Back on the rock, Janet Hughes

The Ski Flier
Maria MacMillan
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9781776561131

Vanishing Points
Michele Leggott
Auckland University Press, $28.00,
ISBN 9781869408749

Tightrope
Selina Tusitala Marsh
Auckland University Press, $28.00,
ISBN 9781869408725

Poetry seems to have reclaimed what someone called “the big speech” – eloquence, public speech, heightened language. Poets are reaching to expand their audiences and expressive range. It’s as if the bard has climbed back on the rock, tiring of contemplation and private conversation. These three poets are highly distinctive voices, using varieties of big speech to deserved acclaim in very different ways.

The style of Maria MacMillan’s third collection, The Ski Flier, strikes me as operatic, amplifying emotions on a scale commensurate with their intensity rather than their occasion, making stories emotionally relatable. MacMillan’s assured craft lifts the language, mixing registers to shift spare narration to searing frankness and aching heights. Heights are MacMillan’s passion. She writes with a kind of melancholy elation of climbing in the mountains, of the exhilaration, splendour and danger. I have never tramped, climbed, or really ventured into the mountains, but she persuades me to feel their pull and their tyranny, and gets me inside the head and skin of the title poem’s airborne skier.

Elation and menace thread through “Only the Things that Can Survive”, a long narrative poem about love on a climbing expedition. The language vibrates between baldness and lyricism: “Our edges and the edges of the air / broke open. It was joy. Everything / steep. Everything mattered.” The verse is metrically surefooted, the sentence and line breaks finely judged. When lost or foolhardy trampers bypass the hut, the mood goes gothic: “The hut was hostile, the candlelight unconvincing. // Corners of the room fell in and out / of darkness. The fire raged and gave no warmth.” And the wakeful couple are haunted by the recollection “of the passing torches. As if they were walking / all night from one ear to the other, but we could not / talk of it.”

There are also frank coming-of-age tales, and some domestic pieces which are fierce, tender and funny, as the speaker tries to figure out “how to live with the dinosaurs, the hellish hooves, and the daughters”. And there is a vein of surreal fantasy. One poem pulls a deft stunt, consigning a crucial fact to an unkeyed endnote. You read “Up Here, Here in the Sky” as the speaker recalling puberty (“I grew breasts and cheekbones and men whistled”) and exulting in her sexual power, calling herself a “portent, a giantess, a mountain”. But a clothed man starts to explore her nakedness, “him moving and me still” and she “jammed up hard against a wall”; it reads like a rape. Then the note wises us up: she is a billboard image, and we have to re-read, turning literal and figurative, real and imagined, funny and ugly upside down, but the issue of sexual exploitation still sits at the fulcrum.

Michele Leggott’s voice is big in reach and complexity, but less declamatory. It works immersively and cumulatively, with less direct appeal to emotion, reeling in the reader with intellectual and aesthetic fascination. Vanishing Points consists of about one third poems, two thirds prose and prose poems; I wouldn’t dare to locate the boundary on the finely tuned spectrum, and I use “poems” loosely. The poems are mostly less fractured and elided than Leggott’s earlier work, but they are of a piece with it, with an improvisatory, collaged syntax – splintered language, gapped layout, and intertextual leaps. Long strings of fragments make it too hard to isolate passages for illustration, and I won’t try; cumulative processes strike me as more important in Leggott than the fragments they coax into shape. The prose is sometimes gracefully straightforward, but there is also attenuated, splintery narrative and vaulting logic in the prose poems.

The blurb speaks of “a series of intersecting arcs” rather than a settled horizon, and suggests that “If we can work out the navigation the rest will follow.” The metaphor catches the dynamic of the collection, and the logic of the poems. The arcs intersect in multiple dimensions, defying linear thinking, cutting across codes of communication. The poems initially resist explication, but they make cumulative sense as they layer up and, with re-reading, immersion, the narrative and thematic threads come clear.

There are several principal arcs: colonial history; family; texts and images; and, above all, ways of seeing and remembering. It is part of Leggott’s explicit project in her last three volumes of devising modes of remembering and seeing as she progressively loses her sight. In an RNZ interview (12 November 2017), she explained the collection as a project conceived to “calibrate … against the final slide into the dark”, by “reaching into the visual memory” to “bring the words to the surface and make pictures”. It includes mellow, multi-sensory prose-poems about navigating life with minimal sight.

James Joyce’s autobiographical character Stephen Dedalus, being “weak of sight”, was less interested in “the glowing sensible world” than the interior world of emotions. There is no such turning away for Leggott. Though they may be assembled from remembered fragments and shrinking glimpses, pictures and objects in the sensible world are her primary material. But she is no Imagist. Her language is verb-driven, so each image participates in energetic processes, reflecting perhaps the sheer effort of seeing and remembering.

Multiple visual and textual devices anchor the book. The opening sequence of difficult, elliptical poems, “Looking Glass”, is focused through an 1824 set of pinhole star-charts called Urania’s Mirror. Each poem is titled for a constellation in the set. Another layer or arc of sense derives from two banners by Leigh Davis incorporating text and images. Various paintings appear in two of the prose sections. One recalls actual paintings by Leggott’s father, fleetingly, as a device for exploring memories of family places. The other, a fiction, casts her mother as a painter (“It cannot be true. But imagine for a moment that it is”), executing still-life “self-portraits” like those of Frances Hodgkins. The imagined role is a metaphor, but the imagined painting is detailed minutely, the metonymic objects in it tied elaborately into the whole fable about femaleness and creativity.

