the moment, taken by Jennifer Compton (Recent Work Press, 2021), 72pp, AUD$19.95; Sleeping with Stones by Serie Barford (Anahera Press, 2021), 77pp, $25; Rejoice Instead: The collected poems of Peter Hooper edited by Pat White (Cold Hub Press, 2021), 224pp, $42.50
the moment, taken is Jennifer Compton’s eleventh collection of poetry. The back cover tells us these are poems drawn from eidetic memory—that is, ‘relating to or denoting mental images having unusual vividness and detail, as if actually visible’. The titular poem is a fine example of this, providing both the vivid detail and the surreal quality of an individual childhood memory: ‘then that once, i was waylaid / by a green lure / a staircase / up into a wilderness […] (when i got to school / i told a lie / with eyes averted)’.
Notes in the Afterword provide explanations or ‘takes’ on the collection’s format and structure. The first section ‘eschews the privilege of capital letters’, while the second ‘begins at the beginning all over again, and picks up the burden of formal written language’. While these stylistic choices do distinguish the two sections, the division between them is not absolute. There is indeed an element of ‘beginning all over again’, circling back around thorny questions of relationship, loss and individual experience.
The second poem, ‘i smashed my head’, describes a childhood injury that caused a shift in perception: ‘someone wrenched me off kilter / down i went / an odd thwack / […] let something out / let something in’. In the context of the collection as a whole, it seems only fitting that this perception-expanding moment was caused by pain. The experience is implied to have been worth the hurt—and whether it was or not, it happened. Compton has no interest in wrapping her reader in cotton wool, or applying rose-tinted spectacles.
Some images are stark. In ‘flock’, ‘a ewe / who has lost her lamb / casts about / mothering a thistle / or / a stone)’. But while she is not here to comfort, there is a certain gentleness beneath the surface of Compton’s work. In ‘ticklish’, a complicated relationship with their deceased mother does not prevent the poet’s sister from wearing her mother’s old jacket. To whatever extent it may be possible, Compton holds out hope for repair.
A striking example of this hope-despite-ambivalence comes in ‘Late and Soon’. Facing questions of climate catastrophe and the problem of communication, the poem asks:
Do we love one another enough
Last night I walked down to our supermarket
through a tunnel of gentle rain
and every person rushing by me was another world
of difficulty, and difference.
The specificity of eidetic memory sometimes makes Compton’s poems themselves another, difficult world. Certain details feel as velvety-smooth-yet-startling as the huntsman spider that, in ‘once’, ‘went sliding down my face’. The collection’s final poem, for instance, stares down the fact of mortality in all-too-visceral, repulsive detail. But while discomfiting, Compton’s writing implies that if we are to ‘love one another enough’, we must make space for each other’s sometimes gory specificities. Wrenching us off kilter like the playmate in ‘i smashed my head’, Compton’s poetry shifts something in us, letting us too see ‘the morning / leaping through the window / differently’.
Sleeping with Stones is the fourth collection from Pasifika poet Serie Barford. Written after her long-term partner fell from a waterfall to his death, it is a stunning and beautiful evocation of the messy complexities of grief and carrying on.
From the opening poems, Barford captures the sense that catastrophe brings of being unmoored from everyday reality. At first, time is measured on a small scale, in days: ‘it’s the morning of the third day / since I heard you went over the edge / autumn dapples my bewilderment’. The collection at large is structured by the seasons, moving from Autumn to Summer. However, this progression in no way implies neat, linear healing. Barford rightly has little patience with those who impose schedules on other people’s mourning: ‘the voice tells me it’s time to move on / I smash the phone against the wall / the voice should know better / than to frogmarch grief’.
These are poems that, while resonant for any reader who has experienced loss, are of course acutely personal and specific. Several tell of Barford’s first meeting with the man who would become her partner: he ‘entered / left my life / via a pool of water’. The Piula Cave Pool in Samoa was where they first met, and bodies of water and seafaring imagery recur throughout. ‘I wish I’d anchored you with rocks / in a lagoon fenced by coral […] recalibrated your course / sailed with you into a new dawn’. This is a collection with a strong sense of place. There’s an edge of postcolonial critique beneath the tenderness of ‘If you were a tiputa’, when Barford imagines: ‘I’d steal you from the museum / treat you preserve you’. (Tiputa are ‘poncho-like garments made from barkcloth’. Notes in the back provide definitions for Samoan and Māori words, as well as nautical and scientific terms.) Out of such images Barford constructs a vocabulary for her experience, including the lacerating effect of grief: ‘grief is a fist of whirling mussel shells / slicing / scraping / shredding what remains’.
