Memories, Möbius strips and Morse code, Elizabeth Crayford

Common Land
Lynn Davidson
Victoria University Press, $28.00,
ISBN 9780864737601

The Darling North
Anne Kennedy
Auckland University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9781869405939

Birds of Clay
Aleksandra Lane
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9780864737588

Common Land is possibly the most successful mix of poetry and prose I have read. Nothing is simply occasional, and everything fits together.” So writes Elizabeth Knox in the cover notes of Lynn Davidson’s fourth collection, a combination of poems and “essays” that locate its author in that generation between an ageing mother smitten with dementia, and her globe-trotting adult children. Knox goes on to call it a “deeply feeling and deeply rational book”; if you didn’t baulk at “possibly”, you may well have reservations, as I did, over “deeply feeling”. Deeply personal certainly, as Davidson recalls her first pregnancy and the mother who “visits and kneels …. brings me blackberries in a cup”, now reduced to a woman who “no longer has any recognisable language at her disposal.”

This is indeed the stuff of tragedy: on a first reading, I had to backtrack at the point where a text arrives from her son whose father “had paddled his canoe out to sea from St Ninian’s Isle in Shetland, where he’d been living for the past ten years, and hadn’t returned.” These family traumas play out against a backdrop of various national and international locales, from Banks Peninsula via a Christchurch punctuated by “porta-loos and piles of rubbish” and the Lewis Pass to the cities of Europe ‒ Istanbul, Prague, Paris, London – by way of Pukerua Bay and Palmerston North.

Davidson uses the authorial “I”, and there is no doubting this is the poet herself, describing the weight of her son “born/In the style of /devotional paintings” for whom (as any parent will recognise), “there are not enough hours simply to look”. She writes, in prose and verse, of her own childhood, her sisters and her piano-tuning and accordion-obsessed father: “we thought his grey/and pockmarked apron was like a dull afternoon.” A beautiful poem written in memory of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell shows Davidson at her best: “On your cliff-edge wind thunders, fat seeds patter/On sun-cut mulch below the whipping flax.”

Davidson has an ear for a resonant phrase and can write an apt metaphor. Individual poems are neatly crafted and eloquent. But the mixture of prose and poetry I found awkward, especially when she departs from personal narrative to reflect on language itself. I felt I was being given a creative writing lesson when, for example, she discourses on repetition as a rhetorical device, or tells me that “there is another important word in this poem.” Or, most strangely, that she will leave the rest “to the über-poet silence”, something she may well have picked up “In a masterclass at the International Institute of Modern Letters”. Both the reflections on writing and the common ground of family history are deeply felt by the author; whether what triggered them has been sufficiently annealed by the poet’s craft will depend on the individual reader.

Anne Kennedy’s The Darling North is the latest volume from this award-winning writer. The first long sequence (23 pages) of unrhymed couplets which gives this book its title is set in “a disused schoolhouse in the Hokianga”. Here the author holidays with friends and a lover although the latter swaps identity from one line to next with F E Maning, the author of Old New Zealand (1863), a “Pakeha-Maori” trader in the Hokianga who, like Kennedy herself, married into Nga Puhi. Thus the poem becomes a meditation on colonial New Zealand and what it was that drew Maning and others here: “the northness made them do it/…. The warmth, the lushness, the wild fertility,/is what they came south for.” That you could come “south” to the “north” in a sort of geographical Möbius strip is an idea that haunts the later sections of this volume, much of it set in Hawaii.

There’s an insouciance and bravura to Kennedy’s work, especially in the second sequence of this volume, a breathless, galloping romp through traditional fairytales in which Ruby and her mum take grandma a nice bottle of rosé for afternoon tea. Ruby, wise before her years, points out:

Mum, it’s not woods and it’s not wolf
this is the Pacific. It’s bush and paedophiles.
Oh I know, don’t think I don’t read the Herald.

