Steele Roberts, $24.99,
Steele Roberts, $24.99,
The Propaganda Poster Girl
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
The World’s Fastest Flower
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
UK poet Ruth Padel links poems and journeys together in that both require movement. Poetic movement, in my view a vital ingredient in any poem, may be established musically, emotionally, visually, linguistically and on the level of thought. These vibrant new collections move in ways that engaged my attention and demanded a second reading.
Sue Wootton is the current Burns Fellow at Otago University. Her second collection of poems, Magnetic South, is a satisfying read on many levels. The book is divided into two sections that have much in common but explore the world from two distinctive perspectives; while the first part, “and will you dance?”, often navigates journeys of thought, the second part, “voyages with water and stars”, turns to external journeys as the poems settle upon people, places and weather. Like Greg O’Brien’s Afternoon of an Evening Train, this book is not afraid of ideas nor of heart.
The poems are miniature dances in their own making, light-footed and agile, yet contribute so perfectly to the collection as a whole. Thus, what animates the poems beyond the poet’s finely tuned ear is this critical ingredient: movement. It may be, for example, the movement within a single poem, as in the award winning “Breakfast with Raymond Carver”. Here Wootton makes the words shimmy with fresh metaphors, the unspoken, the sound of the everyday:
But what trees! Sharp and hairy as a man’s
when he lies in bed all day simply because it
his heart going flip, flip, like playing with the
top of a carton,
sucking itself down to the filter in only three
The pleasure of movement is to be found, too, in the shift between the intimate details of the material world and the philosophical reaches of the poet. A single poem may be alive with difficult things such as faith, grief, forgiveness or theory and tangible, more readily accessed things such as bones, coffee and string. What makes this collection stick is the way such things, both abstract and concrete, reappear to replenish and refresh the way you read them. Take string, for example. In “String theory”, the poem moves through the personal to the inexplicable, unbinding marriage and the universe in a single breath:
the tight ball
when needs must
the tough braid
of your marriage
Elsewhere in the book, string changes significance to become a fleshy echo in “[t]hese blue rivers that braid our calves” and in the visual clatter of “Stringsnap”.
Finally, Wootton’s poetic agility is strengthened by quiet poems. Like other poets who translate New Zealand’s sublime southern landscape into poetry that stalls us, such as Brian Turner and Richard Reeve, Wootton presents an image of place that reveals itself, so compellingly, in stages (as does the book itself). From “Rain at Bannockburn”:
The rain you speak of is elderly rain,
silver hair through which the blue scalp
is glimpsed, and palely beats.
Emma Neale’s third collection, Spark, is also divided into two sections that represent two distinctive areas of writing. The first, aptly titled “Spark”, contains poems that emerge from the tiny gaps available to the mother of a young baby. A number of New Zealand poets have caught the miraculous presence of a baby in their lives: Graham Lindsay, Andrew Johnston, Anna Jackson, Michele Leggott. Neale’s poems are the fervent attempt of the mother to keep the writing spark alight as she manages without sleep. These poems tend to love, and the sequence functions, in part, as a family keepsake. Yet what lifts this first section beyond the intimate details of a mother’s love, is the way these family poems matter to me, the complete stranger.
“Newborn” is a terrific example of a poem that transcends a deeply personal moment through the careful juxtaposition of images and sounds. The end result is a poem steeped in tenderness, not sentimental but achingly real:
His mouth a small red hearth
we huddle around:
forest creatures drawn
to its light and warmth.
When its suck and flicker at the breast stops
we blow cool breath on the soft black coal of
to make its wet spark dart again.
The second section of the book, “Exposure”, moves from the private relations of the mother to a more public world where poems engage, among other things, with art, friendship, fear and absence. Neale’s ability to instil an arresting emotional heart into a poem is evident in “Loving a mountaineer”, but at times the second half of the book requires a different approach. The poems find life and form in curiosity: in a single painting, an artist’s life, “Whakatane” (“the home town/of a man I can forget/for longer and longer now and thens”). There is a shift, then, from the power of maternal contemplation to a contemplation of the world filtered through various distances, silences and spaces. In “Skin”, the compelling omissions, the startling details, the way words change as they reappear in a new spot in a line, create a poetic movement that depends upon the tension of mystery and a sensuality of language:
Yet when she drowned his photos and letters
in the currents of an open fire
the sweep of her skirts
the crackle of flames
became the sounds of parchment
that breathed back to hide,
hide rejoined to spine,
spine drawing hare or hind to flight.
