Challenging, touching, persuading, Janet Hughes

How I Get Ready
Ashleigh Young
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 978176562367

The Dangerous Country Of Love And Marriage
Amy Leigh Wicks
Auckland University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9781869408978

To The Occupant
Emma Neale
Otago University Press, $28.00,
ISBN 9781988531687

Judging a book by its cover would not be a cliché or a hazard, if so much design talent did not go into trying to make us do exactly that. Who, faced with a display of new books, has not followed the urging of the eye, probably at the expense of worthy competitors? 

The cover of Ashleigh Young’s How I Get Ready is a knockout. The ink drawing by Sam Duckor-Jones shows a sketchy figure leaning into and turning away from the wind, hands flicking ineffectually, upper body dissolving in a tangle of scratchy lines. There are suggestions of windblown hair, clothing and belongings; of flying trash and scattered thoughts or wits. The expected face or bent head is invisible, somewhere behind a dense mesh of hatching.

The image crystallises Young’s angular persona, exposed and obscured, beleaguered, resisting disintegration. The persona is elusive; like the cover figure, it will reveal states of mind and heart with attitudes and gestures, but the face is lost among the lines. The reader is held at a distance by the brittle voice, which can be flatly declarative, or casually uninflected in the manner of social media discourse. The style ranges from spare to voluble, and the imagery can be startling, evocative, disturbing or mystifying in any proportions.

The title poem exemplifies the poetic of unease compactly and forcefully. It approaches the problem of getting ready – “a pure, bitter difficulty / like calculus”– as an emblem of social reluctance, then dives abruptly into deep existential straits. The will to annihilation is confronted but left hovering – the poem is bracketed by the lines “What song will they play if I don’t come home tonight?” and “My going-out clothes are waiting for me / ironed smooth, laid out like a disappearance”. 

Young delivers a succession of declarations and images in shifting registers, lobbing them at the reader or slapping them up like slogans on a virtual wall. The dealings with the reader are fraught – it is as if she likes to worry us, then bat away our concern, and to puzzle us wilfully. Her idiosyncratic mindscapes can resist explication, though they are built from familiar sights and sentiments:

I partition the day into a wall of
                                      smaller
more manageable days, each of
                          which goes black
as I billow past in my bike pants
                                  and cleats

I am getting unready, I am trying
                         to be made lovely
by the glow of an adshel in the rain.

This sequence transmutes figurative motion past an imaginary wall into the literal motion of a cyclist past an illuminated bus shelter in the wet dusk, with a certain precision. But then it rebuffs my curiosity about the connection between getting ready and the wash of second-hand light, and resists my (presumptuous?) interest in the state of mind or feeling it illuminates. The surface engages the reader, but offers limited purchase, leaving them to wonder or guess. 

The poem then gathers power with a dark, complex figure representing low mood as a bath, “the comforting midwinter soup / of our sadness”. The promise is that the young will eventually emerge intact, the “dark broth will always drain from us” and “our footsteps will pour into the future”. Now we are back to getting ready, not just for tonight’s event, but for life and everything – the whole, dark future. A daring extension of the drainage metaphor captures its vast, threatening obscurity: the future is concealed “under thick nests of fat beneath the streets. / It pours out to sea, gently warming the earth / and its creatures.” And it is compromised by conflated anthropogenic harms – fatbergs in the sewers and climate change. The promise is clouded with doubt, and we learn to mistrust words like “gently”, and to settle for uncertainty about the emotions being expressed, while in no doubt about their daunting power. 

“How I Get Ready” is a typically tough, compelling, confronting poem, with Young’s typically abrupt style and edgy tone. But she can also be delicately lyrical, as in “Lifted”: “The hills pull fog around themselves / and trudge to the sea / carrying all our houses”; a yellow raincoat is “turning rain to torches”; and “Light rests on a man waiting to cross, / coats his dog. // Light crosses a man / waiting to rest”. The unease is subdued, if never quite quelled, in this quintessentially Wellington wet-dusk miniature.

The title of The Dangerous Country Of Love And Marriage pertains to the book as a whole, not to a single poem, and it is an integrated collection, gathering force from an implied narrative arc. Amy Leigh Wicks’s first collection traces her physical migration from New York to Wellington, and eventually quake-wracked Kaikoura, and her venture into the relationship that motivated it. A contour of displacement and dislocation is entwined with an anatomy of “dangerous” commitment in love – which emotion she calls “the ripping you feel in your chest”. 

This volume also explores turbulent emotions, but by more conventional means. Though fundamentally contemplative, it engages the reader more directly. The poems are perceptive and clever, but their craft is not self-conscious; it is directed into anatomising feeling acutely and giving it a compelling, solemn voice. Looking for the ground of its distinctiveness, I settled on two things.

One is a measured musical quality. The cadences are essentially biblical, and many of the poems invoke biblical forms (“Psalm”, “Canticle”), or carry some devotional charge. One psalm poem is a translation, whereas others are obliquely related to the biblical texts, or essentially secular. “Psalm IV” is a response to the psalm, an imagined sequel filled out with gritty specifics: “when I / raced on wine bottles”, climbing fire escapes and a high barstool “so far from that sticky floor”. While Wicks puts God at the head of her acknowledgement list, she does not shut out the non-believer. 

