The Lonely Nude by Emily Dobson (Victoria University Press, 2014); 70 pp., $25; Raspberry Money by Alison Denham (Sudden Valley Press, 2013), 64 pp.
The Lonely Nude opens with lines from American poet Mary Ruefle: ‘Always when I glanced inwards she was there,/ completely naked and turned away’. The protagonist in Dobson’s new collection is equally interested in understanding the relationship between her inner and outer self, between seeing and being seen.
The Lonely Nude is Dobson’s first collection in eight years. Born in Hastings and raised in a family of apiarists in rural Hawke’s Bay, Dobson attended the MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University in 2004. She was awarded the Adam Prize for her folio of work which then became her first collection, A Box of Bees (Victoria University Press, 2005). The collection drew on her childhood experiences of bee-keeping. Dobson was also awarded the prestigious 2005 Schaeffer Fellowship to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the United States.
Comprised of seven sections, the collection is so beautifully shaped, so gentle yet present, as to be akin to a nude figure. Some of the sections are daringly short, but that doesn’t mean they are slight; the structure creates pace and narrative, moving from ‘Prehistory’ before Dobson left New Zealand, to ‘A Holiday in Mexico’ and ‘Fall in America’, and through the final sections to end with ‘Going Home’. While following the arc of a journey is not original, a deft editing hand can be seen throughout this collection. Poems echo each other in the transition between sections. For example, when moving from ‘A Holiday in Mexico’ to ‘Fall in America’ both poems feature rain. Other poems have stanzas that float, untethered, on the opposite page; it’s unclear to which poem they belong. A reader can make links by proximity, but the effect is that of dislocation – a central theme of this collection. In a similar way, Dobson is skilled at bringing seemingly unrelated images together and making them reverberate. The result is something exceptional.
Dobson explores themes of movement in this collection. The speaker is always taking herself somewhere, whether that be along a rope in a river or between small towns in France. In these new situations the characters are often out of their depth, making missteps, and unsure of their own identities. The American poems are especially melancholy. When working as a life model the speaker states: ‘I do this/ because I am good at staying// incredibly still’; but later, in the poem ‘Nude’, finds it hard to reconnect after this ‘lack of animation’. While the speaker is good at stillness, and finds travel’s lack of certainty uncomfortable, she desires to move – to be animated. In this way the poems investigate what it means to balance security and exploration. ‘Keep your eyes firmly/ in the distance’, one poem states.
There is an easiness and accessibility to Dobson’s voice that was also present in her debut collection, as was her economy of language. For example, from ‘The Dance’:
A man and a lady in waders
are up to their knees in the water lilies
Such attention to line breaks shows Dobson’s careful craft, and it’s a technique that she uses to startling effect throughout the collection. For example, the short poem ‘Creel’:
In Creel we wake up
vaguely sad –
asleep we’d believed ourselves
still at home.
The couple are unsure of their circumstances and their emotions – while asleep they’d ‘believed’ in the version of themselves who chose to go to Creel and thought it a good idea. With the line break the story becomes something else. Dobson doesn’t rest there. In ‘Creel (2)’ the couple are described alongside the restaurateur’s ‘telenovela –/ the impassioned sounds of kissing’. The televised fantasy amplifies the couple’s own estrangement from their fantasy of Creel. In other words, Dobson suggests that our reality is often more surreal and alienating than what we’d imagined it would be. That is not to say the poems are without humour, and the imagery always feels fresh and true. For example, ‘Like biting into stones, like rough sheets’ is saved from sentimentalism with the self-deprecating ‘something chronic’ and ‘It’s rough’:
I did not wash the spinach
so the spinach was gritty.
Small stones sang in our teeth.
The new blue sheet
has pilled something chronic.
And the rain – it’s
really coming down,
after so long.
You, the sound of water
in the other room –
a passing whistle.
When reading these poems they often made me think of Michael Ondaatje’s line breaks and Emily Dickinson’s eternalism and mournfulness. While Dobson’s poems may appear spare – and a handful of poems are less accomplished – the collection is rich with the world. Dobson certainly has a long career ahead of her.
