Four substantial poetry collections in one review: the injustice! Has the world of over-caffeinated twittering speed daters infiltrated even the contemplative space needed for literary critical consideration? It’s ridiculous; it’s the zeitgeist. I suppose the only response is: get on with it. As with speed dating (Wikipedia tells me), a bell will ring between each poet. (Bell not provided: this is an interactive review. Ring your own.) Why this tone? Probably because I read Anne Kennedy’s gorgeous The Darling North last. Her goofy, joyous, self-mocking timbre insists on self-replicating, as I sit here thinking about crispy bacon and music; the unexpected alterations of expatriation; the Hokianga and Hawaii.
It’s the most formally gymnastic of the collections here – although all have remarkably wide subject reach. Kennedy presents a compendious love poem, sonnets to Hawaii, modernised fairy tales and an almost novelistic exploration of the quality of north. “I had listened to northness,/a hiss, a crackle, a buckle of air.” The title poem also mulls over the fits and starts of desire, using metaphors of discovery and colonisation, exploration and land rights. It spills over with tangible socio-historic detail; and fittingly for a poem haunted by a failed love affair – by coupling and de coupling – it’s crafted in long-limbed couplets.
The structural slyness and latent wit are quintessential Kennedy. The way she rubs together high culture references with the jerky, grubby music of a Kiwi vernacular gives her work subversive, liberating dissonances. Her version of The Three Little Pigs, for example, brims with an invective that splices Margaret Mahy’s bounce with something quasi-Shakespearean – “Hey ho chopspit fattycake […] Hey ho meatpat gristle toe”) – while …
Cripes. Change tables. Meet Helen Heath, author of Graft; meaning, here, particularly the hard graft of the psyche’s recovery from grief and the diligent obsessiveness of scientific genius. Heath shuttles between poems that frame the “undercut, undercurrent” of family history, the ongoing, daily radiation of primal loss; and potted biographies of scientists ranging from Isaac Newton to Beatrice Tinsley.
There is a fascination for the kind of dogged professionalism that also carries the cruel irony of self-destruction: several scientists celebrated here were disabled or killed by diseases accelerated by their vocations.
The long middle sequence, Ithaca, implicitly plaits the collection’s two main threads. It records a quest for personal consolation in the mother’s homeland, but alongside it always runs the rationalist, atheistic view that science contains the bedrock truth. The sequence offers a quiet gathering of sensory impressions: the accumulation of knowledge and experience itself a kind of healing. There is a lovely, comic twist when a Greek host and guide interprets the wish to delve into the past as a more literal, touristy ambition to head off on an archaeological dig. The carefully ambiguous closing sections let the physical dig shift into dreamlike passages, where the atheistic view is still pursued by deep longing:
The continents will still drift
even if you stay in one place
and once you’ve been conceived
at some point you’ll die. This we know.
If I dig a hole all the way through
to before, perhaps then I can hold her.
Wait! What about Fairytale, O Brother, Heath’s piercingly sad retelling of Hansel and Gretel, voiced in the credibly disaffected demotic of a boy who knows he’s unloved? – nope. Time’s up. Get Helen’s number, too, but don’t confuse her with the next Helen: Helen Lehndorf. The Comforter. And if you’re thinking snuggle-up, warm milk, there-there – don’t. This book burns with the pressures of what it is like to be she who comforts.
Honest about the way domestic responsibilities deflect adult fears and longings, it excels at capturing suburban claustrophobia, the enraging tedium of chores; the comedy of clashes between adult’s and child’s eye view. Openly loving, it still contains a refreshing admission of what immense self-control it can take not to lash out at children’s anarchic, sometimes wilful mischief.
There is a clenched energy here; the poetry fizzes with ironies, often wielding line breaks to strengthen these. A prime example is The stay-at-home mother contemplates flight, which acts out a richly imagined escape, juggling bittersweet contradictions.
I am cold, but I chose.
I chose this. Jolly
bleak. A pretty lick.
Turn off the lamp.
A soft sad sleep.
Lehndorf’s work exploits the differing emotional registers of alternate rhythms to strong effect; often The Comforter zips and zings, scooping up the transient moment, yet it also documents, with a fond and satirical slant, a gritty real-world catalogue of goat shit, beer crates, freezing works, creeks and freshwater crabs: the bright and concrete memories of a childhood of physical and imaginative freedoms.
Damn. Get Lehndorf’s number, too. And now meet Lynn Davidson, whose collection, combining poetry and essays, manages a moving yet unsentimental frankness in both. The suggestion that essays and poetry share common ground might imply that for her the poetic line is a way of framing aperçus rather than a distinct rhythmic unit. Yet her excellent essay on form, Selah, refutes that. It’s a call to reread all her collections aloud, to see where larger rhythmic variations between books might mark new perceptions.
To my ear, the general tone here shares the consciously flatter, more declarative, melancholic tone of Heath’s work. Throughout Common Land, Davidson makes a vivid, powerful use of metaphor; and there is a sensitive, serious wisdom working away at all the subjects confronted (Alzheimer’s, music, childbirth, love, separation, death).
Most striking is the 14-part [versus]. Immensely porous to interpretation, it initially seems to conjure up a fused historico-mythical place. A recognisable New Zealand gradually materialises; then the narratives of settlement and acculturation suggest a kind of parable for one family’s changes. The family-court poems mean that all preceding themes of resistance, retreat, battle and attempts at conversion suddenly become a metaphorical expression of the emotional costs of marriage breakdown. It’s intriguing, mysterious, yet also bitingly real.
What?! Damn. Get Davidson’s number, too. I’d happily have a long-term relationship with all four books.
THE DARLING NORTH, by Anne Kennedy (AUP, $24.99); GRAFT, by Helen Heath (VUP, $28); THE COMFORTER, by Helen Lehndorf (Seraph Press, $25); COMMON LAND, by Lynn Davidson (VUP, $28).
Emma Neale’s latest poetry collection is The Truth Garden.