The other strength of Wicks’s style is the spare, eloquent figurative language, which brings observational precision and original force to small moments and the great, old topics of love and grief alike: “My grief is hurried, muffled, / finally shushed like a child in church” (“Crux”); “His hand fits my waist / thumb to spine, palm to curve – / I’ve never been this small before” (“Canticle IV”).

Wicks is acutely attuned to the emotional tenor of events. She gives an especially sure-footed account of the Kaikoura earthquakes, which dominate her existence in a literally dangerous country since she works in infrastructure recovery in Kaikoura. The earthquakes figure in many poems, from “Premonition” to “Rūmuri” (aftershock), and are stitched into the entangled narratives of leaving, staying and loving. She can approach almost playfully, through small details:

The kai moana rotting on the shores,
                                   smell it –
all real. You live here. This is not
                                    Purgatory

but the roads do
close and open

close
and open

like the lollipop people get
their messages from God.

And we grasp the (not)-Purgatory of uncertainty and isolation in recovering Kaikoura.

In the closing poem “Everything Ruined”, she fuses physical with emotional dangerous terrain intimately:

    Marriage …
                        is consummation
                                    by fire –
trees brought low till the roots are
                                     exposed
in a scorched plain. Everything
                            ruined by flame
until finally, a new thing can grow.

The two strands always implicitly invoke and figure each other, the details picking up a layered metonymic charge. The result is aesthetic luminosity and real emotional heft.

From Emma Neale, we have learned to expect energy, technical ingenuity, agility, breadth of thought, and an unflinching emotional lucidity. She also excels at verbal and structural wit, mischievous, often self-deprecating, occasionally mordant. And she can do outright comedy, especially about family dynamics, with a rueful bite. “Underneath The Fridge Magnet” is a running-away note in pitch-perfect kidspeak, which makes you laugh and ache for the middle kid.

The wit is instrumental rather than the whole point. It can undercut a sentimental perception, for example – the itinerant music teacher in “Blue Rubato” seems to be praying, but turns out to be lighting a cigarette in the wind; and in “Tag” the sound of castanets on the night air proves to be the bead in a spray can being readied for tagging. But neither poem is finally about disappointment or banality; they are about celebrations of small moments and found music. The poem about the music teacher riffs on serial misperceptions: “Whoa … // Wrong”, he’s not praying, air-kissing, or holding “the world’s smallest oboe” and his “spontaneous street solo, / pianissimo as the kazoo / of a bee mid-air-doodle” proves a vain hope, “nope”. But all the while the suppositious music is being dismissed, we imagine it as it might have been; and an onomatopoeic, syncopated-with-a-hint-of-rubato music is being improvised from words and stresses and line-breaks and punctuation, as the characters dance past each other in the street. Similarly, the whole of “Tag” is a bird spray-can rhapsody, full of the “hard bead rattle” of percussive consonants and the burr of foreign, vibrant zeds: 

trickster korimako
bellbird, mimic bird, can-bird;
in great neon streams now
he tags the air with song –

bird iz here! bird lovez azaleaz! bird
                                lovez birdz!

These poems sit at the lighter end of the collection’s spectrum, but they demonstrate the craft with which Neale matches her broad compass with formal agility and emotional precision.

In the final section of the book, “Selected Letters” are addressed to assorted recipients – Dear Friend/Adversity/Old Diaries and so on. The touch is mostly light and the frame often comic, as in the “Envoi” to the possibly disappointed reader. But the sequence also dares the depths of love and loss, in the acute miniature “Dear Future, I’m afraid this is how I begin to lose you”: 

I worried at the problem, but he
                  could only see solutions:
when he said Can you please explain?
my reply was ghosting strangers on
                                   the stairs.

There is also intellectual complexity. The title poem, “To The Occupant”, is a gem of light-handed sophistication. It is slender, but it takes on the largest existential conundrums: body and mind (“this coffin-fat cabinet / the mind-candle / push-pedals around”), youth and age (“but you, still new /… lollop through it / blithe as a rabbit / a-whiffle at berry-canes”), life and death, the will to live (“to shoulder / these old bone-crates”). And the mind peers through “such tiny perforations” at the “drip-drop / greeny-diamond world”. Fusing frustration at mortal limitations with a celebration of seeing, it catches in miniature the reach of the collection, and its conjunction of sharp with whimsical, tough with tender.

I revelled in these poems, but I kept wishing the “x’s y” kind of trope (“love’s covers”, “fear’s limbo”) was used less often. It is useful for purposes of concision, but always strikes me as bet-hedging, avoiding the risk of naked metaphor. And it can sound clotted and sibilant, for instance when “thought’s arid trek” and “the past’s thick clag” occur in successive couplets. Yet, in general, Neale exhibits an exquisite auditory sensibility. Only Cilla McQueen comes close for overt and implicit musicality. 

In sum, Young’s poetic is the most contemporary and edgy of these three, and Wicks’s the least, supposing it matters. I am not sure it does, because all three can challenge and touch and persuade us and account for their times. Despite her technical inventiveness, Neale is hard to place; she absorbs but avoids being defined by trends, and seems to shoot for reach and variety rather than the cutting edge. And novelty in poetry is not the consuming imperative that it once was, which surely betokens some kind of maturity. Originality is another matter entirely, and all these collections have it in spades. They deserve thorough reading and re-reading as well as dipping, buying rather than borrowing.

Janet Hughes is a Wellington writer and reviewer, moving to Auckland.

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