Alison Denham’s Raspberry Money is also her second collection; her first, Pieces of Air, was published by Christian Gray New Zealand in 1999. Denham’s work has appeared in various poetry publications and online journals in New Zealand, the United States and Australia. This collection is published by Sudden Valley Press, an imprint of the Canterbury Poets Combined Presses, which list its editors as Barbara Strang, John O’Connor and David Gregory.
I always have a sense of excitement and trepidation when reviewing collections by small presses. The larger presses such as Victoria University Press and Auckland University Press have their own, albeit broad, style, which often excludes the weird and experimental. It’s a regularly forgotten fact that, for the larger presses, publishing is a business. They can only publish so many collections, and both university presses are remarkable in their support and promotion of New Zealand poetry. That said, as poet Jack Ross stated of the launch of Sudden Valley Press:
I think we can all see that commercial publishing is no longer – if it ever did – serving the interests of poetry readers in New Zealand, and it is no real solution for authors to print and distribute their own work with no editorial input whatsoever. Sudden Valley Press offers a useful compromise between the two, and an example which might be usefully taken up elsewhere in the country. (www.jackrossopinions.blogspot.co.nz/2013/01/sudden-valley-press-1998.html)
While Ross made this statement nearly twenty years ago, the continuing success of poetry publishers such as Seraph Press, Puriri Press, Compound Press, Hue & Cry Press and the new kid on the block, Cats and Spaghetti Press, shows that New Zealand readers appreciate a diversity of voices. Small presses also help foster writing within a particular community – in this instance the long-running Canterbury Poets Collective.
The downside of small presses can be diversity in quality, and Raspberry Money is definitely a mixed bag. The collection is split into six sections and while each section is thematically consistent, they sit awkwardly together. For example, ‘Fabulous Fables’ provides some interesting re-imaginings of well-known myths, and connects to ‘A Year and a Day’ and ‘House Spells’ with their Wiccan themes, but these sections make little sense alongside poems about industry (‘Cash Flows’) and travel poems (‘By Air, Land, and Sea’).
For every aspect of this collection that I enjoyed, another let it down. For example, while Denham’s poems have lyrical flow, the book’s mediocre production makes it stiff to read. The cover design – a homely illustration of a raspberry plant and some coins – felt too sweet for a collection that includes the lines ‘he isn’t bad/ in bed his touch slices you/ open’.
While many of the poems suffer from personification and laboured extended metaphor, a strength of the collection is Denham’s humour. For example, from ‘Difficult Fire’:
I’m tempted to say stupid wood in a pissed off voice,
but a good pyromaniac never blames the kindling
Denham’s voice also shines when she sticks to literal description in poems such as ‘The Taieri Line’ and ‘The Oldest Church in Wales’:
Someone has placed a twig in the latch …
We’re free to touch and look
at the borer-riddled pulpit,
the roof’s rough sawn cradle,
leather rope and single bell.
Another example is the subtle and well-crafted ‘Party Tricks’:
Pulled from the undercurrents of sleep,
in the middle of the night by my partying father,
my brother and I perform for guests our telepathic
party trick. Cross-legged on the floor in rumpled pyjamas
to the tune of ‘Bobby let them go back to bed’ we receive
hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades from each other.
His mind and mine, one long shout.
A school house next to a school pool and our own key.
He woke us once at midnight to toss us in the pool,
To show the partygoers how we’d taught ourselves to swim.
Swum hard to the other side, towards the warmth of our beds and kept
swimming all these years.
The most successful poems in Raspberry Money were those that played with the tension between domesticity and danger, often with the speaker losing control: her mouth is being pried open by an orthodontist or she’s being assaulted with the drum and bass of a stranger’s party. I would have liked to have read an entire collection of these poems.
SARAH JANE BARNETT is a writer, tutor and book reviewer who lives in Wellington. Her first collection of poems, A Man Runs into a Woman, was published by Hue & Cry Press in 2012 and was a finalist in the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Awards. Sarah has a PhD in the field of ecopoetics from Massey University. She blogs at theredroom.org