Axis: Poems & Drawings
Otago University Press, $34.95,
The Sky’s Enormous Jug
Puriri Press, $24.00,
Wai-te-ata Press, $24.95,
It was a rather odd experience writing this particular review because two of the texts are selected versions of previously published poems by well-known poets. And the third is piping hot from a new writer. I found that I was being taken back through many of my own experiences, in dealing with these works, jaunting down memory lane no less.
Here was Jan Kemp again, a shadowy figure in recent years, popping up unexpectedly and always with an aura of romance. I remember her, long-haired, laughing, on the cover of the newspaper that advertised the 1979 New Zealand Society of Authors poetry tour she made with Hone Tuwhare, Alistair Campbell and Sam Hunt. I still have a copy of the paper and the very smell of it brings back those times: Joan Baez, the Swingle Singers, boiled parsnips in a student flat. The only other living, young, female NZ poet I knew of then was Rachel McAlpine. She hadn’t made it into Arthur Baysting’s 1974 anthology. But Jan Kemp had, the only woman to do so. So I also remember a healthy little dose of activating envy: why shouldn’t I have a go? But it took another ten years before the yeast began to fizz.
Here was Cilla McQueen, whose words so often capture the chill and spirit-filled winds of the South that I love. I remember the first time I heard her read, with that high sense of drama, that smokey voice, more like a chanteuse in a night club than the Dunedin school teacher she was at the time. It all made the poetry game seem more and more of a possibility. As for her links with Hotere and Tuwhare, they suggested a world inside the world I lived in, a community of art and culture where people didn’t focus, mean-spiritedly, on jobs and money. Eeek, another little jab of envy! And the desire to be seduced out of ordinariness by the romance of writing.
Finally, there was Janet Hughes, putting out her first book of poems, probably far too early, even as I attempted to do about 1986, when I sent off a much worked over and deeply loved manuscript to John McIndoe’s – to Bill Sewell as it happens (he hates me telling this story but, for the moment, I’m in charge!). The delicate little collection was called “From Middle Ground”, a location I now understand to be guaranteed to produce only brain-numbing boredom. Bill’s reply was gentlemanly but firm: the collection had one or two strong pieces but overall was too slight to warrant publication.
Slight! I felt a hot rush of rage, tore the offending letter to bits (a technique I still find childishly invaluable) and went off to do something useful like turning the compost heap. Many months later I found myself almost in agreement with his judgement, and now, years later, am entirely grateful that he put the kibosh on the whole thing, and set me on the more laborious but productive course of flexing my muscles in lit. mags etc before trying to dive off the high board.
Where does it come from, this need to drag into the light a poem that starts off so hopefully in the composty dark? This drive to push out an entire collection? To reorganise work that has already toddled off on its own, that has been judged and analysed to its last unattached participle, and now must go through the whole process again in a “selected” or “collected” format? (Why was I so naive? Why did I go back for more?)
In the poem “For Georgia”, Janet Hughes recounts a moment of illumination when her little daughter opens the back door of the family hatchback and reports, “Mummy, I tried / to close it, but it sailed / up away out of reach.” The child’s language is vivid and strikes the mother who in turn shapes words to hold the moment and the word-gift the little girl has offered her: “Now every time I see that white / curving panel belly into the sky / on telescopic metal spars, I think / of empty-handed Georgia, / and the way she found me / a poem lurking / in a hatchback.” The problem is that what I would call a poem is closer to the remark of the child than to the extrapolation by the mother. Hughes shuts down the surprise and comes up with the predictable.
Unfortunately, this happens in many of the poems in Stairdancing. There are exceptions such as “Philosopher’s Walk”, delightful in its relaxed style and touch of humour: “You had to laugh – we did – / at the notion of a path expressly / for philosphers.” I thought this was the pick of the bunch, and so did the New Zealand Listener, which published it. There are hints of a witty, possible voice in “The Week In Brief”, which is quarrelsome and energetic. And in “Butterfly”, edgy and dramatic, but squeezed into a hunched shape and completely overshadowed by the image on the page.
Large collages and a twitchy layout for many poems give a studenty feel to the book and are in fact distractions. They diminish the texts rather than opening up a conversation with them. And that’s a shame because there are lines in the book that suggest the possibility of some good talk in the future. Like these, set into a rather turgid piece about a sunset: “see Georgia / flying up the dusky path / her hair on fire.” That’s more like it!
In turning to Jan Kemp’s collection of love poems old and new, The Sky’s Enormous Jug, with its lovely image of the Milky Way in the title, I thought it would be helpful to get some inside information; so I turned to Patrick Evans and his 1990 Penguin History of New Zealand Literature. So much has happened in the last decade that the book is in dire need of a revamp to bring its contemporary section up to scratch. But I did find some interesting bits and pieces. For example, Jan Kemp and Jocelyn Hopkinson were the only women to have work accepted in the male-dominated magazine Freed (1969-1972). Freed itself was strongly influenced by Roger Horrocks, who taught a course on American literature in Auckland at the time. And it is Roger Horrocks who has provided a very positive and useful introduction to Kemp’s book. He speaks of Kemp and a few others rewriting the “emotional boundaries of our poetry”, and I’m thinking what a benefit this has been to the latest generation of writers, young women remarkable in their professionalism, daunting in their confidence and uninhibited in their aspirations.
The Sky’s Enormous Jug is an attractive production, a limited edition of 200 copies, 60 love poems and six collage illustrations by Claudia Pond Eyley, herself an impressive artist with a strong feminist background. This time the
prints are elegant and apt, making a lovely alliance with particular texts.
I found nothing in the collection as brilliant as “Paperboygirl”, which was included in the 1997 Oxford Anthology, along with “Poem” which reappeared in the same modest guise in Lauris Edmond’s New Zealand Love Poems (2000) but has been zapped up this time with a bit of local colour as “Puriri”. There are poems of a splendid physicality like “Redhead” and “I am your fig”, though the ending to the latter is a bit of a let-down. Poems dealing with Asia have the ring of authenticity and compassion. But my favourites were the last two, which have shoved past modernism into a more quirky, playful tone. If this is Kemp’s new style, that’s what I’m hanging out for.
There is no new work in Cilla McQueen’s Axis. Which means that I was always comparing it with the delightful Crik’ey, a selection of old and new work that came out in 1994. But this book doesn’t look like McQueen. I’ve never thought of her as a daisy sort of person; the title poem has no reference to daisies; and the whole effect of the daisy cover is a cuteness that just doesn’t fit.
The book is big, strongly made and heavy like a textbook, and I did wonder whether schools might be its target. I know from experience that McQueen’s poems go down a treat with high school students, and the zany drawings of cats, wicked women and “musical hums” etc would only add to their attractiveness. But for me there was frustration at the things that were missing: no extracts from Berlin Diary (last year’s new collection Markings, as expected, is still leading its own independent little life); no indication of the sources of the poems; no titles of the five contributing books; no dates; nothing to help track shifts in style or obsession. The poems are wonderful, old friends worth meeting again and again. But I’m not so sure about their location.
Bernadette Hall is a Christchurch poet whose new collection is Settler Dreaming (with drawings by Kathryn Madill).