Victoria University Press, $24.95,
Auckland University Press, $19.95,
The death of Alan Curnow last year seemed to call for some kind of reassessment of our national poetry, and some kind of realignment. A reassessment of just how far the preoccupations of New Zealand writers have changed; a realignment of that trickiest of divisions, the “generation” label. Curnow was, and had been for a while, the last surviving member of a group who had tackled the issue of colonial displacement head-on, and had won the battle. He and his peers had gritted their teeth, discarded their empire straitjackets, sharpened their metaphorical vision, and proceeded to hack their way through seemingly impenetrable native bush to leave a clearing for the rest of us.
Interesting, then, that in the wake of his death have come two collections of poetry, from Bernadette Hall and Diana Bridge, which deal primarily with Curnow’s early themes. Exile, settlement, and the reconciliation of past and present – in other words, the legacy of colonialism – but in the work of Hall and Bridge it is evident that artistically we have entered a new era. An era where at last we can look around us, draw a deep breath, and say, We’ve arrived. One in which we can travel without guilt, return home without unease, and assess the disparity of the experiences without urgency or anger.
Hall’s book, Settler Dreaming, demands to be picked up, held in your hands, and appreciated as art before you even open it. Slim, matt-black, accompanied by Kathryn Madill’s delicate drawings, it looks exactly like something a settler would pack along with other treasured possessions and take as a talisman to a new home. But once inside the covers, you instantly realise Hall’s constant ability to fuse nostalgia with nous, and melancholy with wit. Having set up expectations of 19th-century departures, she immediately strikes off in a different direction. The opening poem “The Leaving” (and the very fact that she has chosen this as a starting point is indicative of her wry humour) opens with a colloquial, contemporary tone:
so, it’s time to change your point
of view you’ll sell up
start again sick of all the old
This leave-taker is not heading from the Old Country to the new world, but is instead attempting to escape a dull New Zealand suburban existence (implied: a dull suburban self). Of course, the desirable destination, as is so often the case with hopeful emigrations, is likely to be little different: “you’re off / to make a go of it in Brisbane”.
The tone of this poem – sympathetic, yet sharp – is typical of Hall’s stance throughout the collection. Time and again she achieves the near-impossible, adopting a narrative position which is tender yet objective, gentle yet satirical. Take, for instance, a small part of the sequence “The Beautiful Plains”:
“I cannot say these things”,
he says, “I cannot explain them
to you face to face. I have written
them down on paper, handmade
from bits of straw and rose flakes.
Now I am worried that I might
have made some spelling mistakes.”
Many of Hall’s characters are similarly rendered inarticulate, whether it be through uncertainty caused by cultural differences, or a lack of education, or fear, or foreignness. All New Zealand travellers will identify with the strangeness of not being understood in a country where the language spoken is – supposedly – their own. “I can only understand you when you speak with an American / accent”, says one character in “Go Easy Sweetheart”; and in “The Beautiful Plains: viii” you find the perfect three-liner:
We just love your y-a-i-s
they say. Yes, I say.
Oh my god, just listen to her!
Two sections later, the American voice is back, this time more directly addressing Hall herself: “Baanaadaat, Baanaadaat!” it bawls. “Find me a New Zealaand maan!”
Earlier in the same sequence is a poem composed of conversational snippets heard in buses or airports or cafés the world over (all places which are like second homes to Antipodean globetrotters):
“she is taking me to India”
“he is just so not a writer you know”…
“and she didn’t have time for me she didn’t have time
fuck that I tell you”
There is a desperation beneath the humour which, Hall implies, is part of the new restlessness of our age. This is the voice of a generation who ostensibly choose to travel but in truth have as little choice as their predecessors: the same problem turned on its head, for now we are no longer looking for a home but looking to escape one. Our isolation as New Zealanders is our blessing and our curse.
The theme of language as a tool, which enables the carving-out of a new life or identity, is strong in Hall’s poetry and she moves us beyond the New World to countries with a much longer history. In one of the most beautiful of the short poems, “Cairn”, we see the yoking together of physical and mental labour, the dual effort establishing a new life: “Haft, shaft, bucket, / imperium, lode. His hand / on the language, hers on the hoe.”