Meanwhile Dad does battle (complete with Ventolin for all that huffing and puffing) with another wolf whose bilingual phraseology taunts the Three Little Pigs: “Hey ho poakasmoke hangipani” and “kunekune puhaface”. Brilliant bedtime reading for smart seven-year olds.

The sonnet sequence “Lostling and Foundling” describes another “north”, Hawaii, where “day and night you are dressed in heat”, where her daughter’s violin falls apart because of the humidity and at night kids chase toads on the lawn. This is a long way from her own childhood recalled in a series of prose poems ending: “I am still out there. I am standing in the cold sea at Island Bay and it is 2011, and it is freezing, and I am waiting for the fires on the hills to go out.”

The shift from New Zealand to America (albeit America’s most southern state) is neatly encapsulated in the section titled, “Hello Kitty, Goodbye Piccadilly”. Using the inclusive second personal singular, and written like a catechism, with assertion and response, Kennedy encourages the reader to “Imagine you were in Paradise/and on arrival/you remembered what you had been told about Paradise/at the little old cold school.” By the close of this poem, which ends the book, “you” are at last comfortable in the darling north; what was strange, and foreign, has become familiar if not quotidian.

Birds of Clay is Aleksandra Lane’s first book in English, after two published in Serbian. She moved to New Zealand in 1996 and completed her MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University’s Institute of Modern Letters in 2010, receiving the Biggs Poetry Prize. Like Lynn Davidson, she is currently studying for a PhD at Massey University.

Clearly distance looks Lane’s way too, “bringing with it a suitcase full of edgy Balkan politics and surrealism”, as Chris Price observes in the cover notes. In “War Interrupted”, Lane describes the civil war of her home-land, the threat of self-destruction, ethnic cleansing, aerial bombardment, and food shortages:

There is no roof
under which to house our
dialects. We will burn it
first. Bomb it

Language and war: both potentially lethal. To have lived through such a time, when “there was no food/except for thought” is sobering indeed. Lane’s personal, publishing and academic background ally her to the sort of European intelligentsia that gave rise to Dada during WWI and the Surrealists of the interwar period. Fluent in both English and Serbian, steeped in the complexities of the Balkan conflict and the richness of Slavic languages, Lane engages the reader not only with her extraordinary verse but with a stunning cover photo too.

The poet explores both language and layout: “War Interrupted” consists of two columns, one English, the other like lines of Morse code, as though the static of a radio broadcast or rapid anti-aircraft fire has infiltrated the poem, wreaking havoc with language as it must have with daily life. A concrete geographical shift is achieved with the repetition of  the word “Blink” under the title “Ursa Major” spelling out the Great Bear constellation, followed by the stanzas of “Crux” in the shape of the Southern Cross, beneath which she is “trapped in another hemisphere, another legendary sky”. This remarkable book is a lament for a culture lost, the forgetters and the forgotten, with “every cobblestone a grandmother”. Fragments of this past haunt the present, sometimes nightmarish, sometimes whimsical, rubbing shoulders with the “sinister … . childishness” of cabbage trees and “a different rain”.

Smart, sassy, cosmopolitan, multilingual, Lane is also awake to the wit and treachery of English. “Affairs of Grammar and Style” tackles a range of linguistic norms, this one perhaps with a nod to Ursula Bethell (another poet who lived between hemispheres): “There she plants a tree, half-fig, half-noun (n)”, although my favourite is “On beautiful conjunctions: Not only are you of equal syntactical importance, you have the most beautiful but in the world.” Not bad ‒ take a look at that sexy photo again right now!

Like the Wellington launch of this book, which apparently featured delicious Serbian delicacies, and a very entertaining gypsy music duo from Melbourne, Lane’s first English language publication brings to the antipodes a breath of the old world, weighed down with history but still able to laugh in the face of the absurd. Watch out for more.


Elizabeth Crayford teaches art history and English at Wellington East Girls’ College.


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