An Explanation of Poetry to my Father
Steele Roberts, $14.95,
Auckland University Press, $22.95,
Last year my husband’s Uncle Alec, a retired Edinburgh bricklayer, was given a book of contemporary poetry and directed to a couple of accessible verses about concrete and a man patiently building a wall. He placed his cigarette in its ashtray, read the poems, and observed the mandatory Scottish silence. Then he tapped off his ash and said bluntly: “I cannae make heid nor tail o them.”
When Colquhoun’s second collection – a handy pocket-sized explanation of poetry to his builder father – with its hammer and talk of tools arrived, I thought, Ah! Here’s a book Uncle Alec (sadly no longer with us) might have found useful. He might have recognised the son in “An apology” who “did not save for a rainy day” and was not “able to / fix the inside of dark engines” or “win the game / in its final minute”, and the examples given in “The word as wrapping”:
All pipes: such as drainpipes, downpipes, sewer
pipes, exhaust pipes, spouting, U-bends, gutters,
stormwater drains, inner tubes, brandy snaps
He might also have responded to “The Page Three Girl”. For, while there was room for confusion given its opening stanza –
In the beginning was the word. And the
word was with God. And the word was
God. Then the word became flesh and
dwelt among us.
– the mention of “German housewife” and “mechanic”, “gib-stopper” and “nun” and “solo mother with / three kids” and “Dave the cabinet-maker”, would have meant something, especially as his brother-in-law Angus worked with wood. It certainly spoke to me. Particularly when
At last the word appeared as naked as a
poem. Mum found her hiding underneath
my mattress. I said heavens. She said hell.
You said Jesus, Mary and Joseph. And all
Jess the plumber ever said was God!
In fact by now the mixture of “hands-on language and humour” was speaking rather well. There were, for instance, the opening lines of “Tyger Tyger” as a concept for “the word as a / member of the local community”, in which
Eye is their policeman watching through
his window, round as the moon in the middle of
rearranging pencils against the top of his desk
making sure everyone around him
is serving their sentence.
I’m fairly certain that, in the absence of rhyme and beat, Uncle Alec would have passed on these bits. But I was on board. Because, although some of the explanations were a little too like the poem in “In other words” –
As simple as lying awake
in the middle of the night
listening to the sound
of people snoring
– others were like the bird in “The last word”, “Without strings // Without wire // Without obvious attachment.” Like the “halfbacks” in “The meaning of words”, they were passing “Ideas as quick as bullets”, and, like Colquhoun’s bright and sometimes surprisingly sensitive poetry, they were also a “game”, like “footy / And we all know how serious that is.”
Hats too is a second collection. I was immediately intrigued by its cover: its acceptance of contradiction and uncertainty and the possible connections with its poetry. There is red up front but, at the back behind a window, Powell-Chalmers peers, partly hidden between shadow and curtain. Did this apparent contradiction imply a direct territory and an uncertain point of view? Or, unsettled territory and a direct point of view, in which case did an uncompromising red and an uncertain photo deliberately oppose those notions? And what about the passivity and flamboyance of the clay-like face and jester-like hat?
In fact this is an edgy collection, its focus the vivid confrontation of childhood, motherhood and what it means to be female. It opens with urgency in “How to Keep a View When You Know You’ll be Gone in a Few Days”:
I grab handfuls of it,
greedy in my need
to retain it,
and I smear it
on my legs, rub it in,
this exclusive skin cream
on the sunniest of days.
It closes dramatically and explicitly in “Chant of Endings”:
I scalpel my chest
and tear out my heart.
I tie its main
artery and vein
around your door. My heart
heaves, pumps, beats
in time. In no time.
The poems between are mostly short narratives of domestic unease, as “Lake Bed” explains:
The sheet on my side
trails in the water.
You make sure the duvet
stays firmly put, but every
night I shiver
and we argue over who
has the covers.