The gravity and beauty of such lines run like parallel currents through all five sections of the book (including the disturbing prose poem “Erlich”). We drift from present day to past, from Ireland to Iowa and back, often within a single poem, which contributes to the dreamlike quality that pervades the entire book. In the last section, “Merino Princess”, we are returned to a more contemporary and localised setting, and here once again we see Hall’s gift for standing back and making assessments without any trace of didacticism. “Shelter Belt” – stunningly, deceptively simple – sums up the post-Curnow generation and its pseudo-sophistication, a physical environment that has changed beyond recognition within the last 50 years, and a lingering awareness of the difficulty of defining our own peculiar national consciousness:
Native or exotic?
Hey, you calling me exotic?
Crossed the Rakaia,
heading down to Ash-vegas,
drifting past Nifty Gifts, Home World,
Waterloo Wreckers, the Top Hat Cafe,
the usual spring stock-losses.
I stayed a day and a night in Austria.
I wasn’t impressed.
Ah, the hauteur of the may tree,
hokey pokey, sweet serein,
a cockatoo hanging upside down
over the front entrance to The Warehouse.
In Bridge’s Porcelain, we find the same unerring rhythms of speech and the same slow turning of lines. Bridge is less well-known in New Zealand than Hall: this is her third collection to Hall’s fifth, and she has been living out of the country for many years. This new collection reflects where she has lived and worked: Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing, Delhi, and Taipei. Her interest in Asian art means that her poems are often centred around ancient customs such as scroll painting, so that they themselves become word-pictures.
Bridge’s poems are more obviously drawn from real-life than Hall’s, and some are simply like snapshots in an album which we are then invited to view. “Rooftop, New Delhi” focuses on small visual details: the scarred edge of a tiled roof, clothes hanging on a washing line, the red splash of bougainvillea. Nothing particularly remarkable about such a view, perhaps, and there is little thematic development: but the strength of Bridge’s writing here lies in its beauty and the comparisons she draws between physical and spiritual worlds:
In a rusty tub
a dark-leafed lingam is rising from a base
of worshippers; their cactus arms up-
stretched, ecstatic, break from the flowery
world that rims the scored enamel.
On the upper band of a temple I saw forms
sensual and devout as these; each one’s
face turned inwards on its heaven.
Most of the poems in Porcelain, however, reveal a preoccupation similar to Hall’s: the importance of language – or, in a wider sense, art – in interpreting a world where the only constant is change. In her opening poem “The Route”, Bridge sets down an edict relevant to Hall’s “Ash-vegas” generation: that to gain an understanding of a place you must exercise patience, stillness, and routine. In other words, you must “walk the same route every day”:
If you want more than to brush your face
against nature, eyes clinging briefly to
swatches of sky …
if you want more
than the quick epiphany of a hill line
breaking free of houses …
to read the sharp calligraphy
of birds carved on the air, to ambush
nature into telling, you need to stay
in one place for more than a year.
The images Bridge uses here, of natural detail and art, are ones she returns to again and again to make sense of colourful, often chaotic surroundings, and to build up a wall of memory that will endure after that colour has faded. The poem “The true tourist” begins “There – is that statue, the one you came / to see, fingers poised to touch”. There is an acute awareness here that, however significant the moment of apprehension might seem, it will be swept away by time and lost: “You have it for a second / before the light shifts”.
There is a dual attitude expressed in much of Bridge’s Porcelain poetry that comes close to ambivalence. For, whether in a museum or a temple, or in a mountainous landscape, she carries with her the consciousness of the outsider: one who recognises the importance of what she sees but is unable to fully understand it or enter further into it, regardless of how much time may pass. In this, the poet’s sense of alienation is similar to that of the colonial, but in her case it is immutable: the culture can be learnt and made familiar, but it will remain forever alien.
“Interrogating a scroll” perfectly depicts this dilemma, as the writer hunches over “versions of history” and tries to interpret them but is denied entry:
I recognise the search and can’t
give up a word of it. Silenced
as a scholar among mountains,
I sit and watch the way an ink line
traverses the stubborn slub of silk
to become a fall of water.
Behind the dim silhouette
of trees, more trees.
This is one of the best poems in Bridge’s collection for, in its formal simplicity and its images, it shows the extent to which it is possible for a writer to absorb her environment even while lamenting the way she remains on its surface. And this is the dilemma of any artist: observing, assessing, reinterpreting, recreating, while remaining of necessity an outsider.
Sarah Quigley’s new novel, Shot, is due out from Virago next January.