Like Love Poems: Selected Poems
Joanna Margaret Paul (ed Bernadette Hall)
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
Jack Books, $24.95,
One Shapely Thing: Poems and Journals
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
Auckland University Press, $21.99,
The Year of the Bicycle
Victoria University Press, $24.95,
These five collections are all by well-established poets and reflect familiar styles and preoccupations. The exception, if any, is the compilation by Bernadette Hall of the work of her close friend Joanna Margaret Paul, who died in 2003. This includes a large number of previously unpublished poems. In an introduction that is part editorial, part personal reminiscence, Bernadette Hall talks about the genesis of the poems and why she included those she did. Her recollections go far to explain the attraction of Joanna Paul’s work, the person that one feels in the work and her painterly attention to nuance and sensation.
This is the first substantial collection of Joanna Paul’s poetry, much of which has been in small hand-printed editions or in literary journals. It is unfair to describe her, as Victoria University Press does, as a major poet. For all the charm of many of the poems, they are too slight for that title, and some read like notes for poems, with virtual lists of images, often expressed only as single words. Bernadette Hall admits to her hesitancy in including some of these lesser efforts but it is probably fair enough that they are there for the sake of completeness.
Joanna Paul is at her best in those poems in which she recalls a brief point of experience, sometimes of confusion or pain, as in “autumn/winter”, which recalls a daughter’s rejection, or of joy in friendship and encounters, as in “answering needs” or in “for Mary”:
a blue towel only &
the floor was washed
the baby smelled of soap
& summer wind
blew through open doors
There is a sense throughout these poems of someone who knows daily living as something that can yield numinous moments, even if these are sometimes devastating. Joanna Paul’s painter’s eye can also guide her through a longer poem which may use unexpected metaphors of colours and textures to fix the subtleties of ironies and regrets.
In “the whole grain”, she holds together a complex set of images by an overriding image of nourishment to contrast the inhuman activities of resource exploitation and urbanisation with a natural world that is itself like a creature. She can be tough, too, in a love poem such as “Lake Wiritoa 2”, which contrasts the devotion of a stalker/admirer with the absence of her lover.
The book itself is worth having simply for Brendan O’Brien’s design with its cover reproducing one of Joanna Paul’s watercolours. The scholarly notes are by Bernadette Hall.
Wystan Curnow’s Modern Colours is even more directly linked to visual art. The stylish cover by Toby Curnow is matched by the rest of the design, which includes renderings of paintings by Mondrian, concrete poems, and a variety of font sizes and layouts. It looks good.
The relentless use of colour words in Modern Colours will jolt readers into considering what the poems are doing as poems, rather than immersing themselves in the content. They explore how we receive our basic perceptions, a project somewhat like that of Mondrian himself, with his non-representational compositions in which the surface is always two-dimensional. In “Knocking on Klebnikov’s Door”, the linguist Roman Jackobsen is shown diaries in which signs in coloured pencils are attempts at producing coloured speech. This reflects some of the concerns in Curnow’s collection: influence, provenance, and transfers across representational media or sensory modalities. Names are also important, relying sometimes only on their potential resonances for readers – we get half of early-20th century Paris’ painters and literary figures: Klebnikov, Picasso, Picabia, Gertrude Stein, Max Ernst, Braque, Malevich, and the photographer Delbo, who produces reproductions of Mondrian’s works that are forever original because he used an out-of-date film stock that was less sensitive to yellow than to blue.
This is a project that consists of a series of investigations or experiments.” Modern Sounds”, for example, mimics the sounds themselves by creating a throbbing synthesis of acoustical terms, together with neologisms such as “chiaroscuroscopes” and “melegoturny”. In the long sequence, “Mondrian’s Restaurant”, the colours of objects, their outer surfaces, are as insistently present as the coloured plane of Mondrian’s flat surfaces. Throughout the poem there is a resistance against narrative and feelings; things and people are described in moments of stasis.
Modern Colours is a welcome member of those beautifully-produced limited editions of poems that are in the tradition of some of the early works from the Caxton, Caveman or Hawk Presses.
In One Shapely Thing, readers familiar with Dinah Hawken’s writing will recognise its reflective, meditative tone. This is often created by a barrage of visual images which mimic the apparent capriciousness or significance of our moment-by-moment perceptions. It is very much a poetry of the eye, of an observer, though she can also craft stunning images of sounds, as in “The Political Lake”:
Flapping like a canvas, galloping
like horses, I hear swans
over the silent lake.
One Shapely Thing is a hybrid production, much of it made up of journal sequences which are themselves at times like prose poems. The first of these, “The Softening of Steel”, was written during the period around and after the events of 9/11. Sometimes political, sometimes reflective (Hawken knows New York well, having lived there during the 1980s), this is the best section of the collection. Personal and family worries, the need to find an enduring centre, one’s response to suffering elsewhere: all are subtly inter-related, sometimes brought together by a fragment of a poem.
