Walking to Africa
Jessica Le Bas
Auckland University Press, $24.99,
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
How to Live by the Sea
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
In her 1913 essay “Mr Chesterton in Hysterics: A Study in Prejudice”, Rebecca West complained: “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a door mat or a prostitute.”
West mightn’t have been able to find out what feminism is, but many others have or believe they have. Take, for instance, those specialising in feminist literary criticism, like Ellen Moers and Elaine Showalter. Analysing female writers of the past and present, they and other academics have offered criteria which supposedly define how and what women write, including linguistic playfulness, expressions of female experience and re-adaptations of patriarchal myth. Perhaps because of the marginality of their craft, which seems symbolic of women’s historical social position, the work of poets has taken pride of place in this feminist re-evaluation of literature. Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton are but a few causes célèbres of such analysis.
Although feminist literary criticism has never been as strictly and consistently applied to the output of New Zealand women poets as their American and European sisters, the kind of correlations made remain relevant. Look at the poetry of Robin Hyde, Eileen Duggan and Jessie Mackay, for instance, and yes, you see the stirrings – along with their male counterparts – in expression and form of a national literary identity, but you also find poetry which, like their contemporary international sisters’, exhibits a mutability of language and form, the revision of folklore and a voicing of women’s experience. Indeed, the same might be said of the work of numerous New Zealand women poets since, including Jessica Le Bas, Tusiata Avia, Lynn Davidson and Kate Camp. For each offers a new poetry collection that, while not being exclusively or fervently feminist in method or purpose, nevertheless refreshingly explores elements of women’s experience.
Le Bas’s arresting and plaintive second collection, Walking to Africa, can be read on many levels, including poetic autobiography, evaluation of contemporary mental illness and innovative verse-making. At heart it is the story of a mother’s and daughter’s journeys through the diagnosis and treatment of the latter’s madness. It is also a collection which examines the liminal points between sanity and insanity that, as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar declared in The Madwoman in the Attic (1980), have been a feature of women’s literary exploration since Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. As Le Bas writes in “Summer, by Another Name”:
The night she takes all the pills you are writing
fiction in a cupboard
You are inventing a narrative arc
You are not inventing a flood, the end of the
It comes anyway
The sense of the implosion of real and fictional narratives, of the factual and fantastical, of the rational and irrational runs through the collection. Poems like “Spring”, “A Map of the World” and the titular verse infuse Walking to Africa with a persistent sense of questioning and uncertainty which replicates the barraging narrator and daughter experience attempting to define the indefinable state of mental illness. From this, Le Bas draws out themes of ethereality and transformation through shifting experiential perspectives of psychosis and identity, as in a poem like “The Angel/Nurse”:
grows round like a globe of the world
There is a little dark space behind her eyes
enough for stars, and other worlds
The salve throughout is poetry in the form of both the magic of Le Bas’s word-making and as a thematic shelter in counterpoint to the disorder of insanity, as the conclusion of the penultimate poem, “For Her, Poetry (i)” evocatively illustrates:
There is poetry
Little mouthfuls of life
freeze-flowing and condensed
A chocolate spoon full
One each day.
Poetry is also a place of safety for Avia in her second collection, Bloodclot. An allegorical reworking of the life of Samoan war goddess Nafanua, Bloodclot uses language and form as a refuge from which to explore and reinvent myth, reminding one, in the process, of earlier like-minded works such as Anne Sexton’s iconic collection, Transformations (1971), particularly through early pieces such as “Nafanua is a girl from Aranui”:
She has a father who gives her battle
and says, Now you can go anywhere you
She has a mother who says
You fink you da beautiful one?
you fink you da special one?
OK, go, do anyfing you wan it
you jus like da bloody princess.
Like Le Bas, Avia’s thematic interest is fact-versus-fiction, reality-versus-illusion, though rather than Walking to Africa’s terrain of insanity, Bloodclot’s topography is the marginality of women, particularly afa-kasi/half-caste women, as typified by “Nafanua’s mother talks about da afa kasi”:
If you see dose afa kasi now
dey call demself da Samoa.
You can’t call dem afa kasi
cause no place in dis world for da afa kasi.
In fact, in reinventing the Nafanua parable, Avia uses poems such as “What Nafanua does in America”, “Nafanua goes to Waikiki” and “Nafanua goes to the promised land” to heighten the sense of physical and geographical displacement that protagonist, narrator and reader feel. In the process, like any good act of gendered reinvention, Bloodclot rewrites male corporeality as much as female corporeality:
Nafanua thinks about a man in outline
a man burning calories
like a baby growing backwards
to foetus, membrane, perfect O
Dissenting and imaginative, Bloodclot is a stellar representation of its subject.
