Paradoxes of knowledge and knowing, Nicholas Wright

Dinah Hawken (drawings by John Edgar)
The Holloway Press
ISBN 9780986461880

Ruby Duby Du
Elizabeth Smither (Kathryn Madill illus)
The Cold Hub Press
ISBN 9780473268305

Gathering Evidence 
Caoilinn Hughes
Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864739261

On opening Dinah Hawken’s latest volume of poetry, one is struck by its materiality: for a volume of such spare poems, it is a heavy book, a beautiful thing. This sense of the material is evident also in the impressions made by the letterpress-printed words in the pulp of the cut pages. Nostalgia materialises, one might say, in the page’s imperfect absorption of the ink, suggestive of a saturated past all but lost except for its tracing in these spectral letter-figures that, ruin-like (or like the runes of John Edgar’s accompanying stone rubbings), evoke the fullness of the world and all its constituting otherness through their very imperfection.

If the volumes by Hawken and Smither share a nostalgic shading for a world displaced by the way we represent and know it, they share with Hughes an attention to the paradox of knowledge. As Hawken and Smither suggest, to know the world is to know it as metaphor, and all three poets pursue the implications of this displacement by exposing the edges of knowledge; at times these edges are shown to be beautifully contingent, at other times they are revealed as debilitating and prescriptive.

A poem like Hawken’s “Leaf” (quoted in full) expresses something of this paradox of knowing:

Always waiting.
A frame of anticipation.

Smooth, open, with nothing to say
– It has never heard of urgency.

Each flicker in the wind is an echo:
here here here here. A silver

hair curved on the page.
A dark eyelash too. Imagine worlds

without edges and order. Imagine
a page empty of everything

and yet not
giving edges away.


The constituting dilemma of knowing materialises here in the immediate edging into figuration; the prosopopic “heard”, the metaphors (“frame” or “the wind is an echo”) serve to remind the reader of their inhabitation of language, but also of our dependence on this translation of world into knowledge. The poem asks us to consider ourselves as our edges – the very figures, signs and sounds we use to bracket the world for knowing and sharing; the world exists for us within the human frame, that parenthesis of “curved” and cursive “silver hair” and “dark eyelash”. Within this suspension, a “frame of anticipation”, we experience the knowing and not-knowing of the world, expressed for us in that typically aporetic Beckett-like injunction of the poem’s last five lines. We also hear it in Hawken’s word play: to consider a world “without edges” (no edge) is also a form of knowledge.

For Hawken, the instance of knowledge is haunted by all that disappears in its moment of presentation; the volume’s tone is thus that of the apostrophic “o”, and while the poems continually cycle through their tender paradoxes (one notes the chiasmus on which one of the “Stone” poems is built: “o”, “on”, “one”, “tone”, “stone”, “tone”, “one”, “on”, “o”, as well as the chiasmatic-like figure with which the volume’s last poem concludes), they find time to reflect on the material argillite of a life lived with others in time and metaphor: the knowledge of one’s mortality (that “silver hair”), the experience of gender as constructed in knowledge.

Smither’s volume is written to her granddaughter, Ruby; her birth is recorded in the volume, as is her entry into language and knowledge. Given the dedication (for Ruby), if not also the volume’s imperative to weigh, measure and record the details of this new life, one might expect simple, clear poems; indeed, one might expect a series of “clean […] windows” through which Ruby might come to know the world as free of the warp and condensation of knowing as possible. But, as the poem “Cleaning windows for Ruby” makes clear, this isn’t possible, especially when one starts life with a metaphor for a name. We grow into metaphor, and into the drama of likeness and difference that defines our experience of knowing. In the volume’s series of watercolours, Kathryn Madill interprets this drama through the materiality of empty garments and spectral objects, all of which call out for inhabitation as ephemera of the human frame. Simple seeming poems become lessons in looking, listening (the wide-open song-vowel of “duby du”) and metaphor. The poems enquire into the rudiments of knowledge and the desire for synthesis: “the way a girl can come together / with a hat and pouting lips”.

If, as with Hawken’s volume, there is something nostalgic, perhaps even a little melancholic about Smither’s text, this, too, might be due to a certain knowledge: in a sense, these poems will always have been too late, recordings of a present that Ruby won’t fully appreciate without the nostalgia of her own adult perspective. The memories these poems inhabit are simultaneously hers and not hers, but this is the human paradox – even our own knowledge is not our own; all knowing, like all metaphor, calls on, speaks to, and may speak for, other voices and other times. As the volumes under review make clear, we must, therefore, take care with the way we receive the world. We must look after our metaphors, not least because of the natural ease with which we assume their power to displace: Ruby is, as we are told, the same height as a “tall vase, a blue iris. / A blue iris with a dreaming head / curled in a room where a machine / like an elaborate sgraffito ceiling / feeds and cleanses our blood, breathes / for you as you move and dream”. As the metaphors accumulate, the poet is bound to think and “dream” in the very act of attributing these processes to an unborn child, and so the poem turns to thinking about thinking, and returns to the question of knowledge: “Do you know you are 31cms now? / And this is normal?” By the end of the volume, Ruby has entered language, and the implied poet has found a way of reconciling human metaphor and knowing with something metaphysical: “And if, grown, she / ignores them [the stars] or likens them to jewellery / no matter. Still and forever they shine.”

While both Hawken and Smither are happy enough to leave a space for the mysticism of not-knowing in their volumes, Caoilinn Hughes is alert to the ways in which such mysticism can be used as a foil for more debilitating articulations of metaphor and knowledge. Such is the case in a poem like “Communion Afternoon”, in which the child’s emission of a “spaghetti alphabet” represents the rejection of a metaphysical language lacking in nourishment and complexity, the poem’s persona “disgusted / at the injustice of being small and atheist and inarticulate”.

In the densities of these industrious, long-lined poems, we witness a fearless imagination at work: the volume’s energy, its great offering, is its conviction in experience, its faith in “making observations and vowel sounds”, “deciphering inference”. Gathering Evidence is full of experiment, as well as a good deal of humour, but at its best it treats injustice with impressive acuity. Commonly, the cause of this injustice is the prosecution of knowledge at the expense of others. The volume’s title poem takes the occasion of a hail shower to offer such a commentary, concerned as it is with the application of new knowledge (gravity) to experience: “He had felt the world upon him, / but the welts it left would not be proof enough”, we are told, without the presence of an “esteemed witness”. While this particular empiricist overlooks the witness of his wife, Hughes devotes the poem’s last line to her, a woman “who would not nurse his fever”. The fever to know is also the source of the critical awareness in poems like “The Moon Should Be Turned”, which reflects on the life and exploitation of Henrietta Lacks, or “Rational Dress”, which treats the absurd, gender-based prescriptions imposed on the life of the extraordinary Marie Curie.

On each page of Hughes’s volume, our all-too-human compulsion for synthesis, via knowledge, is apparent. Poem after poem attests to this compulsion by the very weight of learning, knowing, and naming each evinces, and with a kind of enthusiasm that is both self-generating and evangelical; but such an energy seems appropriate, given the poet’s willingness to implicate herself in the very systems and structures she critiques. In “Bolivian Children”, for example, the need to synthesise is seen as part of that index of consumption that ties the world together. The “index fingers” of the Bolivian children that point to the cochineal dye of the poet-tourist’s clothing, made by the “too-small hands, too much like their own” of exploited labour, are evocatively interpellative. If this gesture calls out to us, it does so in the name of an index and system-loop we have generated through a desire to synthesise experience into likeness and difference, the very process of displacement by which we know and read the world by the imprint of its metaphorical purchase.


Nicholas Wright teaches English at the University of Canterbury.


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