Prodding the boundaries, Janet Hughes

Sarah Jane Barnett,
Hue & Cry Press, $25.00, ISBN 9780473333331

Tender Machines 
Emma Neale
Otago University Press, $25.00, ISBN 9781927322345

Soundings of Hellas 
John Davidson
Steele Roberts, $20.00, ISBN 9781927242957

Looking out to Sea
Kevin Ireland
Steele Roberts, $20.00, ISBN 9781927242926

I’m looking at another pile of rich, rewarding collections of poetry, looking for commonalities so that I can do them some kind of justice in the allotted space. I see that Emma Neale glosses her title by quoting two poets who likened a poem to a machine. Don Paterson is deprecatory: a poem is “just a little machine for remembering itself”; while William Carlos Williams throws the possibilities wide open with another craftily small claim: “A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words”.

I like this angle. I used to beg my students to tell me not what a poem said, but what it did – tell a story, make an argument, strike a pose, thumb its nose, whatever – in the hope of persuading them that poetry wasn’t just an instrument of introspection. Poems are devices, machines, for engaging an audience, and I wanted them to explore what the machine does when you press the button or turn the handle.

These poets put their machinery to diverse work. The machinery itself is largely conventional, though Sarah Jane Barnett and Emma Neale both prod at the boundary between verse and prose. Barnett’s long poems are devices for imagining other lives and other people, getting on with the work their peculiar circumstances enjoin. She makes the deal perfectly clear in her notes: the poems are “works of fiction that draw upon real people and events”, and she has “worked hard to be faithful to the facts”, with carefully documented sources.

Hence, perhaps, the sturdy, businesslike quality of much of the prose, the fragmentary economy of the verse. Sometimes the roles are switched or smudged together in poetic prose or prosy verse. Gaps and typographic dislocations feel scrupulous, as registering uncertainty about what can or should be said. The premise of each poem is an unusual or unfamiliar predicament, in which real or invented characters play out their humanity.

In “The Woman who Married a Bear”, the relationship between an asexual Department of Conservation ranger and her lesbian colleague crumbles in the despair and nastiness of any old breakup. The strangeness lies in the premise that the introduced species she is trying to exterminate from the New Zealand high country is the black bear, which is used to figure her solitary particularity. In “Ghosts”, another remarkable couple are involved in a remarkable project in a harsh, lonely place – a (real) ecologist and oncologist at the remote Global Seed Vault in remote Norway. Personal fragility becomes a figure of global genetic vulnerability.

In “Addis Ababa”, an Ethiopian immigrant rehearses the losses that have brought him to New Zealand, and explores the business of getting by, fitting in, settling in to work. His work is translation, and as a linguist, he is acutely aware of verbal and cultural gains and losses. His language has a careful, scholarly formality; and there are brief lapses into his mother-tongue when he is stuck for a word or grappling with something untranslatable. Mostly these words are not glossed, so we are left to briefly feel his frustration. For this touching, eloquent sequence alone, the book is worth seeking out.

Emma Neale’s machines are tender in more than one sense. They examine the tender emotions of intimate transactions, especially familial ones, sensitively and acutely. But they are also about the tenderness of vulnerable or injured flesh. They probe the exquisitely tender spots in marriage, parenting (especially), separation and gender politics, with a touch that is deft and brave. They can make you flinch or smile in recognition, or laugh at the astringent wit, or just admire their unflinching pertinacity.

The poems in the first section, headed “Bad Housekeeping”, reprise a familiar comic genre – mother recounting the cascade of small disasters that is a day with small children, half confessional, half defying anyone to accuse her of bad housekeeping, never mind bad parenting. The poems are often funny, the observation tartly acute. But they are tragi-comic, freighted with sadness and self-reproach for conflicted affections.

The whole project is summed up in “Stoic”, a list of increasingly elaborate variations on “We couldn’t cry about … because of the children”. The lists of sorrows and strains grows: the cancer, the supermarket, the politics, the finances, the house sale, the chores and the deadlines and dishes ….. The items switch places and sides of the ledger, sometimes enlisted as things they couldn’t cry about, sometimes as reasons for not crying. Each list closes with, or is shut down by, a cliché: “and of course there were the children”; “you know how it is. You have to get on with it”; “after all, you have to get it in perspective”; “they were only children”. The final list takes eloquent flight clean out of the frame:

We couldn’t cry and there were reasons we couldn’t cry and they became metaphors, vessels that both carried our tears and concealed them, because you can’t, there’s no point; the number of times we could have cried, you just wouldn’t read about it.