Davidson’s third collection How to Live by the Sea offers a different kind of marginality. Whereas Bloodclot looks at the misfit’s position in an intolerant world, How to Live by the Sea gazes inward, to a loner’s interiority. Where the world impinges, it’s distinctly domestic, rather than international, as in the trio of Capital café poems – “Biker girl”, “This freezing morning” and “Cuba Street” – or environmental, as in verses such as “How to survive the sea and sky” and the filmic titular poem, which begins and ends:
Be like the terns crouched on the shore.
Still under an empty sky.
Stake your life on warnings.
The gulls will circle, shrieking, before rain ….
Settle for disorder.
All summer you will swim before you wake.
References to swimming abound. Fluidity of meaning and of language, which augur fluidity of experience, frame work from “Shifting” to arguably the best poem, “The pianos”, where water is a familial memory and emblem:
The pianos were dark and worldly visitors
resting against walls.
I would play by their brass pedals,
my father in his roman sandals
slap-slapping around me.
Time and again, the motif of the ocean deepens the portrayal of an existential existence. So in poems such as “Warning to self”, “Light fingers” and “Fishing”, the sea is menacing and mythical, while in “My house”, “Visitors” and others, it’s part of the search for home and self. Collectively, such works imbue Davidson’s How to Live by the Sea with a precise authorial vision and concision of language, rich with colour, verbal dexterity, allusion and sensation.
Where Davidson’s work is lush, Camp’s enticingly titled fourth collection The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls is understated. For “enticingly titled” read also “enticingly crafted”; for there’s something about Camp’s pith and command which augments possibility and potential to thrive beyond the page, as in the introductory titular sequence inspired by the 14th century heretical author Marguerite Porete that opens like this:
The annihilated barely make an imprint in this
their beds are given away to others
they sleep suspended from the floor
by their own disbelief.
In their accessibility and weight, these poems remind one of Carol Ann Duffy or of Billy Collins’ “The Dead”, especially because, in Camp’s sequence, she too is challenging our notions of the devout and spiritual. More than this, and certainly with a Duffy-like flair reminiscent of The World’s Wife (1999), Camp’s poetic protocols are feminist-minded, her methodology driven by the previously disregarded heroine, Porete. The same sensibilities are present in the elegies to unrequited love, “Mute song”, “Deep navigation”, “The totally artificial heart” and others. The first of these, for instance, runs:
My desire was the desire to be superlative
I, who had spent years in domestic craft
became selfishly single-minded as an artist
inflicting your beauty on myself
like some ecstatic adolescent
cutting her arm with a pocket knife.
This isn’t to argue that Camp is writing in (capital F) Feminist mode or that her concerns are exclusively female. Rather she writes of things which have a (small f) feminist direction. Yet like all good writers of either gender, she tackles the world head on, from both sides, male and female, as in “The Colour of Pomegranates”, “Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand” and “Dusk Falls on the Cinema”. Indeed, often, it’s when Camp microscopes the world of people that she’s at her most profound and playful, as the last lines of The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls remind us:
The ordinary can be miraculous
if it happens often enough. Each moment
a calm object she placed in my hand
like a freshly unwrapped cake of soap.
As West’s comment about Chesterton suggests, notions of feminism are fluid. Equally, fluidity is a hallmark of women’s literary criticism. Those like Gilbert and Gubar who critiqued literature by women from the viewpoint of second-wave feminism have seen their discussions overtaken by those of detractors. Toril Moi, Mary Daly, Ann Oakley and others have cogently argued that women are too diverse social, ethnically and experientially to have a single uniform treatise applied to their work. This mutability of discourse and belief is something poetry understands too, for the landscape of contemporary verse is flexible enough to incorporate variable forms, techniques and media. Given these fluidities, Le Bas’s defiant Walking to Africa, Avia’s free-spirited Bloodclot, Davidson’s emotive How to Live by the Sea and Camp’s beautifully crafted The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls demonstrate two things. First, there’s an academic middle-ground between the positions of Moers-Gilbert-Gubar-Showalter and Moi-Daly-Oakley inhabited by these new collections. It acknowledges that though women’s writing is never an autonomous entity, a group of female poets can discuss a set of common experiences and discourses. Second, these collections confirm that New Zealand poetry, particularly New Zealand poetry by women, continues to expound the remit of what poetry is in fresh, intelligent and exciting ways.
Siobhan Harvey’s first collection Lost Relatives will appear later this year.