Where Your Left Hand Rests
As Fiona Kidman points out herself, it is half a lifetime ago since her first book of poems, Honey and Bitters, was published in 1975. Her new collection of poems is her fifth. Although she is better known as a novelist, her poetry has formed a substantial part of her creative work.
In all her multiple ventures as a writer, which include radio and television drama, short stories and autobiography, the material comes very much from events from her own experience. She is a story-teller. Many of her poems recall incidents that are described in her two volumes of memoirs, but the narrative is condensed and sharpened. In “Wearing Katherine Mansfield’s shawl”, for example, she tells how the shawl, despite the protests of its caretaker in Menton, was taken from its glass case and draped over her shoulders. Its fragrance was what she remembered:
over my arm, a draught of bitter
scent – Katherine’s illness,
Virginia’s sarcasm – and
yes, a trace of wild gorse
flowers and New Zealand, not
to mention the drift of her skin
and yours during the photograph,
the stately walk through the town.
She says in the poem itself that this is “another short story”, a story that is also described in her memoir, At the End of Darwin Road, together with a stylish photo of her beside some palm trees and wearing the shawl.
It does not do justice to these poems to describe them as companionable, but that is their attractive quality. They are poems by someone who loves people, what people have said or written, their friendships and the fragments of lives that can be guessed from family letters or photographs. Even on a walk in Wellington, she thinks of two friends who ran marathons and the fact that three poets live on the route she is taking (“Poets’ Mile”). When she concludes the poem with a reflection on a stray shoe she came across, this is interwoven with speculations about a return to wholeness, hoping
that the kid who stumbled home
with one shoe or simply barefooted
has collected it up and restored the pair to itself.
There were hints of a different poet in some of her earlier work, edgier, more critical, like the writer of her earlier novels. One of her best poems of the 1970s, “A Region to the North”, is a complex response to the attractive yet suffocating life of cultivated suburbia. This new collection, Where Your Left Hand Rests, is mellower, despite the abrasiveness of some memories, as in “The Last Letter”, in which a family photo is described as like the Dustbowl images of Martha Gellhorn, the stony-faced child holding the hand of her father:
cigarette in his hand, hat pushed
back on his head only the sky awash with
blue gums against the Southern Hemisphere’s
Godwit’s production, designed by Pieta Brenton, is sumptuous, both in the coloured plates of antique fabric patterns that separate the poems and in detail such as the binding. It is a book designed to be held in the hand and to endure. It is appropriate for a collection in which the writer traverses the places and people who have made her what she is. There are the relatives from England and Ireland known only by their perfunctory letters, the emigrants from Sunderland and the great-great-grandmother who tried to leave the boat as it left for New Zealand in 1839.
There are, however, some moments where the narrative becomes too literal, as in the sequence “Trouble the House”, which details the illness and death of her paternal grandmother. Taken from the words of family letters, the poetry seems here to be overwhelmed by the prosaic voices of people who are describing pain and grief in reassuring commonplaces. They are kindly enough but inarticulate. When these events were set out in Kidman’s autobiography, the telling felt stronger by virtue of the very bareness and inadequacy of the letters themselves.
The poems are at their best when she herself is the speaker: she is the observer of the daphne bush in Hataitai, whose perfume is stronger than in its youth. She is the wry composer of her own epitaph and, in “The Ngaio Tree”, she is the celebrant who thinks of all those she has known and loved:
and yes the dark scribble of the tree’s branches
against stormy skies, even though the boy came
from the tree long ago.
John Horrocks is a Wellington poet and reviewer.