The poetry sequences themselves can sometimes be frustrating. Individual images are effective, but the longer poems can give the feeling one experiences in a dream, where the meaning seems to be there but slips away just before one gets hold of it. This is true of “The Political Lake”, in which the first two sequences look at Lake Geneva and the contrast between the natural world of the lake – its water, birds, and the poplar leaves in the wind – and the world of a city where politicians are involved with spin and do not care about the sufferings of others. On their own, they make up a fine poem. The last section, however, a reflection on water, very like a Taoist scripture, could well be a separate poem, as it does not quite conclude what has gone before.
Dinah Hawken sets herself hard tasks. Again and again she strives towards the essentials of an experience, that point of ineffability that possibly can be expressed only by reaction to primal objects: stones, water, trees. Her poems are also technically inventive. One device that is only partially successful is her singling out of particular words for emphasis, repetition, or etymological analysis. It can be too insistent, as in the use of the word “moved” in “What Are You Doing?”. Here the incantatory intention is not quite realised.
Other poems are more successful. The magnificent long poem, “Helping Hands”, starts with a matter-of-fact series of statements about trees in the Wellington Botanic Gardens. This is followed by a complex combination of observations of these trees and her memories of her mother, finishing with a long address to a fallen oak, in which the broader themes of the poem are largely implicit, up to the ending itself:
We love your love of the horizontal.
We wish that we too
could fall down in a Garden,
stay fallen, and still thrive.
One Shapely Thing is a more expansive work than Dinah Hawken’s earlier collections. Like all experiments in form, it occasionally slips, but also has many fine moments.
Expatriate poet/anthropologist Michael Jackson has lived for many years in other countries and is currently a visiting professor of world religions at Harvard Divinity School. His poems in Dead Reckoning range through places and histories as he explores preoccupations that are largely personal. Sometimes this is made quite overt, as in “Finisterre”, in which the contesting seas at the tip of Reinga are used to reflect the separation of lovers.
The metaphors of distance and genealogy work best where they are handled lightly – the boy typing on an old Remington “years of poetry/on the back of envelopes and bills,/lost lines, fugitive images/looking for me, for somewhere they belonged”. There is irony, too, and insight into a long career of writing poems. In “Troisième Âge”, he muses on the heavy rhetoric he once used, like the sound and movement of the sea, “chalked by drift, erased by spume, spat on by rain.” But now:
So if I were in Mokau now, heading
toward Mount Messenger, I would not
shun anything that washed ashore – blue
packing tape, odd shoes, unlabelled bottles
without ships or notes inside ….
It would be a pity if Jackson’s reputation is less, locally, because he has spent so much time away. These are powerful poems, well-crafted, and, as a measure of that quality, include several of the most difficult poems to do well, poems about love. In “Viaticum”, for instance, a number of reflections on the banality of contemporary Rome finishes with the plain words that were said at parting, “Take care. I love you. Come back soon./Call us when you can.” A similar capacity to end a poem well is in “Ali”, about a long-ago friend from Freetown who has just died:
My fingernails feel for the hard shallow rind
of African oranges. I squeeze the bittersweet
into my mouth,
and sit in my office after Sewa’s call
in absolute silence.
Intensity, polish: these poems have more force than many of the more vapid offerings that are currently about.
Bicycles seem distinctly unpoetic objects. A R D Fairburn made fun of biomechanical analyses in his spoof, How to Ride a Bicycle in 24 Lovely Colours, but James Brown is bold enough to make bicycles metaphors for … well, I’m not always sure what, but there is plenty of activity in his bike poems in The Year of the Bicycle. As a postman, my main experiences over two years on a bike were fairly mundane – avoiding dogs and traffic, with nothing much going on in the mind. Yet when the wind was up and I was speeding along by the market gardens at Harewood, there could be something of the exhilaration that Brown reports in his long poem, “The Tip Track”:
YOU’RE THERE! Stop the clock. Fall from
or change up to 2.2 and enjoy a leisurely warm-
up the sealed road to the summit.
The view is to die for and you probably feel
Why on earth are you doing this?
Why indeed? The first poem in the series, “Body and Bike”, suggests the bike is “an orchestra of the body” and these bike poems do celebrate the body, unlike another long poem of a journey, Allen Ginsberg’s “Iron Horse”, in which the poet is sped across America by train, observing and reflecting as he goes. Ginsberg’s pleasures are entirely autoerotic, whereas James Brown captures that intense engagement with one’s surroundings and the concentration that comes from physical action.
The other poems veer off the Tip Track into more sedate territory. Some are light, like “My Flatmate” or “University Open Day”, poems that would read well, but others illustrate James Brown’s capacity to take on serious topics without being too portentous, as in “The Book of Sadness”, or “The Unsuccessful”, which muses on the situation familiar in every workplace – that of the qualified job-seeker who misses out. Many of the poems are held together in a similar fashion: short ironic narratives, colloquially told, in which a slip in tone would be disastrous. It is a formula James Brown has used in the past but it continues to be very effective.
John Horrocks is a Wellington reviewer.