There is something immensely appealing about a poetry collection that begins with a poem entitled “The Sublime” (no mention of southern landscapes here) and ends with the last lines of “Onepu Rd”: “Even when the walls are rotting,/the electricity’s still on.” Amy Brown’s first collection of poems, The Propaganda Poster Girl, stands as an eye-catching self-portrait, yet the portrait also relishes external worlds. It is as though the poet is glimpsed in absorbing family and holiday snapshots and then augmented through the arrival of famous figures such as Eve, Bucephalus, and Jack Nicholson or concepts such as Brownian Motion. In other words, Brown’s poems are self-conscious but not self-indulgent.
You can get a real measure of the range of this collection if you scan the first lines, not something I am in the habit of doing, but these poems begin with exquisite hooks: “I want him to be my grandfather”, “It’s a day for whacking sixes”, “We anchor in a feeding frenzy” or “I was made of diagonal lines.” The hooks are often backed up by lines that reveal grit and matter-of-factness along with a subterranean tenderness. For example, “Inheritance” moves the reader on a number of levels; in the way the mother is viewed in unflattering lights, at times vulnerable (“a fear of being/judged”), and the way the father is traced through his legacy:
The end of winter.
Red meat. Riding
horses. Red wine.
The writing of Ian
McEwan. The acting
of Ian McKellen.
I have acquired
along with his pillow,
his black and tan
his elegant sarcasm,
his height, his
dog and his smile.
Brown’s first collection, like a number of recent first books that revive the personal in idiosyncratic worlds such as Jessica le Bas’ Incognito and Michele Amas’ After the Dance, draws from the imagined as much as the experienced. The poems achieve a mesmerising balance as they divulge an idea, image or confession and yet are held to ground through the material detail of the occasion. Mr Whippy’s incessant tune prompts a quirky and resonant disclosure in “Headache” that is both a beautifully judged deliberation on noise and a witty declaration of the first person:
It’s so clear it could be playing on a radio
held to my left ear – no pane of glass or sea
or tree or house or distance affects the noise.
It makes me claustrophobic;
if I can’t hide from the ice-cream truck,
I can’t hide from anything.
Like the other three books, Charlotte Simmonds’ first collection of poetry, The World’s Fastest Flower, gives the reader much to think about, yet clearly stands as a book that comes from the heart. On the one hand, I was moved by poetry that formed an open wound, while, on the other, dazzled by poetry that finds life in the sentence. This challenging collection stands as a kaleidoscopic self-portrait where versions of the poet are refracted through an ever-shifting first person in ever-shifting linguistic registers and ever-shifting locations. It is as though the poetic voice seeks to counter the final line of the first poem: “Once again I have failed to exist.” The end result is electrifying.
The ability of the sentence to bear poetic value is compounded as we move through the 53 numbered poems, and the sentences gain lyrical and narrative appeal. At times, the vitality of the sentence is to be found in candid admissions: “(I loved you in the midst of your pain.)” At times, the sentence is made vibrant through unexpected, earthy detail: “The smell of the onions clings to the photograph.” There is the frequent intrusion of the sentence in italics: “I can’t stop thinking about giraffes!” There is the immediacy of voice in dialogue: “Hey, my father would say, ‘… is what horses eat.’ ” The poems, then, both individually and as a whole, represent the vocal harmonics of points of view on the move as we see in “Inheritance”:
My mother would say, ‘We must do starjumps!’
(she was bulimic)
and we would say, ‘We are so frightfully
worried about our weight!’
(and we did not know she was bulimic)
and we would all spring in the air altogether
(Just like starfish.)
At times the poems have a childlike directness; this can be read as a tone that counters, and therefore heightens, the recurring motifs of the open wound: blood, suicide, mental illness, disappointing sex, broken love, violence. In “During That Summer You Went to Brazil, I lived in a Cherry Tree”, the childlike immediacy of voice, the way anything may become its opposite and the use of repetition lie in contrast to the underlying absence and longing:
When you live in a cherry tree you have plenty of time. There’s lots of time to do all the things you ever wanted to do but never actually did. Okay, possibly not. If what you’d always wanted to do was make a cherry stone cushion, you could certainly do that. You have time enough. You have cherry stones enough. You are both warm and cold enough.
Paula Green was editor of Best New Zealand Poems 2007 and judge of the New Zealand Post Secondary School Poetry Awards 2008.