Victoria University Press, $40.00,
If I begin by saying that Jenny Bornholdt gives the impression of being a very modest person, it’s not because this review is to be an assessment of her character, which would be impertinent since I’ve only ever met her once, 25 years ago, but because I’ve come to the conclusion that her modesty is the mainspring of her virtues as a poet.
What do we now think the poetry of poetry consists in? Even those who are confident in the received metres and forms, as few now are, will deny any necessary connection between technical skills and what makes a heap of words into something we agree to call a poem. An understanding of beauty, an ability to put a familiar idea or feeling into fresh words, a capacity to go beyond the everyday – these are only intermittently valued and, in any case, few ideas, that of beauty included, command wide assent. Wilfred Owen told us that the poetry was in the pity, which made very good sense in the context of his responses to WWI, but presents a difficulty if we try to understand the statement as a more widely valid principle: is Owen advocating that the poet should trust to the content of the poem, or to the emotional, psychological and moral response the poet anticipates it will trigger in the reader? When William Carlos Williams wrote of those plums, now a benchmark for many people when they ask themselves what they think a poem is, are we being invited to conclude that one’s own pleasure in fruit someone else hoped to enjoy trumps any sense that selfishly snaffling it might be reprehensible?
No, of course not, that’s not really what the poem’s about, I hear you say.
Indeed. But you see the problem. In form and in content, in its handling of aesthetic and moral categories, poetry has been drifting for a long time now. This is good, if freedom is good. This is bad, if licence is bad. Whichever way you jump in your own choice of a position, the truth is that it is more important than ever to be able to respond to poetry across a broad spectrum. More important, not only because the poetry of poetry now reposes in so many different things, but also because poetry is more factionalised within itself than ever in its history, and of less interest than ever to what remains of a reading public.
Bornholdt’s position is both simple and complex. I’m guessing she’d be the first to concede that her poetry isn’t the place to be dazzled by craftsmanship. I’m guessing, too, that she’d agree that pursuing what oft was thought, and trying to express it better than it’s ever been expressed, simply isn’t what she does. Whatever understanding she has of beauty, or of the importance of feelings, or of moral responses to the world, is invariably presented in muted, oblique tones, as if she were embarrassed by the possibility of being perceived as foisting herself upon us. By her own account (in “Big Minty Nose”) she doesn’t care for talking in public, and her presence on the page is so quiet that you almost have to seal up the doors and windows against all outside noise in order to hear her at all. Her Selected Poems reminded me so strongly of a Tove Jansson or a Robert Walser that I began to think of her as essentially a writer of what some languages nicely think of as “little prose”.
These lines from “Big Minty Nose” may make sense of that thought:
Often when I’m up in the shed working on
this poem, I get drawn out into the garden.
I’m typing this with muddy hands, after stopping
on the way here to pull some weeds. Yesterday
I began work then found myself out
behind the shed where the rose grows,
wondering how to make a raised bed. I think
is as much poem as this poem is. And the washing
and the coffee
are also poem. The men next door with
saws, they have become poem, along with
the steps and the stick insects – one red, one
stuck to the shed window, looking in.
The persona is one Bornholdt has been steadily fine-tuning throughout her writing life: somewhat lost in the world, unable to master it, more acted-upon than acting, moving seemingly without volition, continually coming up with apparently scatty or inconsequential thoughts while others (“men with shovels” in “Waiting Shelter”, five books earlier) are in the background doing what passes for purposeful work. Doesn’t she know any of the ways to find out, quickly and easily, how to make a raised bed? Doesn’t she know how to wash mud off her hands before typing? Doesn’t she know how to present herself to us as just a little more tuned to life in the world? Ah, but these are the wrong questions. She has hit upon one of the foundation thoughts – not “what is a poem?” but “what is poem?” – and we are in attendance as she meditates upon what constitutes “poem”. This self-presentation in the act of examining a thought, like the self-presentation of herself as the poet who has a place to go to in order to work on poems, could be pretentious (at one end of the spectrum) or fey (at the other), and I’m interested to find that I experience it as neither. Why?
In part, the answer lies in the oblique relationship of Bornholdt’s couplet poems to Baxter’s Jerusalem poetry. Bornholdt, too, is embracing simple meanings. She, too, throughout the poems of The Rocky Shore, is conscious of the freshness of existence bursting upon her after she has left crisis behind. She, too, has figured out that whatever is – the weeds, the washing, the coffee – is a part of the totality that merits a place on her page. The inessentials first, as Baxter would have said. But the differences are as striking. Bornholdt has neither Baxter’s unerring ear and technical command, nor his intellectual and visceral engagement with religion and myth. And – this is the funny thing – those lacks, which could be weaknesses, are strengths. They articulate the radical modesty that is the motor of her mature poetry. She keeps herself busy finding things to say that exist in a space stripped bare of the big narratives of art and myth. In that space, what counts is little more than a softly-spoken “I am”.
A mid-life vortex of experiences about which I know, and need to know, little – the Menton residency in France, serious illness, the death of her father – lies behind the memorable poems that stand head and shoulders above the rest in this book, the poems of her 2008 collection The Rocky Shore. “Confessional” springs from the same source as “Big Minty Nose”: there she is, “wondering” and “thinking about / trivial things”, and there she is, disoriented in her life, and there she is with a man at work nearby, this time a crane driver, and there she is, positioning herself on a map of mortality, this time between explicit charting of her children and her father’s cancer but also, at the close, of the slippage of the elderly towards the coming dark. The close of the poem lives in the shadow not of Baxter, but of Curnow:
The women rub their bodies absent-mindedly
the way they might
brush crumbs from a tablecloth. As the sun
cools, children dig
by the water, parents read, and the elderly relax
sleep settling over them like a thin sheet. Down
hand over hand through the bright of their lives.
and talk and bucket and build and rub and
brush and scoop
and watch and tousle and chide, while the elderly,
into skin, they climb on down.
This is the key-note Bornholdt is comfortable with: all ambition beyond an almost programmatic everydayness is eliminated, significance is discovered only in the absence of significance. Yet, still, there is highly-wrought rhetoric here. Still there is that heightened phrase, “the bright of their lives”. And still there is the unmistakable ghost of Curnow’s “You will know when you get there” at the poem’s back. It’s as if Bornholdt were saying to him: Relax, it’s just a beach, it’s just the sea, this is what people do, it’s life, and it ends, yes, it does, it ends.
The poetry of this poetry lies in its attitude. The content of the passages I’ve quoted is in neither case especially interesting, and there is nothing that can compel intellectual, emotional or aesthetic attention. What counts is our sense of the persona, the recording angel at the centre of the vortex, and what counts also is that that persona is not egocentric. The lines I’ve quoted from “Big Minty Nose” use the first person pronoun five times, those from “Confessional” not at all, but in both passages the impression remains stable: that the poem, though it insists on the self’s existence, is in no sense finally about the self. That may be Bornholdt’s most striking contribution to contemporary poetry. So many of her poems – visiting the hairdresser in France, selling a car, suffering illness – read like accidents. Where other writers are forever discovering a core of necessity in what happens to them, as if the world depended for its meaning on them, Bornholdt seems at heart to conceive of herself as simply one more particle of existence alongside all the other particles of existence. If the art of poetry is drifting, Bornholdt has discovered satisfaction in being content to drift with it, one more poem alongside all the other poem (singular).
Michael Hulse, whose most recent book of poems, Half-Life, was named a Book of the Year by John Kinsella, teaches poetry and comparative literature at the University of Warwick.