Finally, an overarching optical device furnishes a terrestrial reply to the airy projections of the star-charts. The volume’s cover depicts a painting by Edwin Harris of the 1860 siege of New Plymouth, which history is explored in the prose section “The Fascicles”. It’s an odd work, “an optical amusement”. The picture is punctured with variously shaped holes, letting through light to mimic the brightly lit windows in the dark town and moonlight on the harbour. This curiosity, like the star-charts, is a powerful metaphor for the book itself, and the way Leggott sees past her occluded vision. She peers through many devices – poems, documents, images, artworks, above all visual memories – and the apertures, while they exclude immediate reality, deliver scraps of intense luminance and intimations of celestial brilliance and vastness. The prose sections light glowing windows into the past, while the splintered language of the poems delivers its light in concentrated pinpricks. Scrutinised, they yield patterns and afford ways of seeing and imagining the cosmos.

These devices tie the several sequences together with an allusive web, denser with every re-reading. If MacMillan is operatic, Leggott’s voice is symphonic (if sometimes angular – Shostakovitch, perhaps?). It will sweep you up with its energy and variety, but will deliver up its intricacies only on repeated exposure. Leggott is insistent that poetry begins with song and listening, but her work will probably yield most to the reader free to flip back and forward between the pages.

Selina Tusitala Marsh is also concerned with loss and history, and modes of remembering. Her title and epigraph come from Maualaivao Albert Wendt: “we are what we remember; the self is a trick of memory … history is the remembered tightrope that stretches across the abyss of all we have forgotten.” Marsh and Leggott both enact the linguistic construction of the self, but very differently. Against Leggott’s iterative pursuit of fragmentary recollection, Marsh’s response to this necessity befits a popular performer. We watch her lean purposefully into the “Abyss” of historic and personal loss (Section I); walk the “Tightrope” (II) of cross-cultural and political negotiation; and celebrate the “Trick” (III) of remembering and above all of getting by. She creates a persona, whereas Leggott’s self is a frankly linguistic construct.

Marsh on paper and on stage is feisty and witty. She delivers her lines in an incantatory, musical fashion. Her work has an obvious affinity with rap. The confrontational and political dimensions are there, and her rapid-fire internal rhyme sequences refine a familiar rap technique. From the introduction to “The Blacking Out of Pouluili (1977)”, a sequence of erasure poems reducing pages of Wendt’s text to resonant scraps: “The black ink on black font cracks open lines with lava tracks that frack the land of your story hijack meaning ransack intention backpacking on your own invention”. Her tonal and technical range is, however, much wider. This alliterative sequence could be read as a catalogue of the diverse tricks she performs with language, “hacking in to wise-cracking …. side-tracking and bric-a-brac-ing”. It ends in a delicious convergence, as Marsh describes the final appearance of the subsequent blackout poems: “till back-to-back black-on-black makes the night’s pages shoot stars lighting up windows of words where we peer into pouluili” (Wendt’s title, meaning darkness, his “abyss”).

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised, as Marsh’s black pages with word-windows mimic Leggott’s star-charts and punctured painting. Both writers are academics, versed in postmodern thinking about textuality, intertextuality and the self. It would be easy to neglect this theoretical dimension of Marsh’s oeuvre and perhaps her sheer range, distracted by the provocative appeal of her performing persona and spiky humour. “Explanation of Poetry to My Immigrant Mother” is a virtuosic manifesto, which elides political analysis (poems are like dawn raids, the Avondale flea-market, a passport) with reflexive textuality (illegal rhythms, overstaying rhymes, rage wrapped in headlines bow tied with rippling alliteration) and justifies her proffered poetic.

She is pervasively political, casting herself as a “poetry warrior” on behalf of Pasifika, women, the disadvantaged and the colonised. Her weapon is often sly mischief, as a trio of poems in this collection illustrates. The first, “Unity”, was commissioned by the Commonwealth Foundation, and performed before the Queen in Westminster Abbey. The poem had to address unity, and could not be political. Marsh contrives to subvert the brief under cover of an amiable faux-naivety, helpfully placing Tuvalu “plop bang in the middle of the South Pacific”. We learn, with Her Majesty and the guests, that in “Samoan philosophy / what you do, affects me” – this innocuously illustrated by environmentally stressed honeybees threatening agriculture. The italicised refrain is the kicker: “There’s a ‘U’ and an ‘I’ in unity / costs the earth and yet it’s free.”

The next poem is a riotously literal back-translation from an Italian translation of “Unity”. A sample: “My grandad’s from Tuvalu” becomes, astoundingly, “My no-one in Tuvalu / adds essence to mulato”. The poem is surreal in a very European vein, and it demonstrates crosscultural miscommunication and incomprehension in and with the very act of translation. And the mischief isn’t over. The third poem begins with the pussy cat who went to London to see the Queen. And what did she there? “I frightened the Western world with my big hair”. And she explains her own act of poetic subversion as having “centred Polynesian navigation” (plop bang etc), “inverting West is Best/ Instead drawing a circle / Encompassing all the rest”.

For all that poets have pushed back against the perceived difficulty of poetry, taking on popular influences, reinventing poetry as a sport, promoting haiku as fun or therapy, it remains suited to saying complex things, and exploring difficult ideas and challenging feelings. These three poets have developed eloquent voices and turned them to exploring their preoccupations with grace and huge intelligence. The result is three inventive, sophisticated artefacts that deserve extended and repeated attention.

Janet Hughes is a Wellington poet, editor and reviewer.

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