Only One Angel
University of Otago Press, $24.95,
Snowing Down South
Auckland University Press, $21.95,
After publishing a poem in a church magazine, and receiving messages from people all over the country who said how much the poem had moved them, a self-employed debt recovery agent in Dunedin has set up a business called Sincerity Poems and Heartfelt Verses. In the Otago Daily Times, the poet, who “would like to make a living from his verses”, said: “People know what they are feeling but sometimes can’t express it. It needs someone to bring that out.” The poet gained the ODT’s attention because he wrote a poem for the Cadbury chocolate factory, had it framed, and delivered it anonymously before being tracked down so that the company could reward him with a T-shirt and a book on Cadbury’s history. (I guess people know what they feel about chocolate, but sometimes need a poet to bring that out.) Was the newspaper item about poetry, chocolate, or selling a product? Was the relationship between the saccharine and doggerel only in this reader’s mind, or might the product of Sincerity Poems and Heartfelt Verses sometimes stretch to multiple interpretations and linguistic sophistication?
If I seem to digress right from the very beginning of my review, it’s because reading (and writing, and, Dear Chocolate Eulogiser, not making a million from) poetry always seems to raise the question of whether accessibility and general appeal is a virtue or a vice. Tastes differ, of course: sometimes even in the same reader. (Hard nutty, or berry-syrup centres, or both?)
I confess I haven’t read the Dunedin debt collector’s ode to his local confectioner, but his view of poetry demonstrates a popular understanding of what this genre should be or do. It should speak for us of the big topics: birth and death, loss and love. It should spring from an underground stream of emotion. (Unfortunately, a common perception is also that poetry is what accompanies a box of chocolates: on the shop-bought card stuck to the top of the Roses selection.)
Jan Kemp’s new collection is (I wildly surmise) vastly different from the kind of material a Willy Wonka of poetry would mass-produce, but it does have a lightness of touch, an accessibility of style, and a jauntiness of subject matter which means it is nearer to the general conception of what poetry is than, for example, the work of an author like Janet Charman.
Although Kemp writes from the perspective of a number of historical or literary figures, or invented characters based on these (Noah’s wife, Donna Quixote, Ms Quasimodo), and although there are humorous explorations of the nature of naming, and the tricky territory of a new language for the foreigner, her work is very often expressive, lyrical, written from a fount of feeling:
I think of you constantly
& constantly put you out of my mind –
a turned page, an empty bowl.
(from “Ms Quasimodo”)
Until I heard your voice
I had hidden the ocean
in my heart
Kemp can do a neat turn in the boppy music of nonsense verse (sometimes the pattern is deliberately dropped – as in “The Ballad of Donna Quixote”, as if the very power of the romantic dreams given voice to here has thrown the speaker off kilter), and characteristically her intentions are clear, floating on the surface of the poem like large lilies open on a pond. Her metaphors quietly and unfussily follow tradition; and throughout, love is a guiding principle, an absolute that is as tangible as a rock or a tree. While Kemp’s touch is understated, and conscious of literary tradition, she and Mr Heartfelt might actually find – to their surprise – that they had one or two things in common if they were to meet over a hot chocolate at a one-off poetry reading. Stanza 8 from the long sequence “Spanish Eyes” perhaps most neatly offers us the genetic sample of Kemp’s work:
What we see
changes / wakes us
up to the facts. Art is
a self-portrait. What
I say I’ve seen.
As Kemp has travelled widely, “what she has seen” has colour and variety: elephant rides, statues of the Madonna, roads in Austria, walkways in France, cathedrals, the preserved body of Menton Man, art works ranging from those of Dali to Emmly Kame Kngwarreye. Her eye for an additional kind of everyday or realistic beauty sits solidly alongside the line drawings of well-built, chunky angels by Claudia Pond Eyley, which intersperse this production from University of Otago Press.
Chalk and cheese, yin and yang, hot and cold, blood and chocolate, Kemp and Charman. When moving from Kemp to Charman we move from the love song, the poem of easy laughter, of praise or meditation, to work which turns that solid stone of love over and closely examines its squirming, blind, animal underlife. Charman’s work is gritty, intense, has a dark wit, a subtle cleverness, and, if I can be allowed such a paradox, a scintillating grimness. Although her work does burrow down deep into the veins of emotion, it’s more in the manner of a concerned, intelligent surgeon than of, say, a guest on an afternoon TV confessional (with its ad breaks for Caramello). She and Mr Heartfelt would take one look at each other and sprint to opposite tables at the poetry café.
