Talking Pictures: Selected Poems
The cover of Riemke Ensing’s latest collection sends mixed typographic signals. You read Selected Poems first, at the top; but it’s in italic, and grey, so it defers to the larger roman type that follows beneath – Talking Pictures – which is plainly meant to be the main title, though it occupies the second place more usually assigned to the subtitle. The mixed message reflects neatly the interpretation of the “Selected Poems” genre implicit in the way this volume is organised and presented.
“It’s about time too” was my reaction to the publication of Talking Pictures. Riemke Ensing’s versatile and distinctive voice has proved durable as distinct from merely persistent. It is satisfying to have well-chosen poems from the various stages of her career assembled inside one cover, to be able to enjoy the mutually illuminating sparks that jump between them, to revisit their various pleasures readily. This part of the Selected Poems brief is amply fulfilled by Talking Pictures, which is a representative and generous selection.
Talk of careers, however, invites us to view a poet through a literary-historical/biographical frame; and readers this way inclined would do well to note the ambiguous placing of the greyed-out Selected Poems on the cover. A Selected Poems is inescapably a marker in a poet’s career, but this one resists being employed to construct that career retrospectively. Previously published poems are grouped and labelled according to the collections in which they appeared; but the groups are not dated, or ordered chronologically. If you were to rashly assume that they were in order of publication, you’d be very mistaken – the 1999 “Tarawera – Te Maunga Tapu” sequence is sandwiched between the early (1982) “Conversations for Miro”, and poems from the 1984 volume Topographies.
On the whole this seems to me no bad thing – I’m content to take my cue from the title and let the pictures do the talking. Retrospection, while it’s of the essence of a Collected Poems, is more optional in a Selected. Those more historically attuned will find that Lawrence Jones’s introduction includes a thoughtful exploration of the chronology, and does a thorough job of placing the work in perspective. (A pity about the typesetting of this section, though – quoted material, undistinguished by type-size or space, is set hard up against the body text, spoiling the appearance of the pages.)
Historical curiosity is one thing, biographical inquiry entirely another. If readers will insist on constructing a suppositious biography out of a volume of poems, I’m all for thwarting them at every turn. To treat poems as traces for forensic interpretation strikes me as just to neither the work nor the writer, and ultimately unrewarding. Nevertheless biographical connections here are overt and undeniable. Ensing’s starting-point is always personal, anchored in her experience, memories, responses, relationships, and many of the poems are addressed or dedicated to particular people. Annotations – names, dates, places, references – insistently locate the poem for the reader in the real world of space, time and particular experience.
At the same time, however, there is often a fiction explicitly at work – in conversations with the dead or the absent (Katherine Mansfield, the poet’s father, sundry friends), in imagined action animating figures in paintings or old photographs. This book is a vivid demonstration of the boundary-crossing versatility of poetry, displaying its affinities with fiction and history as well as conversation and autobiography – often within a single poem. The annotations and other self-referential devices remind the reader emphatically of the artifice of the poem, the sense in which even the most personal poem is a rhetorical artefact and a fictional performance. The mixed-up chronology of the poems seems to me to serve the reader well here; prevented from reading the sequence as an elliptical autobiography, the reader is encouraged to attend, not to the life behind the poem, but to the life of or in it.
For all the lively variety of the poems, there is a powerful impression of idiosyncratic consistency throughout, cutting across any chronological groupings or trends. Its source is hard to pin down – there is nothing unusual about the diction, grammar, imagery or prosody, and the tone is highly variable, but the voice is nevertheless distinctive. David Eggleton called Ensing a “thorny individualist”, so aptly that every subsequent discussion of her work seems to quote it. He was referring to her standing outside identifiable schools, groups and trends in New Zealand poetry, but thorny is not a bad description of the style, texture and character of her verse. There are moments of delicate lyricism, but for the most part her poems are vigorously direct; and metrically her typical lines are more muscular than musical. Their syntax and lineation tend to be bony, abruptly articulated:
Think of journeys / disconnected
pictures in the mind. Nothing
to do with reality. Flash of dark
glass in reflections. Your own floating
beside you, excited as wind
cutting corners on sharp streets opening
into fragments of blue sky you can touch.
(“Building in Mirror Glass”)
You could say “thorny”, but the word I keep reaching for is “dogged”. The tough angular quality of the verse is no accident of surface, but seems rather to emerge out of what the poems, without exception I think, are doing.
Ensing’s project seems to be to fix the object with a steady gaze – often literally, for the many of the poems are about paintings or images – and to give a just account of her engagement with it. She renders the meeting of subject and object with a kind of phenomenological rigour that reminds me of Cézanne: the way the difficulty of his quest for formal essences declares itself in every brushstroke, the way the subjectivity of the perspective is scrupulously acknowledged and scrutinised in its turn.
The object in many of the poems is in fact a painting, as the volume title acknowledges: Miró and Mondrian, Chagall and McCahon furnish whole poems, countless others a line or an image. Ensing’s treatment of a poem is never merely descriptive – she doesn’t so much observe as tangle with her object, whatever it may be. She scrutinises the traffic in perceptions that is intimated by a painting, for example in “For Leon van den Eijkel”: between the painted people whom she animates, “making the scene / audible” with snatches of a Dutch song; between painter and subject – she places him in the picture as the man with the “Paraplu”, “maybe”; between painting and viewer; and between present and past. The layered complexity of these last transactions is acknowledged with marginal annotations of art-historical and historical facts.
Such annotations appear in the margins of many of the poems, along with sundry symbols, maps, quotes and biblical texts, Chinese characters, mathematical calculations – memorably, Katherine Mansfield’s signature appears against a poem interpreting it as a Zen painting. I suppose some readers might find them irritating or distracting. I didn’t; although they refer to varieties of abstract information, their effect in context is paradoxically concrete. They document the process by which the poet’s response to the object has been shaped, the learning she brings to the encounter with the object. And these inventories of miscellaneous mental baggage insist again upon the poem itself as a document of a complex aesthetic and intellectual encounter. Sidelined in the margins, they also let the poem function metrically without them; and they intrude minimally into the reading of anyone who mightn’t know some of the things they refer to.
It would be very easy to tag these devices “post-modern”, but they are not much more common in the recent than the earlier poems; and they are often found alongside mannered typography (strategic gaps, slashes) of a kind more commonly associated with high modernism. The ordering of the collection has the interesting effect of emphasising surface similarities, minimising the technical differences between these dispensations. Certainly the textual self-consciousness feels post-modern, but the spirit in which it is deployed seems to me another matter. There is a little more word-play in the recent poems, but it serves to enrich rather than undercut the poems – there is none of the post-modern propensity for undermining the whole project reflexively.
Ensing seems to retain the seriousness of purpose of modernism, and its conviction of the power of language to represent and communicate – an optimistic belief regardless of its pessimism about the radically disordered world it strove to represent. Her poems focus our attention on the site of the striving, on the way that experience and thought are transmuted into poem with a perceptible effort. This is not to say that they often come over as provisional; more often they unfold and come to rest with an assured lucidity. The Eastern influences explicit in a few of the poems are perhaps also behind the finely-judged economy of many others. Their spare serenity is balanced against the intellectual edginess of others in which Ensing’s European origins are explored; and both qualities are also brought to bear on New Zealand material. The result is a complex, varied and richly rewarding collection.
Janet Hughes teaches in the School of English, Film and Theatre at Victoria University of Wellington.