How To Make A Million
The Unfortunate Singer
Victoria University Press, $24.95,
My reading’s re-creation, via language, of another poet’s perceptions, thoughts, aural sensibility and verbal skill, allows me a privileged look at a singular mind at work and at play, a change of viewpoint, a charge of kinetic energy.
Poetry is ideal recreation. I spent New Year with Rachel Bush and Emma Neale, women poets of considerable character. Their exteriors are tactile and attractive, hinting at mysteries. Seraphine Pick’s images on the cover of The Unfortunate Singer are “both odd and familiar”, a combination which Bush enjoys. In “An Amateur Poet and Other Surprises”, this combination is present in the title as well as in comments such as “Then the oddness of the clothes-horse when it could more easily be a clothes house, a clothes hill”, and especially in the delicious erotic ending. The cover of How To Make A Million suggests Pacific warmth, the “wide red wing” of
a scarlet lava-lava: impromptu net
as she chases Rita, a fugitive hen
whose black feathers glint like cocktail satin
and a child discovers how hard it is to “trap the flying colours” (“Bright”).
I liked the acuity and humanity of their observations and their elliptical, compressed communications. Neale’s concise writing in “Into Summer” produces an agreeable sharpness of aural and visual focus:
a lanky cricket team
shoot the breeze in
whites on the green. Blink
and reality shimmers ….
Bush uses internal rhyme for aural patterning – “As we speak/you pleat the fabric of your patchwork/skirt” (“Stories”) – and describes the woman in “What She’d Say” as
finickity, a high flyer for
words grabbing them from
this bag and that/selecting with care, laying
them out like little bodies.
In “Pyrophobia”, Neale tells a complex story in cinematic short takes of vivid two-line stanzas: “white tinder, virgin flint,/the dress shot up, bride on a pyre.” The everyday visit of “Our Meter Reader” develops through tiny episodes into a touching domestic drama “of metaphysical bent” (“Contact”). In “Letter to Friends from Daley’s Flat Hut: Walking the Rees and the Dart”, a stone, “heavy in the mind”, is the central image for the understated, underlying grief of the poet and her companion: “On the track, near dawn, we almost talked/of what we’d been walking from”. The poem ranges in “kea time”. The splash of colour which reminds the Italian Fabio of his grandmother’s World War Two memories, the “young soldiers who freed her village,/gave out oranges from their trucks:/Frutti da bonta, Frutti di pace”, repeats the effect of the keas’ “underwings red as sundown” against the green of the bush. At the end, the “weight of a future past and lost” lifts, “Light as the heft of paper,/The weight of a bird taken flight.”
The wedding ring in “Epithalamium” is a lens, in turn viewfinder, telescope, monocle and “keyhole on the wide, dark rooms/of years to come”. Its loss in a river enables a deeper binding which “couples you now/to snowmelt, river flood, earth.” The lost ring recurs in “A Novel In Verse” where “The story comes/broken circle”, ending with “the subtextual suggestion that there’s always more left unsaid” – which Neale didn’t really need to say.
Vision plays tricks as Neale’s translation of Eulenspiegel “darts, it does turns, it twits you”, enjoying the ability of language to suggest and puzzle. An interesting woman who brings a kaleidoscope to a party, a “window open/upon all the eye’s/wide steeples of delight”, talks about “insight into the spiritual” to the guests, “nervous in our waistbands …. and our elastic expanded with relief” before they realise that she is blind; the Braille of her book “raised/like the cold dots a frisson had dashed/up our warm, pig-ignorant spines.”
Neale’s poems often skirt the subject, but she knows that poetry can go straight to the source in just a few lines. The title poem “How To Make A Million” suggests that she might “on the basis of the boss’s friendly squint/take the position at the mint.”