Reading Charman’s work reminds me of Helen Vendler’s words on a very different woman poet, Elizabeth Bishop: “Of all the things that should not be inscrutable, one’s house comes first. The fact that one’s house always is inscrutable, that nothing is more enigmatic than the heart of the domestic scene, offers Bishop one of her recurrent subjects.” So, too, for Charman.
Snowing Down South is a kind of “back-cast” of the internal weather of a 1950s extended family, which is structured into sections named for the seven days of the week – suggesting the ordinary, the daily. Her subject is the blur of domesticity, the white noise of home – in which we can perhaps only discover the song (lament or eulogy) retrospectively, as adults. This might make it sound as if Kemp and Charman have a great deal in common: the feminine and the domestic, after all, are still so often seen as synonyms, and we might assume that a woman poet writing about the home and family was also writing in the expressive, lyrical tradition. And while there is, I presume, considerable autobiographical content in Charman’s work, she is also highly alive to the intellectual pleasures of stretching poetic form, of con-structing a crossword, puzzle-like relationship between
title and content, of moulding white space as another repository of meaning.
For Charman, the domestic is less a place of quietness and routine than the centre of formative experience: of primal fears, losses, illness, passions, secrets, stories, rages, injustices, and all forms of learning. She does write about the weekly repetitions: the backbreaking laundry, the complications of evening baths in an era when coppers had to be stoked and heated before tubs were filled – but even the so-called routine is the site of human struggle and toil, where our still latent savagery erupts into fights, jealousies, unmet desires.
All of this is suggested with a deliberately stuttering style, which evokes how our comprehension of events and people (particularly as children) is itself intermittent, a strobe light going on and off. Charman’s minimal use of punctuation, maximum use of the lower rather than upper case, her deft placement of line and stanzaic breaks to delay revelation, and the way she often wraps sense over a series of very short lines – all of which creates a feeling of fragmentation – is particularly apt for the child’s eye view. We get a sense of floundering, the child’s partial understanding of events which the adult has to go back over carefully in memory to get the full picture. Charman makes us, as readers, re-experience that effort in piecing together the world from a jumble of the familiar and the strange.
If I had the room, I’d have a field day (striding through wide, grassy valleys of hiatus, hopping the river stones of enjambments) subjecting as many of Charman’s poems as possible to the kind of close analysis exercise that can yield up so much reading pleasure: turning out meaning after meaning, literary reference after literary reference, link after satisfying link. I only really have space for one attempt, for which I’ve chosen the opening poem, “Starring in the Middle of the Night”, which is about a child’s first encounter with mortality through a bout of pertussis. It records the mother’s vigil, the older sister’s worry, and the primal terror for the little one. After “a whoop / a whoop that makes them all / sit up” comes
hoofing in my chest
on four legs
what goes on
to riddle me
The utterly basic language and tight, snipped, minimalist lines work adroitly. The assonance of “whoop” and “hoof” is stretched out as far as possible over the length of the poem – a structural tension which (I hope it’s not too whimsical to say) seems to mimic the strain and anxiety of the memory, and this vowel echo also underlines the child’s proximity to death. The shadow of the horsemen of the Apocalypse falls in that metonymic verb “hoofing”, which also conveys the weight, force, and crushing sharpness of the child’s chest pain.
This link is reinforced by the whole final stanza, with its reference to the ancient myth of the Sphinx and her riddle to Oedipus: what walks on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the evening? The answer, of course, is a human being, who goes from crawling to walking to using a cane: so questions of mortality and identity are what still plague the speaker of the poem. The inclusion of this particular myth perhaps also suggests a post-Freudian view of the psychological hothouse of the standard nuclear family: a matrix (and patrix?) of love, sex, secrets, repressions, unsettling revelations. Charman’s skill is to compress all these layers into a thoroughly simple language, whose tenor, particularly at the close, recalls the nursery rhyme burble that would have surrounded the world of the toddler’s cot, the mother, the bigger sister.
Far, far more Chinese box than chocolate box, Snowing Down South is a collection that allows for a refreshing breeze of influence from postmodern or experimental praxis, without making style the sole locus of meaning. Accessible doesn’t have to mean schmaltzy, or even straightforward. If I had to choose between the literary merchandise of Mr Sincerity or Ms Charman, I’d take a jumbo pack, bulk order, of the latter. Far better the bloody hearts of valves and chambers than foil-wrapped sachets of milk and cocoa, anytime.
Emma Neale’s new collection of poems, How to Make a Million, has just appeared from Godwit.