Poems peopled by parents, like “Mummy” who rushes to escape “the night world”:
I will slice my way
through the daze,
hack at the layers
of cloth and cut to my blood,
seeping then rushing
but is stopped “by the pyjamaed boy / who wants his mother”, wonders “How can I stain my son / with red nightmares?”, and remains “in the half life, / tugging at the loose ends / of tainted linen”. And then there’s the child in “Listen with Mother”, who is emotionally connected to a radio parent because “The dusting mother / will tell me off / when I go out of the kitchen.” Death is weighted in “Dancing”, vulnerability in “Faces” (the faces shed “snake-style” and threaten to spurt “black acid”), and a “serious struggle to conform” is revealed in “Printing”. From time to time, there is sadness as in the moving exploration of mourning, “Talking About Tomahawk”, and poignancy, as in “Dyslexic Child Makes Errors in Night Sky”:
He hugs the moon
and cries down its skinny
cheeks. ‘It’s all right’,
the moon tells him. ‘Everything
is written in the stars.’
In both these two poems, Powell-Chalmers is at her most effective.
With serenity so far out of reach, it is no surprise to find expressions of release in “Homage to the Piano on a Hot Afternoon”. It is no surprise either to learn that, when the hats are off and “The Dreamings” of Part Two offer
different worlds and exotic places, uncertainty persists and ease remains elusive.
Chrome is a long even poem moving between photographs and smooth pages through colour: the yellow of the poet’s daily domestic self, doubt and searching; the red and green connections of her parents; the blue of the self of her art – or the art of herself, or indeed her true self. At the same time, the poem is exploring notions of home, the first of which is
warm yellow the whole year round
routines arrange this place
the worn carpet the pungent
connections between art and artifact
Here, in the primary pigment of chrome, she finds herself at “the heart” of things:
a bleached book holds her daily life
Monday washes Tuesday a little cabinet
yellow with thought yellow with complication
keeps her devotion shining obsessive
a cup for the indoor wisdom
set in the language of housekeeping
Here “she is cooking a supper for herself”:
observing her back her face her written life
in the eloquent grain of a kitchen table
And here she “will infuse ordinary messages / with a leaf of shadow or decoration or distance”; speak of another self: “she is everything to me describing the loss”:
the distant part that nourishes heart
the writing following even further to the edge
as if housekeeping and storytelling dominate
as if she flees from home until dusk
Yellow passes to red. The second home is that of her mother, a home at the least refracted end of the spectrum: a place of “beetroot flame”, placenta, “roseate on milk, on red-ochre clay” and “rubies and apples / where the uncanny likeness is sweet”. She finds her mother,
repeating herself in me
she will bottle peaches and tomatoes
the bottle daughter
the strawberry daughter
on the edge of home
Red slips into green: “the green grass / burnt in the Northland heat”, the “leafy dreams” of her father. Green as a home between yellow and blue where “on every side the preacher / utters sap-green truths”, and she is “the leaf-green daughter / the silverbeet daughter”. Her father, who is “washing us a prodigal meal / in his prodigal house”, is also a man who is
sick to death
of clay churches
he digs a clay basement
a tepid hollow
to fill with cut grass
or granny smith apples
the jazz of Acker Bilk
the strings of Paganini …
Finally, there is blue: the “blue ripeness” of the poem, a place “where the sway of home / meets the sway of the poem // the weightless word restless in the clear air / the weighted word forming a salty land”. Here
the blood of poetry is an occasion
of water fear lightness midnight
moving me to live
the poem’s own mystery
massing and falling in contagious life
overlapping invitations and
lapping at the promise of air …
This rewarding second collection acknowledges the ambiguity of ordered couplets, apparently nonchalant line-breaks, an absence of punctuation and evenly structured stanzas. And the music of subtle language. As meaning drifts, as associations, relationships and colours converge, “syllable by syllable” Green sets her house in order.
Stephanie de Montalk’s first collection of poems, Animals Indoors, was reviewed in our December 2000 issue. It won the 2001 Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry.