Smoke gets in their poems, Laurence Jenkins

Eat These Sweet Words. The New Zealand Anthology of Lesbian and Gay Poetry
eds Sue Fitchett, Marewa Glover, Cary McDermott, Rhona Vickoce
Publishing Giant Press, 
ISBN 0 9583582 4 9

When Two Men Embrace. The New Zealand Anthology of Gay and Lesbian Poetry
ed Jonathan Fisher
Publishing Giant Press, 
ISBN 0 9583582 5 7

The relative sizes of these two collections, sold together as 
 one anthology, suggest either that there is twice as much lesbian poetry from which to choose or, more likely, that four editorial heads are better than one.

First, the lesbian poems: three of the four editors express, in the Introduction, preferences for poems with axes to grind, ranging from “subversive” through “demystification of the process” to highlighting the issues of same-sex marriage and lesbian motherhood. Only Cary McDermott favoured poems that “elicit … an emotional response”, and this being my own chief criterion, I turned first to her own poem “Red”. It seemed a good jumping-off place, since red is a colour that evokes strong reaction. It proved to be just that and worth noting for the juxtaposition of the “real world” of red buses with the red of blood and fairy tales. But – and should this surprise us? – the polemicist cannot be held in check, and in “Ash Wednesday” McDermott says:

I wear the ash cross
on my forehead
for men burning women
through time

Lindsay Zelf’s “Ashes to Ashes (For Sharon and Cushla)”, uses the same image to whip the tobacco industry. I was startled to find “smoke gets in your eyes” as the last line of this poem. Using such a well-known popular song title made for an ineffective ending to an otherwise convincing diatribe. Her diction is faintly tinged with Hopkins’:

Playing sidelong court
to light-limned ladies
standing hipshot
in silk …

And what of Maori lesbians? As a voice on the inside, Marewa Glover’s perspective in “Standing in Line for Kai” stems from a snatch of overheard homophobia countered by her own strong logic:

The man behind me is questioning
“Some say it’s a Pakeha thing …”

“It’s an abberation brought here
like smoking.” A woman answers.
Like christianity, I think.

Editor Sue Fitchett’s “in a public place people are watching” paints the excitement at viewing a lesbian love scene in a public cinema as background for another scene:

               she is back in the park with her
lover they walk & hold hands a man in a navy raincoat  s
watching them

Of the other poets chosen, I found Tracey Scadden’s strong verse attractive in its intense personal syntax, and the one example of Heather McPherson’s, “from Waiheke Island”, beguiled me with its language rather than its sinuous layout:

If I plunge
into you
deep diver
with a dolphin
over my quiff
& hands cradling
your breast …


Coming to When Two Men Embrace produced in me a mild sense of let-down. This album contains, I’m sorry to have to say, mostly inchoate verses full of the narcissistic and the neurotic (will he be attracted to me? am I beautiful? muscles, cocks). This alone does not invalidate them, and I’m aware that these are the things that concern gay men a good deal of the time, but Fergus Collinson, partially deaf and geographically isolated, manages to avoid these obsessions. The four poems of his selected for this anthology all relate to AIDS, sidestepping those clichés.
For those who require titillating, Brent Coutts, in “Memory”, does a good line in first encounters:

When he came over I went pale inside.
When he pressed his face against my lips
I felt weak.
There was surrender.
The taste of hot flesh.

And the anthology’s title comes from another poem by Coutts, “Seduction”:

when two men embrace
do they become as one?

Ashes return in “Creatures of Ash” by the editor, Jonathan Fisher, the imagery this time the result of burning flesh, burning, that is, with desire – a conflagration that results in

our hearts incinerated in the
consummate furnaces of our ribs

There is a rather engaging monologue by Shane Thompson, naïve and self-absorbed, appropriately named “Me”. He seeks to entertain with non sequitur:

I used to make paper people
And play with them for hours
I don’t always wear underpants

David Herkt, whose brief biographical note contains the startling revelation, “He no longer feels he can write poetry”, sadly is represented here only by “The Rain in Spain”, a potent cri de coeur.
Graeme Webb’s “At Waikanae” raises the tone. Webb has a grasp of language and a sense of structure that is conspicuously lacking in the volume as a whole until its finale, where this poem is placed – perhaps strategically so that one won’t go away with a sense of total disappointment:

Walking with my senescence
the long wind-scarred beach
among the detritus drifting
and the wheeling gulls,
I spent some time recalling your milk-soft
untried mystery
casting for unknown catches
waiting to be tendrilled.

The editorial selection process here seems to have suffered from poetic poverty, a lack of material from which to choose. This is apparent in the small number of poets included. Jonathan Fisher might have encouraged some of New Zealand’s excellent gay prose writers to come out as poets. Poems by New Zealand gay men to complement the poems of heterosexuals are clearly missing, though this collection is a first attempt to close a gap. More, and better, please.

Laurence Jenkins is a musician and writer who lives in Kaeo.

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Posted in Gender, History, Non-fiction, Review
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