Rise of the Super-models, Bernadette Hall

AUP New Poets
Raewyn Alexander, Anna Jackson, Sarah Quigley
Auckland University Press, $19.95, ISBN 1 86940 197 2

Sleeve-notes
Emma Neale
Godwit, $19.95, ISBN 1 86962 048 8

bell tongue
Paola Bilbrough
Victoria University Press, $19.95, ISBN 0 86473 363 1

When I was at school, there was a prize, long since weeded from the educational hit list: the most popular girl in the school. This at a time when Joe Brown was running the Miss New Zealand Show in the Dunedin Town Hall, and The Chicks were top of the Hit Parade.

At the moment, poetry seems to be “the most popular girl in the school”. Victoria and Auckland University Presses are publishing an amazing number of new collections; Sport, Landfall, Takahe and other magazines keep up a steady output. The Listener and more recently the Press are publishing a poem a week, culture bytes that don’t cost too much. There’s National Poetry Day!

And here, catching the wave, are three beautiful new books showcasing the work of five multi-talented women. They have quite a lot in common. As far as I can ascertain, four live or have lived abroad or at least are widely travelled. Three have published novels. Three have done or are doing PhDs. Three are graduates of Bill Manhire’s Creative Writing Course. All are young(ish), assured, in no way apologetic about their gender, their country, or their right to speak. (Three cheers here, from Kate Sheppard.) In fact, if I were to potter outside my brief, and drop a few other names, like Kate Camp, Catherine Chidgey, Kapka Kassabova, Emily Perkins and Virginia Were, you might be forgiven for thinking it’s a takeover. The rise of the Super-models, this time from Mirror City.

Raewyn Alexander will no doubt chortle to be classed as a Super-model. She wrote the novels Fat and Concrete, claims she “dreams of exurbia and listens to the motorway”. She has 23 poems and 25 pages in the book she shares with Sarah Quigley and Anna Jackson. She’s the one with the most strikingly different voice, the one who could most have benefited from some tight editing.

Her poems are marked by fabulous one-liners and a refreshing political rage. They hurtle along breathlessly, peaking for audience applause. She’s a performance poet and I bet she’s brilliant! I enjoyed her exaggeration, her craziness. She’s right in there, in the meaty mess of living. But her refusal to take charge causes congestion in the written text. It’s like watching an urban thriller in which much of the dialogue has been scrambled. When she does get a grip, there are gorgeous lines like “tongue kissing at lunchtime / caught slipping each other life //our sparks filed away.” There’s a great love poem, “want this to be for always”, and a wonderful sarky whinge, “I’m sick of cricket”, which should make it onto TV this summer.

Sarah Quigley gets about the same exposure in the same book. She is well-known for her novel After Robert and has also published a collection of short stories, having words with you. Her poems are at the other extreme from Alexander’s, being small and wirey. Her selection opens with considerable ooomph:

Put on the night, it looks stunning on you.
But it’s time you saw through those
flashy bastards, the stars,
and kissed the humble earth instead.

Accept. You’re sometime-beautiful
but small. Your small words are
your protection,
and the chink in your armour.

Alexander’s lurching into the juvenilia of vomit and shit may be seen as reinforcing the same anti-Romantic stance. But Quigley’s statement twists back on itself. The words that defend also expose. They bring relief but also pain. Many of these poems chip away at experiences of betrayal, loss and depression. Pain, or rather the puritanical notion of salvation by pain, seems to lie at the heart of the satirical poem “Everything”. Even my favourite character, the Immigrant Butcher, whose hair “had the gloss / of a healthy pair / of kidneys”, is defeated and ends up stuffing herself with borsch “until / the discomfort of her / stomach overcame that / of her heart.”

The main problem I found in reading Quigley’s work is the presence of that irritating little fashion-plate the ubiquitous pronoun “you”. Sometimes anticipating consensus. Sometimes the writer herself, in disguise. Sometimes a major player in the game, the “other”, the betrayer. The obliqueness leached colour from the poems. That opening energy seems to have been better sustained in her prose writing.

Anna Jackson is the third poet in the AUP compilation. She has chosen her 7 poems extremely well. Ranging over 15 pages, they make a satisfying, coherent statement. Her longest poem is a fantasy, shrewd and zany, in which a patriarchal sun introduces Mayakovsky who clambers into the “jewellery box” of the poet’s skull, and is changed, (horror of horrors) into a feminist. The action moves between Dunedin and heaven and back again – “I am so bored after a century in Heaven” – with a lot of good humour, chummy name-dropping (or whatever you call it when the name you drop is less than cosmically famous – sorry, Dave Merritt), literary nods and winks. There’s even a book launch with a nicely boozy aftermath:

At last we wash out into the night like Rimbaud,
the stars frou-frouing above us
as the footpath ebbs and flows.

