The Goose Bath: Poems
Janet Frame (ed Pamela Gordon, Denis Harold and Bill Manhire)
Vintage, $39.99, ISBN 1869417658
How The Goose Bath acquired its title is a good story and a characteristic one. The bath itself, as Frame’s niece Pamela Gordon explains in her affectionate foreword, was “a large fibreglass bowl (about the size of a child’s paddling pool)”. This started life as “the base of a small fountain”, belonging to Gordon’s parents. It was hard to clean, and they passed it on to Frame, who really did use it as a bath for her geese (Glissy, Glossy & co). Eventually the bowl became the container in which over the decades Frame filed her “burgeoning pile of poetry manuscripts”. Frame nicknamed the pile “the goose bath”, and the editors have retained the phrase for the title of this long-awaited successor to The Pocket Mirror (1967).
It’s a good story because it’s true, but also because that’s how we prefer to think of our writers: quirky maybe, but also endearingly down-to-earth and laconically self-deprecating. Imagine if the receptacle had been a large Wedgwood soup tureen or some expensive, imported terracotta flowerpot. No good at all.
The front cover artfully reproduces something of this home-grown quality with four geese in mid-waddle above a snippet of manuscript and the title in blurred red and black typescript. The contents (124 poems) have been organised with unthreatening care. Bill Manhire, who provides a fascinating and insightful introduction, was responsible for the arrangement: seven sections, loosely (à la Jaques) following the seven stages of a human life – and in particular Frame’s life, both here and overseas. Often poems within the sections have been neatly juxtaposed so as to light each other up.
This is an unobtrusively clever way to present what may be the first instalment of several posthumous volumes. (Denis Harold’s afterword implies there are hundreds more poems-in-waiting.) Frame’s novels are hard. Poetry is always supposed to be difficult. The opportunities for “reader panic” or “reader avoidance” are immense. But if there is a way of winning a belated audience for Frame’s poetry, this is it. It is hard to imagine a more appealingly compiled collection.
Which is good if, like me, you’re not a hard-core Frame fan. Such readers admire the novels, but hardly ever feel like returning to them. They prefer the briefer sorties into “Frameland” afforded by the volumes of autobiography, the short stories – and the poetry. “Frameland” is one of those distinctive provinces of the mind (like Greeneland and Larkinland) with its own emotional weather and topographical features. Many of these “new” poems take us on walks through this landscape, offering freshly familiar glimpses of the terrain. Over “ferns like jagged rows of decaying teeth”, the sun sets “in a stream of urine-coloured light” while not far off tombstones “rear sharp and white/like rows of crippled seagulls’ wings”. It’s a land of loss and damage, “a devouring world of teeth where even the common snail/eats the heart out of a forest/as you and I do, who are human, at night”, as the epilogue poem reassuringly puts it.
“Frameland” is often a bleak, soiled place. But it can also be zany and playful (as in the brilliant “The Landfall Desk”), occasionally almost jaunty in its bleakness. “I Met a Man” (one of the rare rhyming ones) lists three disconcerting men, then breezily comments “The moral is, the strangest people go/about the earth. Don’t you think so?” before concluding: “I met myself moralising/eating a cake with white icing.” No one here has written like that (though Jo Randerson might be counted a literary great-niece). In this vein, “Hilda” is another example (“Hilda with her squinted heart”), the poet she most resembles is Englishwoman Stevie Smith (of “Not Waving But Drowning” and “The Frog Prince”).
Like Smith, Frame is a brilliant eccentric, a poetic maverick who shows you things from oblique and unexpected angles. (The speakers in these poems include: the Guggenheim Museum, a brain tumour, an anemone, a piano, a cat.) Both Frame and Smith regularly evoke fairytale and nursery rhyme characters and situations (see “A Dream” and “Story” here). Both gain some of their most memorable effects by deliberately disrupting or changing the rhythm. Both use bathos and the whimsically surreal (what Frame in the striking “What I Have Seen or Dreamed” calls “Joking and fantasy”). Both are haunted by death, their poems often leading up to it via various apparent byways. Both write (as Larkin said approvingly of Smith) with “the authority of sadness” – or should that be Craig Raine’s more sceptical “allure of sadness”?
In his introduction Manhire positively contrasts “the roughness and roguishness”, the “dishevelled” quality of Frame’s poems with the “well-wrought urn” New Criticism model with which she was brought up. And many of the poems amply justify the claim. But there are other kinds of unevenness too. Frame is excellent at openings, but sometimes the poems peter out, have “dead spots” or are too obviously wrapped up. So “Norfolk Evening” opens in a brilliant run of images:
In the age-old evening
women with work-ridden faces like leather saddles
hair sleek, black as waxed thread, hands like forked carrots, feet like nobbled potatoes growing
bigger and bigger
in the misfit world …
but has run out of steam by the time “the speechless evening arriv[es]/with its unlucky stroke of dark.” “The Birch Trees” (lovely opening line: “Mysterious the writing on the birch-bark”) has a redundant, overexplaining three lines at the end:
Reading it suddenly in the woods one is astonished
to find engraved on pages of birch-bark the fiction
and fact of men in their cities.
Gordon quotes Frame saying that she “tends to kill a poem”. It is sometimes true that she doesn’t sufficiently trust the reader. And yet, who would want to be without the delicious (and wise):
Before I get into sleep with you
I want to have been
into wakefulness, too?
However, the hint of human intimacy in that tiny poem is a rare commodity in The Goose Bath; “Frameland” is singularly unpopulated. Cats are more prominent than human beings and come off well in several touching poems, particularly “Sometimes Mr Speaker and Blanco Come to Find if You Are Home”. That said, there are a number of warmly affectionate poems about or addressed to Frame’s great supporter and mentor Frank Sargeson: “To F S Who Shaved His Beard”, “The Tom Cat Which Sargeson Refused to Have Neutered”, “Lines Written at the Frank Sargeson Centre”. “Letter from Lake Bomoseen” (written while Sargeson was dying but never sent) is particularly moving, ending unflinchingly on an unusually triumphant note:
Has it, as the poets say, come to this?
A handful of ash after fire,
a scoop of sand after the stone mountain,
a concentrate to which add the immensity of life gone …
or is it the best expansion, the traveller free of ingots,
with skin of golddust
dazzling, brilliantly illuminating the boundary
and – ah! Burdened states of disease,
the ease of crossing!
It is in poems like this that readers will find Frame’s “best expansion”, her way of “brilliantly illuminating the boundary”. Frame may have been disparaging about her poems, but she was also right to believe there was golddust in the “goose bath”.
Harry Ricketts is co-editor of New Zealand Books; his most recent collection of poems, Your Secret Life, is reviewed on p6.