Phrases that catch the breath, Mark Houlahan

Michele Leggott
Auckland University Press, $28.00,
ISBN 9781869408084

In 2007, Leggott was New Zealand’s inaugural poet laureate; in England, there is a long tradition of poets laureate being crowned at the point in their careers where the muse has long since abandoned them. Not so Leggott. If the point of such an award is not just to honour a writer, but for them to show leadership simply by going about and being a poet, writing back to the world, then Leggott is still the real deal. This is evident throughout Heartland.

“When John Donne writes”, we read, in the poem “the longest night”, “you need / the commas and the apostrophes to understand / the daze he’s in.” Leggott here embraces the mid-winter festival of Matariki, set around the time of our longest nights at the end of June. The poem leads by heading away from Donne’s famously suicidal mid-winter meditation, “A Nocturnal Upon St Lucy’s Day”. Nothing would make Donne scholars happier, of course, than to set them arguing about the placement of commas and apostrophes, and the extent to which any of the punctuation may be said to belong to Donne himself. With Leggott, these matters are more straightforward. If you need commas and apostrophes, dashes and semicolons, clarifying full stops, she is not your poet. Her poetic sustains itself through line breaks and double spaces for caesuras, widely varying stanzas and line lengths. She then expects readers to come to her, inferring whatever punctuation they need to make provisional sense. What she wrote long ago of Zukofsky in Reading Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers (1989) applies to her poems as well. Both share a desire to “push us, readers, back to the sound of these words … to sound them in the effort to establish the sense.”

Yet these rapturous new poems are worlds away from Zukofsky’s, just as much as departing from Donne’s lines is a way, not of pastiching Donne for antipodean readers, but of marking a difference. Zukofsky worked hard to conceal meanings from his readers in dense cryptograms of poems. Leggott is altogether more generous, showing her traces in the poems, acknowledgements and in the lyrically phrased Note which ends Heartland, and which could easily be read as a prose poem in its own right. Here, Leggott eloquently describes the reading and writing protocols at play. “A family,” she notes, “is a series of intersecting arcs, some boat-shaped.” So, too, are the preceding poems. Like the family Leggott evokes, they, too, “are in motion, springing away from one another or folding themselves around some spectral inverse of the shape they make against sea or sky.” Quoting these words like an epigram risks making the poems sound more difficult and less accessible than they are. The point of her lines’ openness, their refusal to be closed off by punctuation, is to invite readers in, to share Leggott’s world, while making their own sense of what they find.

Donne receives winter shrouded in the depths of melancholy: “if only John Donne would turn a little from his black fugue / and consider some of the other stories in the sky,” Leggott reflects. Her poem continues the verbal fugue, with soaring verbal inventions, but, by orienting herself to the southern sky, she changes the palette to a riot of southern colours, travelling:

                              through darkness
towards the breaking light of day    the stars go out
trailing clematis and running whitebait over the
pale vault
where gold is chasing pink and silver to something
as deep as the ocean …


Here, romantic rapture is tempered by a Tuwhare-like description of eating whitebait fritters (“get out the frypan / and plenty of butter …. / the warm kitchen the steaming mugs of tea”). The concluding Note has a similar evocation of eating blackened sausages on the beach: “you wrapped the sausage in bread and cooled your burnt mouth with slugs of cordial.” Leggott’s recent collections have made public her struggles with failing eyesight, but her ability and desire to physically evoke the world remain strong here. Blindness, and its hazards for readers and writers, are glanced at, but are not dominant themes.

Heartland focuses, rather, on a series of journeys. First, there are journeys in the present Leggott herself has undertaken. Some of these reflect her daily routines, “memory drifting from trees / in the thumpety heart of the city”. Some travel up north to the Hokianga and the Kaipara Harbours. Some travel to the Big North, as it were, of inner Queensland, as in the second section, a beautiful sequence of diary poems. Here, Leggott is sensually attentive. She makes me hungry for “oranges / from Bulga picked yesterday sweet as / sunlight on the edge of the oval.” Here, she plays with language and form, riffing off T S Eliot in declarative capital letters:



High culture jostles alongside pulp TV and pop music. In Sydney, her ear is drawn to the
(disestablished) monorail, “whose thunder reminds us / with pink and green cars that the Jetsons / will live forever.” This part of Leggott’s “heartland”, then, embraces the present in all its glorious particularity.

These poems are then placed against other forms of journeying which are the emotional centre of the book: journeys of her ancestors to the Gallipoli campaign in WWI; the longer journey of her family out to New Zealand; and the journey her great-grandmother made with her husband’s body from Auckland to New Plymouth. These poems intermingle family archives, the poetry of fact, with poems that see the world from her ancestors’ eyes. The poems set around WWI did not hold my attention as much as the others here did. Possibly, I am steeling myself against the necessary onslaught of Gallipolliana we can expect during the next year. However, the collection finishes strongly with the poems remembering her great-grandmother’s voyage. The sorrowing wife comes to life strongly (“dead at thirty-nine the salary gone and what am I to do”), speaking in eloquent, simple free verse: “I will put him under the ground with our two small sons”. The funereal boat progresses down the beautiful, lonely, west coast of the North Island. There is a strong sense of reading the land across the century, as this is terrain Leggott herself knows so well: “Awakino the black river and then the coast”.

Here, too, you can see the point of stripping out punctuation markers. It is up to us to decide whose voice this might be. “There is no way of telling where one bit-part finishes and another starts,” Leggott notes in her award-winning collection Dia (1994), “and it is only my voice signing to the first person pronouns.” Again, this strikes me as an eloquent description of the procedures here, though Heartland is a very different collection, shifting demonstrably from exploring what words can do to showing how words, beautiful in themselves, can address worlds past and present. Rereading the previous Leggott collections, I was struck by how consistent her poetics have been, as well as by the strong emergence over time of newer themes and preoccupations, playing with history and family legends. This volume is consistently absorbing, and even poems I did not care for especially – such as the section in “Olive” on the Pike River disaster – are alive with phrases that catch the breath.


Mark Houlahan teaches in the English programme at the University of Waikato.


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