Both poets are comfortable with the land. Neale’s appreciation is sensual: “the land a body/ and leonine, dreaming skulls” (“Into Summer”); Bush’s a little more wary: “Nikau palms/bowed, flax stretched to me and always/the sea, the treacherous bloody sea” (“Granity and Me”). A similar image relating to the overseas perception of New Zealand’s wilderness occurs in both. In the curious elaborations of Bush’s “Teach Yourself German Questions”, “‘It was I who, knowing of his intentions to discover more about the barely explored wilds of this country, sent the father this book,’ said the teacher of Romance Languages and Japanese,” while Neale up the Dart meets Fabio, the Italian geography student here to study “‘of deeper things. New Zealand my book in the real world’“.
Both make forays into the short prose/poem form, poetic in compression and economy. Neale is able to give us an entire novel in verse in a few short chapters (“A Novel in Verse”), and Bush investigates a famous novelist in “Me and Her”, noting that “New Zealand Literature is a closed shop and it is always good to beat upon its doors.”
Bush’s “unfortunate singer” has a regrettable inability to sing in tune. “It is like wearing colours that almost match” (“The Unfortunate Singer”). In “Teach Yourself German Questions”, the same problem arises: “the high B flat which I occasionally approximated with a degree of anxious uncertainty.” Linguistic and musical felicities and infelicities preoccupy Bush, sometimes to the point where she opts stubbornly for very plain language. In “Airport”, for example: “at this airport the carpet disturbs me”; and in “Why”: “Today we have Bread-and-Butter Pudding./It must be years since I last had one.” She has, however, a good ear for the music she’s dealing with, and internal rhymes and rhythms keep the mix light. In “Stories”,
The plane trees unleave themselves in
gusts and sighs like a change of
heart, like a rest of many
In “After”, “On a leaf on the grass/a big fly twitches his wrists together.”
Concise, effective images are a strength of Bush’s work: “a voice like fabric,/you can lay your head on it” (“This Woman”); “All the old people have faces like ancient potatoes” (“Learning Your Stories”). There is a deft sketch of a parrot in “Friends”:
I like how
your parrot yells Hello Hello and
his tongue is like a ball in his
beak and he bobs his white head with its
yellow crest before him, sidles on
his perch, yells again Hello Hello.
Rhythm is well sprung in “Singer”: “when cicadas on/each trunk and branch and post beat and pulse/and repeat and fill the air all night.” In “Why He Travels”, the poem, like the protagonist, takes off elsewhere. I liked the contrast between his comfortable existence in New Zealand and the Rwandan gorilla’s “knowing leathery fingers”, lifting “the thin strands/of his half-grey hair.” In “Jolly Red”, Bush examines the odd, quirky things that memory chooses to retain – the colour of a hand-knitted jersey, the poet’s mother’s “ankles and shoes,/the angle of her reading” – but not her face, which like those of other friends “stay away and will not be recalled” (“Faces”).
Many of the poems turn on some oddness or dislocation. In “Questions”, both the subject of the painting and the words which describe it are disquieting. Foreign sailors with their “not-right shoes” and “faces like cold/landscapes” evoke the unfamiliarity of a strange land (“Sailors”).
Bush is happy to let subject and language nudge the unfortunate, in the sense of unsuitable, with an eccentric, darkish humour, which can, for instance, deflate literary expectations by talking about sheep. However, the apparent whimsy of “Five Little Songs For Letty” deepens in “Sheep Tales” to yield tenderness and an almost biblical passion:
Letty goes with me where I walk
She is like a mother’s eye
She is a stream on a dry mountain
She is a safe place in a city.
In “Songs of Scotland”, the “people taken by death …. are still inside us/and at the same time we know,/never never never never never.” “Tendrils” recognises that language is not always able to convey meaning as succinctly as a poet would like:
Where are the necessary words?
I think it is too cold for them,
too wet this winter and too
long for them.
A considerable degree of linguistic ability enables both Bush and Neale to find and combine those “necessary words” in poetry. I found it intelligent, imaginative work.
Cilla McQueen’s Axis: Poems & Drawings was reviewed in our March 2002 issue.