How To Live
Auckland University Press, $25.00,
essa may ranapiri
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
In a literary sense, genre is problematic. While it’s convenient to categorise texts for the purposes of libraries, book awards and so on, drawing a line between poetry and fiction, fiction and non-fiction, or poetry and essay is evidently reductive and arguably somewhat pointless. Given that poetry and fiction stem from root words meaning “to make” and “to form”, historical distinctions have been primarily formal, linked to the emergence of these modes at different points in the history of writing. After 60-odd years of poetry being dominated by free verse, in which formal divisions are based on visual more than aural units, and given the perennial ubiquity of prose poetry (something of a dubious term itself), these distinctions appear narrower and less relevant.
The three books I am reviewing here came to me with new title information, stating that they fall into category: poetry. Formally and aesthetically, I propose that these texts all sit somewhere in the hybrid zones of various spectra. Helpfully, essa may ranapiri reminds us that a spectrum is not linear: it’s more like shading in an area of a map, or multiple areas of multiple maps. We probably need more than three dimensions. The angle I take here is to consider in each case what poetry, that weird and probably indefinable chimaera, offers the poet in terms of making meaning or of exploring the chosen subject matter.
How To Live by Helen Rickerby is described by its publisher as “experimental poetry”, and as “[a] place where poetry meets essay, where fiction meets non-fiction, where biography meets autobiography, where plain speaking meets lyricism”. All of these points are certainly true of the collection, although to my mind, none of these terms have ever been mutually exclusive. A lot of the publicity around Rickerby’s book has focused on its depiction of “unsilent women”; however, this theme is not all there is to the collection. “It’s been done,” I hear a chorus of patriarchal poetry readers mutter. Patriarchy has also been done rather a lot in poetry over the millennia. I don’t think there is such a thing as too many books attempting to dismantle or interrogate systems of power.
Rickerby’s genuine passion for, and interest in, her subjects is evident in all of her work, and How To Live takes this to new levels. The heart of the book is a long narrative sequence about the life of Mary Ann Evans, aka George Eliot. Given that Eliot has been one of my favourite writers for a long time, and that I’ve always been somewhat repelled by accounts of her character, I was very much drawn into this sequence. Rickerby presents us with biographical detail that could be gleaned from more traditional sources; however, her connection to her subject matter is more personal. She’s often light-hearted and informal in her language and style: “But I digress! And anyway, probably this would be better placed with 10.7. below – feel free to cut and paste.” I enjoyed the jolts between meta-poetic commentary, dry biographical information, personal statements and fragments of lyricism. There’s an extended consideration of Eliot’s propensity for screaming, and the various uses of screaming in her novels, from women to geese to violins.
“Notes On The Unsilent Woman” is the other highlight of the collection, for me. I hadn’t heard of Greek philosopher Hipparchia, but chances are many readers won’t have, as none of her written work survives. Rickerby’s portrait of the character as a headstrong girl who chases after freedom and after her older, eccentric philosopher husband is human and tender. The final lines are particularly poignant: “Oh, but I still wish I knew what you said, Lady Butterfly. I wish I could hear your words.”
A potential risk with this collection is that the shorter poems appear insignificant among the longer sequences, as if their subjects absorbed the writer less. Hans Christian Anderson and “The Little Mermaid” get a mention, and there’s enough psychology in that subject to spark a book-length poem in itself. The book ends with the title poem, also a long sequence, about a loved one’s struggle with illness. Numerous philosophers and writers are featured throughout this poem, again an interweaving of quoted language and personal experience. While the overall collection can’t give the instructions its title suggests, it does give us some pretty good aphorisms: “Silence might not be not speaking. It might be listening. It can be hard to tell the difference” and “People are endlessly fascinating. Especially the fascinating ones.”
If the difficulties inherent in genre divisions are one result of the human tendency to categorise, a more harmful categorising is found in the traditional gender binary. Ransack by essa may ranapiri does just what its title suggests, “ransacking the language” in the manner indicated by its epigraph, a line from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Letters to the eponymous character of Woolf’s novel feature throughout the book, and these epistolary poems add to the book’s relatively personal tone. A reader is taken inside the experience of a nonbinary person, and it seems that in a contemporary setting in which gender issues are still only fragmentarily understood, poetry is a helpful means of exploring the issues and of educating the reader. Ranapiri’s language ranges from textbook-like expository statements to scientific terminology to dense, difficult lines reminiscent of the Language poets. It’s not an easy read by any means. However, there are many ways into the poems. Their imagery is often surreal but also strongly sensory: “I once had a dream Orlando that my penis … dropped off me as a snake and slithered around in white lilies. It was lime green and smelled of citrus and baking soda.”
Picking apart pronouns and binary terms like “man”, “woman”, “male” and “female”, ranapiri interrogates the language not just of everyday life but also of biology. Teaching reproductive anatomy, it’s struck me that we have a paucity of terms and of strategies for addressing gender and sexual diversity: biological, cultural and social. How should one approach describing structures in the human body without doing linguistic violence? Colonisation and the violence to culture is also explored in this work, such as the story of Tūtanekai and his hoa takatāpui being overlaid with the Victorian version of Tūtanekai and Hinemoa. Ranapiri’s collection makes space not only for nonbinary and non-heteronormative stories to be told, but for any reader to explore their own knowledge gaps, misconceptions and personal struggles. Capitalism also gets a timely taking-down in poems like “Marketing For The Fucking Koch Family”. This is a welcome new voice, wide-ranging and original.
A few years ago, I heard Tracey Slaughter reading from her collection of short fiction Deleted Scenes For Lovers. I immediately bought the book because I had never felt so viscerally shredded at a literary reading. Slaughter’s imagery was so intense, her characters so doomed, it felt like I was being dragged inside the story whether I liked it or not. Perhaps it was the recognisable nature of the subject matter: an average Kiwi suburban family for whom things are just not going to work out. Slaughter’s new poetry collection, Conventional Weapons, continues the sordid preoccupations of her previous two books. Characters mourn deaths and losses, teenagers make regrettable mistakes, Karen Carpenter starves to death, and the final four poems spend considerable time delving into extra-marital affairs. The language can be brutal, particularly when female characters speak from a standpoint of self-loathing: “A fucktoy statuette, tasselled to john, / With zero coinage if she isn’t prone”, or “I’m a dirty little bitch playing dressups / all jezebel grin & belladonna hips.”
The poems here are less narrative than Slaughter’s stories, but also often less lyrical. In contrast to her fiction, in which all the senses are turned right up, there’s sometimes an imprecision or lack of concreteness in the imagery. Lines like “Ozone explodes our eyelashes”; “Frilled dioxide / over the sink” or “I want T-boned boys who wear / their singlets like propane” seem like mixed metaphors at best. I felt some of the poems could have benefited from a clearer angle: for instance, we follow a teenage narrator and Karen Carpenter through a drawn-out series of domestic scenes, but it’s hard to get a hold of what’s going on or what the emotional centre of the poem is, until the final line: “We metabolise our hearts.” The poem I found most successful was “The Mine Wife”, which poignantly depicts a widow who lost her partner in the Pike River mine disaster.
Approaching the end of this collection, I wanted to be taken for a walk in the Hamilton gardens to smell the roses, but there aren’t roses to smell here, and the grit is relentless. This is a book for readers who like their subject matter grimy and who don’t want happy endings. It’s the kind of poetry we might enjoy at those times when we need to feel that other people’s lives are worse than our own.
Airini Beautrais’s most recent collection of poems is Flow: Whanganui River Poems (2017).