I seem to have dwelt on the sad, tough aspects of Neale’s poems, but they are also full of spark and invention and play. The political vein is pronounced in the last group of poems, and there’s a kind of boisterous, gleeful energy in the more declaratory, defiant way they take on the world. There’s a biting prose poem on “How to Install A Glass Ceiling”, spelling out the small print in the implicit contract of a liberal marriage. There’s a polemic called “Polemic”, a self-mocking cry for utopian social justice with the tart refrain “And that’s political”. These poems are machines for getting on with it.

John Davidson’s Soundings of Hellas takes up the familiar trope of reconciling classical Greece, the subject of his academic career, with modern Greece, crawling with tourists, and now in economic strife – “Crisis is a Greek Word”. He generally avoids invidious comparison, easy irony or predictable disappointment, apart from occasional light relief. His machines are maybe best understood as looms for weaving a panoramic tapestries from the history, myth and legend and scholarship and the contemporary pilgrimages and realities.

“The Myths of Myths” conflates the Greek legacy of myths with the ethnic culture of emigrants, the real children of the modern diaspora with the adoptive children  of classical scholarship, zooming from satellite to street-view, micro to macro focus.
The heartbeat of a myth is
felt in Wellington as much
as in Santorini, Larissa, or
squeezing Piraeus ….

Hellas itself, still shaping
the neurons of the diaspora
and touching cells of those
bonded as adoptive children.

The legacy is vast and infinitely adaptable. Mistakes in the myths retailed by an energetic but not always well-informed tour guide are no big deal: “The ancient art/of storytelling is sometimes of greater/value in itself than the bland veracity/of a story’s content” (“Protos Heuretes”). And “Talking Olympos” hauls the entire pantheon down to earth, to a Wellington where Aiolos unleashes the southerly out of boredom, Ares and Dionysos get punchy in Courtenay Place, and “the Earth-Shaker/bides his time. Inevitability is on his side.”

A few poems break out of this frame of argument. Davidson imagines the “Dying Thoughts of an Ancient Gnostic” persuasively, musing on the defeat of his faith by irresistible Christianity in what was “never a level arena”, the contest skewed by the spectacle of martyrdom. The magisterial persona in this forceful poem turns whimsy to a bitter end, deploring Rome’s “rock-solid home” and “poison pen and Polycarping/criticism”. And then there is “Fallen Column,” a graceful elegy for a friend who was a pillar of Wellington’s Greek community, the deliberate measures giving the spare language a ceremonious weight. At first I found the versification unsympathetic, mainly because so many lines ended with unstressed syllables and small words of no importance. Rusty Latin and no Greek didn’t help at all, but I wondered if I caught the shadow of a quantitative metre of some kind. At any rate, it helped to read the verse spaciously and deliberately, allowing its dry, spare dignity to resonate.

The title poem in Kevin Ireland’s Looking Out to Sea is also elegiac – a kind of valedictory fable addressed to his late brother. A dream conjures up their sibling rivalry, “contention”, with a stone-skipping contest that could be simple memory but for an unlikely scoreline. Cut to the brother’s farm, to home-brew shared “silently in love and peace” for already there is “nothing more to be said”; dream-logic elides life and death, farm and shoreline, eyes and stones, and the brother vanishes into the sea with a farewell gesture. For answer, there is the poem, powerfully charged with contained sentiment, but in the end serene.

His machines are not always so tender. They are often combative and irascible – as we expect from him – taking on the arts bureaucracy and the growling about the theft of time by daylight saving, or slagging off the sun, the “big fat selfish flashy bastard”, for spoiling an outdoor siesta. There is also celebration and humane reflection, and scrutiny of his life and work in cool retrospect and knowing self-mockery – often simultaneously. “A very brief biography” nails the attitude flippantly and confesses to the posturing in all seriousness, with a tonal virtuosity he makes sound easy:

The clumsy actors that I must declare in brief
always ham things up, bang into the furniture
And can’t manage more than half a dozen lines.
You meet the man I really am when I’m asleep.

Ireland has expressive range and perfect pitch – and a certain robust sizzle, in lines like “the sun smashed the mirroring waves to smithereens”, or “the wind worked/ a golden glitter into our bones”, which endears us to the stroppy selves he manufactures. He’s no technical innovator, but he bends traditional means expertly to his purposes, anatomising the discursive construction of the self without a single “look at me being metatextual” gesture.

In all this variety, the one common thread is the sheer necessity of fiction: in Barnett, it’s a way to understand the strangeness of fact; in Ireland, it supplies you with necessary masks; in Davidson, it admits you to a vast, ageless fellowship; and in Neale, it creates rhetorical weapons for defying assaults on tenderness.

Janet Hughes is a Wellington poet and reviewer.

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