Now we are all flying in the gutter
(though some of us are looking at the cars)
and then suddenly everything falls into space.

The writing is erudite and colloquial, full of tricks. It expresses a feminism that is stylish, assured  and inclusive, using a mischievious humour instead of anger against literary and religious establishments, against the cult of the celebrity. In a couple of very different poems, Jackson evokes the experiences of giving birth and breast feeding with the same kind of funny tenderness and unambiguous physicality that runs through the work of Fiona Farrell and Janet Charman. So she’s in good company.

2

AUP have done good work in setting up this kind of half-way house for new writers. But there has to be a special pleasure in having your own place, being able to spread out, wander from room to room, sit up all night talking if you want to. Paola Bilbrough and Emma Neale enjoy this luxury with their first collections of poetry. They themselves have much in common. Both come from literary families; both graduated from Bill Manhire’s writing class in 1990; both have spent long periods of time overseas. They are close friends who acknowledge the support each has offered the other. Their books are both 80 pages long and both have dreamscape covers of varying shades of deep blue.  I wondered how their words, their worlds, would differ.

There is a classical quality in many of Neale’s poems. A conservatism that is reflected in the leisurely, serene rhythms she uses, the long, relaxed sentences that don’t depend for effect on dislocation or shock. There’s room left for something else to work away, without urgency, under the surface, as in “Spoken For”, a lovely reconstruction of family history:

For more than four years, during the war
she’d held a candle for him

which made me think of her
candle-lit, but motionless
as if her body were dangerous
and must be kept away from naked flame.

The music is like that of Elizabeth Smither, whom Neale in fact acknowledges; satisfaction comes from the emotional depth of the poem as it calmly gathers strength. The transaction, as with the exquisite “Letter From My Father” or the psychologically complex “Expecting the Worst”, is refreshingly “clean” and unself-conscious.

Not that she’s incapable of playing tricks. Even a good old postmodernist trick, in which the word itself gets tossed around with a kind of inane, childish glee and, surprise surprise, something pops out that bites. Like this from “O Pioneers!”:

They set out, set off, set sail,
they brought their wars
their laws and ordered
everyone about; ….
and when the people set up in protest,
they said – we’re done, it’s settled.

What I enjoyed most in Neale’s work, however, was the integrity, the tenderness, the easy access to the body, the wide perspective. There are many poems here which mark rites of passage: a girl leaping into forbidden water, a migrant crouched in the dark, both about to enter new lives. It’s all very human, with the special kind of soundness that delights again and again.

3

If Emma Neale’s poetry made me feel, Paola Bilbrough’s made me see, and with a huge intensity. bell tongue takes its name from a few lines by Emily Dickinson: “It was not Night, for all the bells / Put out their Tongues for Noon.”   All the poems in this collection are vivid and memorably coloured, no matter how dark their subject matter. There is a sense of high energy, of being on the move. There are clear demarcations in the text, marking changes in location: Mexico, Ireland, Australia, Japan, or back at home in the New Zealand of childhood memory. We may think we inhabit the land but what if it’s the land that inhabits us: “I woke thinking of land – / how countries lodge in the body / long after you have moved elsewhere”? Intriguing.

The large number of people met on these travels are caught as if on film. The camera pans around the familiar, the unfamiliar, the exotic, then darts in to linger on some exquisite detail. The action is all exterior, touching all the senses. Bilbrough writes in a way which has me touching, hearing, smelling the things she describes. The word is once again the magic tool of the shaman, exerting power over the physical world, re-creating it in a very real way:     

If I look through half-shut lids,
Midori’s planting orchids
in Japan, the green of her name
a whispered inspiration to the bulbs.

The lightness of touch here, the playfulness, are delightful. Language itself becomes a country that can be entered. So we meet Prinya, who wants to enter English:

Every day he takes down Webster’s learns
five new words at random: Marooned
a word swimming up from his stomach,

plum-coloured on his palate.
Marooned in English,
with Mrs Olson.   

There is a physical pleasure in making a word with your body. The word itself is made flesh. It is this kind of transubstantiation that I find so exciting in Bilbrough’s work. The tone of these poems is consistent and assured. By holding up the beautiful and bizarre as icons, by simplifying and highlighting action so it becomes ritual, Bilbrough increases the dramatic quality of her work. This is evident in the lovely lyrical poem “Grace” and in the powerful archaic dream “Bran”. If there was anything at all that I missed in her work it was some little uncertainty or doubt, niggling away beneath the vivid surface. The kind of tempering that I suspect death has added to the work of Neale.

Bernadette Hall’s fourth collection of poems, Still Talking, was published by Victoria University Press in 1997.

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