The wisdom of things, Anna Smaill

The Yield
Sue Wootton
Otago University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9780947522483

The Internet of Things
Kate Camp
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9781776561063

There is beauty to be had in yielding, Sue Wootton’s collection suggests, both to the natural world and to language. The collection’s title comes from its final poem, a quiet ode to an apple tree. Resurrected from its first life as a “dehydrated sapling”, the tree has thrived against the odds. Evidence of its battle remains in its posture; the sapling has developed

a lean, the whole tree on an angle,
as if surrendering in deference
to persistent pressure, as if leaned
upon,
giving in or giving up to what
prevails

 

The poem ultimately suggests that, rather than resignation, the tree’s lean is a mode of enabling sacrifice: it “let[s] go” in order to “put out arms, become a fruitful crux”. In conserving its energy the tree enables a different kind of yield – the crop of “yellow apples, blushed, /…Tart and crisp, delicious.”

The poem presents two distinct and fertile modes of accommodation. Here is a receptive, knowable natural world that offers up, in its benevolence, meaningful analogies to the attentive human. The final, gracefully achieved pun reflects a further sense of accommodation – language itself as an adequate tool in this investigation. The collection’s opening poem “Wild” reinforces this. Here are floods, blushing gluts of provision. This is the natural world as a means of articulating and extending human self-understanding:
Map my rivers
deltas, estuaries. Mollusc, whelk, worm.
Monitor my silt. Do I have spoonbills,
high-stepping and watchful over the
darting fish?

 

The language is sensory, tactile, intelligent. There’s an inherent confidence that the inlets and channels of etymology might lead us deeper into the world, and deeper into this delighted communality.

The sense of a meaningful and meaning-generating fit between poet-speaker and natural world continues throughout The Yield. At times, nature might oppress. In “Mammatus”, heavy clouds take over a town, “push[ing] their dugs on us” and threatening to “spew … pent and rotted milk to pit our pretty town”. Yet, even if nature oversteps, language remains adequate to the resulting psychodrama. Here, the poem’s title points to a delight in the right word: Mammatus, a note instructs us, is “a rare formation of downward-bulging clouds”. The tripping, spitting plosives in the line quoted above (“spew”, “pent”, “pit”, “pretty”) are testament to the speaker’s linguistic control, an oral pleasure more pressing than fear.

It might be churlish to wonder, in the face of so much generously shared delight, whether there’s not something a little anachronistic about a poetry so ready to evoke and praise the overlap between self, world, and word. In 2017, one must work hard to turn away from a recognition that the human imagination has been disastrous for the natural landscape. Does this recognition, in turn, disrupt our sense of the adequacies of language? For Wootton, not so. Even a deteriorating landscape might speak to us in our own tongue. “A Behoovement” describes an iceberg’s “blue realm articulate in creaks and cracks and booms”. Global warming is tragic primarily in that it might deprive humans of spiritual metaphor: “What is the soul to do,” the poem asks, “if the icebergs melt?”

Another poem “!FORD” addresses the same concerns. Here, the speaker contemplates an unexpectedly dry river crossing as part of a larger, more perturbing, ecological pattern. The poem’s clever crux combines two disparate ideas – the futility of the title’s road sign warning, and the car manufacturer as catalyst of this particular environmental disaster:

Ah, Henry, what have we combusted

with your engine, in the name
of getting here faster?

Yet even here, the habit of linguistic accommodation endures. The poem achieves its climax via a neat pun. It is a signature Wootton move, but it comes with risk. While the tactic pays off in “The Yield”, many other poems in this collection leave us with a suspicion that linguistic adequacy might sidetrack us from more difficult questions. One leaves such work with a sense that its language might, on occasion, yield rather too readily to pressure, and that the leap between world and word has been achieved in a worryingly easy crossing.

That Kate Camp’s collection The Internet of Things occupies a very different territory from Wootton’s is immediately clear from its epigraph, taken from the Danish poet Inger Christensen:

Happiness is the change that comes over
me
when I describe the world
It comes over the world
Happiness is the change that comes over
me
when I’m afraid
It comes over the world

 

This is a collection about the limits of subjective awareness. It ultimately forgives our doomed hunger to “describe the world” and to see it constantly reflected in the lineaments of mood. Yet it is animated also by a chastened sense of this project’s limit. When happiness “comes over the world”, it does so warily, making allowance for a world that is distinct from human imagination. More specifically, it allows for (and is allowed by) a recognition of one’s own vision as strictly finite. The epigraph continues: “I can be afraid of and for the world / afraid because the world consists among other things / of me so swiftly dying … .”

The Internet of Things has its eyes firmly fixed on mortality. The poems work as dispatches from the outpost of the human body in middle age, a stronghold imagined as both protectorate and prison. In “The Golden Age of Television”, the speaker describes her wish to “bar entry of light into the iris” and “draw up the castle gate of [the] jaw”, yet in “The Waking Have One World in Common”, the body is “a tunnel” in which (as per the epigraph from Heraclitus) “sleepers turn aside, each into a darkness of their own”. Nevertheless, the ambivalence of middle age affords the collection a distinctive vantage point. Throughout, poems dally with a precarious – sometimes vertiginous – sense of “looking down and up at the same time”. Or, as the collection’s final poem, “Antimony”, has it, of looking both ahead and behind:

When I look out to sea
I feel myself a reckoning point.
Like the woman at the front of a ship
I have everything in front of me
and everything behind me.

 

It is a vantage that maps very aptly onto the specific geography of Camp’s “home town”, Wellington. What makes this city special is that one is always both “above and below” things. Such a position, these poems suggest, encourages imaginative implication as well as a useful mode of detachment. One might see, acutely, into other’s lives, yet rest in the knowledge that they occupy a different terraced level: “You aren’t worried, of course, you’re just singing / you’re looking over the heads of relaxing strangers”.

While it might be harder to approach the falling away of the body and the past with the same detachment, this collection broaches the task. The speakers recall a once-diligent, now-lapsed record-keeping for the body (“For years I had saved my medical records”); they imagine misplaced and discarded objects of childhood (“Just recently, mum threw away Oggie Doggie, / left with her for repair”); and they display the casually spendthrift attitude toward the past that might be expected of someone who claims to be “a billionaire of memory”. Ultimately, the collection traces Camp’s discovery that one might imagine such dispersals with a sort of wounded equanimity.

In fact, imagining what the world might look like without our presence is one of the collection’s odd and enlivening comforts. “We need to accept that the world / is more intelligent than we are,” the title poem tells us. The objects of nostalgia and the detritus of the body have begun, in these poems, their own slow, intelligent rebellion. Here, we begin to read the collection’s deadpan title anew. Rather than a direct allusion to the “smart technology” that gives us apps to regulate our heat pumps and remind us to restock the cat food, the title becomes a metaphor for the wisdom of things, the vast network in which they operate beyond our control or understanding.

That this network finds its objective correlative in the language of computing is an irony alert to Camp’s claim on specific generational experience. This is a speaker, after all, who remembers what the world was like before the internet, who recalls watching classic films on “worn and stretched” VHS. She is a digital non-native who might nevertheless remain grateful for the ministrations and ersatz care of technology: “Welcome to your new sky / my appliances say.” In keeping with this, The Internet of Things describes its carefully delimited domain with a unique mixture of detachment, paranoia, humility and fondness. It is an utterly congenial mode for excellent poetry.

 

Anna Smaill is the author of the poetry collection The Violinist in Spring (2005) and the prize-winning novel The Chimes (2015).

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