Taking poetry for a walk, John Allison

Millionaire’s Shortbread 
Mary-Jane Duffy, Mary Cresswell, Mary Macpherson, Kerry Hines
University of Otago Press, $29.95,
ISBN 187727643X

Len & other poems
Jo Thorpe
Steele Roberts, $$19.95,
ISBN 187722894X

Cilla McQueen
University of Otago Press, $29.95,
ISBN 1877276383

I once wrote a poem for Paul Celan in which I imagined holding a book of his poems in my hands, sensing them passing into me through my skin, like mercury; it was an appeal for another way of reading, immediate, more tactile. I do carry books of poems around with me, looking at them, listening to them, touching the text. I take them for walks, converse with them in cafés. Some are better companions walking, while others prefer to hang out someplace. Just a few can mix it. I took Millionaire’s Shortbread for a walk, but found its company more congenial in a café.

I like the idea of this book, as stated on the back cover: “meeting at a café table in downtown Wellington, sustained by their favourite treat and gathering in an illustrator along the way, the poets put together this selection of their work over three years.” Gregory O’Brien has written an “Afterword”, so, I thought, let’s chat with him. “Mary-Jane Duffy’s poems might be thought of as a Neo-expressionism of the Everyday,” he comments. I’m nodding but unsure. Actually, some of these poems are great; the commonplace is seen in a wry light and, with the uncommonplace, mostly subverted by last lines. I realise I’m nodding at these pleasures of the Everyday, while not seeing it as “Neo-expressionism”; perhaps the neo kind is beyond me: “Ah Diego, my frog prince/here fatso      another poem (“A Frida Kahlo kind of mood”).

O’Brien then says that “Mary Cresswell is a similarly-inclined technician of the real, her poems an Elgin Marble-like frieze of language as it is lived, life as it is written.” Yes, there is a hard-edged quality to Cresswell’s vision: bas-relief? Am I wondering about depth-of-field? Lived language? Written life? Is my uncertainty about O’Brien or Cresswell? I need to let her have my say: “we were deep as/coffee cups” (“Wind farm”); “the strip looped beneath us/and pulled us apart/together” (“Cruising the Moebius strip”).

“Mary Macpherson’s poems are more spacious and reflect an ongoing fascination with the ‘leftover spaces’ in which poetry and the visual arts often operate.” I easily inhabit these particular spaces, in which the poet’s sure visual evocation (Macpherson is also a photographer) opens out into sensed absence. There is a lot of air and light – a lot of blue – beautiful presences, and then: “a gap in the line of gums/in the slow turn of light” (“Chiarascuro”).

Finally, O’Brien comments on “Kerry Hines’ expansiveness in a series of pristine (but not overly reverent) meditations on nature and history”. I look for nature and find the inner condition, and I look for history and find some interesting takes on her story. There are some great lines, and sometimes it comes together in a very satisfying way:   “while overhead/someone else watches Sky” (“Motel Room, Westport”).

Walking home from the café, I’m wondering if someone else could have written some of these poems. They seem a bit like other poems I’ve read. Or have I missed the point? The “Afterword” invites this kind of dialogue, which might interfere with the straightforward companionship of getting to know the poems in their own write. Then, looking back through the book, I conclude it’s not just the idea of it I like; it is pleasantly real, in the way that café-talk, though light, can be. And the poetry in many of the poems is appealing, as shortbread, though short, can be.


Another kind of conversation developed with Jo Thorpe’s Len & other poems. I’ve written poems about and/or “with” artists, so always read such poetry with interest. I’ve wanted to “do” a Len Lye sequence since reading one of his prose poems, but as I read Thorpe’s first poem I wondered if now I would not do so; it was accomplished:

Because he grew up in a lighthouse he was used to
White ran into white. It spread beyond horizon in a
kind of
pure continuance.
There, he met himself.
(“A sense of space”)


Then, reading on, I thought, on the other hand … I’d hoped for a dialogue between Lye and Thorpe, but was disappointed. Her text is commentary, with some fine lines:

Len had existence/completely down to his fingernails.
There were no two whiles for his moments to be
(“The now of time”)


Occasionally Lye’s own words do their work: “it’s the sashay of your walk in bones I like so much” (“Open marriage, Ann”).

