave any room for individual readings. OK, so all men are bastards, but are women any better? Give me tuis chonking and cicadas cheering any day. That makes me see and hear anew.
While I can sympathise with the unhappiness and betrayal described in much of her work, it is not the poetry itself that does this but my reading of the woman behind it. The less immediately personal poems, the museum poems, the poems about human foibles that are not confined to infidelity, the poems that look outwards – these are the ones that make things new for me.
Elizabeth Crayford is a teacher at Taita College in the Hutt Valley and Vice-President of the New Zealand Poetry Society.