Jo Thorpe is also a dancer, and perhaps that is why the language of movement in her poems is so convincing. It offers the best elements in the “Len” poems: “Len could plait movement into his sinews –/a wave into a shoulder blade,/emotion into his bones” (“An inner kind of echo”).

In the last poem of this sequence, “Flag seen through a high window: a coda”, I find a brilliant choreography of phrases, poise and impetus released from the page into my own pacing. This musical syntax also impels the best of the other poems – in the language structures of “Little utopias” and “At the kapahaka”, and explicitly in “Overture”, “Seven dances”, “Three Scenes”, and elsewhere: “The confident mooring of place to flesh./You’re as calm as a dervish colliding with the past” (“Boneflute”).

Ultimately, it was these “other poems” that really impressed me. There was motion, and a radiant “architecture of light”, not only in the ubiquitous sequence but in many other of the poems. Then I realised why Jo Thorpe has written about Len Lye, and what she is celebrating in many of the other poems I’ve found in this book: light and the movement of light, and movement in light … There is a dialogue, and it is called dance.


Is it characteristic that poets have other artistic interests? Mary Macpherson is a photo-artist, her co-poets have worked with photographers or artists, Jo Thorpe is experienced in the performing arts, and here is Cilla McQueen, whose multi-media projects have involved musicians, actors, and artists as notable as Ralph Hotere.

Soundings, like her two previous collections, includes poems and drawings, and they work well together. There was something flip and feisty about early McQueen, yet simultaneously she could be sweetly lyrical (and still is). She can mix pastoral and chaos theory, iambics and jazz rhythms. In “Daughter” and “Ancient”, she sounds as mystically Gaelic as the late Kathleen Raine:

Remember pipit, petrel, whimbrel,
gannet, curlew, swallow

wheeling above the green apron,
the ruined eaves, Conachair’s shadow,

that the Stone of Knowledge
gives you second sight,

the clear, light water of a certain well
the power to change the wind.


It’s astonishing to find poems like this in a collection by a modern New Zealand poet – perhaps only possible so far from Victoria University’s creative writing courses. But other things do happen in “Soundings”; in poems such as “Tourism (i & ii)”, “Early Settlers”, “Fuse”, “Eating the News”: there is something harder, earthy yet still related to that other ancestral voice:

Loss of possessions is a kind of freedom;
loss of the land is exile.
The pickaxes strike fire,
the wall runs back towards the city,
a fuse slow-burning through the generations
ready to flare; past time nearly visible
behind the surface of this sunny day,
the harbour sparkling – on the car radio, news
of an unarmed Maori man
shot dead by the police last night, in Waitara.


There is also ecological import; for this Australian resident, a poignant lament to lost or threatened species in “Frogs”: “the bong-bong banjo/call of the pobblebonk”.

Living in Bluff, just a hop/skip/jump and no distance at all as the wind blows from Antarctica, McQueen’s world is wonderfully present and elsewhere at once; her reality is, as Curnow puts it, “local and special at the point where we pick up the traces: as manifold as the signs we follow and the routes we take.” Yet while the particulars of the south are mostly familiar, the poems in the first half of this book demonstrate Goethe’s maxim that “whoever has a living grasp of this particular grasps the universal with it, knowing it either not at all, or long afterwards.”

So local are McQueen’s evocations (I lived in Invercargill as a child) that when I came to the later poems, in which she traces her ancestor Richard Greynvile in Roanoke, Virginia, I found myself at first less interested in making the journey. But McQueen’s craft is such that I was persuaded to perceive the particular, and perhaps also the universal.

I’ve been walking with these poems at Shoreham, overlooking Western Port on Victoria’s south coast. It is one of those days that blows every season at once – including hail – and these lines from another southern coastline resonate in the aftermath of the AFL Grand Final and the bonking pobblebonks in the pond:

At certain places on this coast
the past is as close
as the tilt of a pane –

they hold a record of events
as lodestones hold
the power of lightning.

John Allison is a poet living in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne.


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