I say that Barford captures the complexities of grief, and this is far from being a one-note book. There is a full range of emotion here, raw and tender and sometimes seemingly contradictory, as so many feelings are. Not every memory is sunlit. ‘Under siege’ describes her partner’s earlier struggles with paranoia: ‘my lover turned foe’. In ‘Roots’ we see the kind of dark metaphor that would be inappropriate from anyone not intimately involved in the situation: ‘I really thought we’d meet again / but one afternoon you turned arborist / topped yourself’. This alongside warm, sensuous memories: ‘curved fingers of fruit sweetly point up / how I miss your body!’
Ultimately, the collection moves towards a place of healing—but it does not pretend the process is a neat one. ‘Photoshoot’ movingly describes Barford’s reaction to the strange false-intimacy of a mammogram: ‘it’s the first time I’ve been touched / since you went over the edge / tears and snot smudge machinery’. By Summer, there is a poem titled ‘Moving on’. But her lover remains a point of reference, a star still navigated by as Barford moves forward, at her own pace:
my breasts won’t pertly tilt
into last season’s foam-cupped sunfrock
[…] I bought the frock on sale
(you’d like that)
it’s summer sky blue.
The poet will remain in conversation with her beloved, and—crucially—with the vibrant world:
it’s not easy my love
yesteryear is as close as yesterday
but right now
I’m eating mangoes
smiling at photos of dogs
Rejoice Instead: The collected poems of Peter Hooper is edited and introduced by Pat White, Hooper’s ex-student and biographer. If there is a tension between the title’s injunction to ‘rejoice’ and the sombre monochrome portrait on the cover, then that is only fitting, as the tension is borne out in the work. A deep vein of ambivalence runs through Hooper’s writing: about love and sex, about the future, about aging, about human goodness. About the West Coast, a landscape that Hooper both delighted in and at times felt alienated within. In one essay included within this collection, Hooper observed, ‘I write, I suppose, to unravel, to reconcile opposites’.
Despite these ambivalences, Hooper was a man of strong convictions, and his political stances are naturally reflected in his work. White acknowledges in the Introduction that times have changed: ‘New Zealanders have moved on from rugby tour and Vietnam protests.’ Even so, some of Hooper’s poems remain all too resonant. The sardonic gloom of these lines feels quite at home in 2021:
If you can’t afford
[…] try being poor
not that it
will cure you
but at least
as a new way of dying
you won’t find it
Other examples of social commentary sit much less comfortably, for this reviewer at least. The poem ‘Love’ seems a curt condemnation of … what, precisely? Family planning? On a similar note, ‘Profiles in Monochrome’ condemns the way ‘the square eyed / children of affluence / play mummies and daddies, / administering lollies / against unwanted pregnancies’.
One benefit of a large collection is that it offers a sense of scope. Attitudes which, if encountered in a single poem, might sound like misanthropy are shown to be part of a lifelong oscillation between conflicted feelings. Alongside the poet’s distaste for his own apparent ‘lechery’, this collection also records a sincere, idealistic belief in love. Take this bittersweet line from ‘A Wind from the Sea’: ‘Love, then, is mocked? Perhaps, but if it be, / Do not cease loving’. Hooper’s work is powerful and absorbing when, rather than profiling himself or other people in monochrome, he looks to a world of colour and complexity.
Hooper was an environmentalist, and the natural world is a central theme: both as a cause for concern and a benison. In ‘Afternoon of a Company Manager’, ‘the eye / climbs beyond the dominion / of mortgage and fire / to the ridges rimming the sky. / Lilac is on them, lilac / and saffron and rose’. There are far, far too many beautiful lines to quote, but take this example from ‘Clear Weather’:
to blue enamel
a sky no cloud chips.
A similar—and connected—degree of reverence is shown to the written word. Beauty in the natural world was inextricable from beauty on the page for Hooper, as ‘Rock/Flower/Poem’ demonstrates. Thoreau was an inspiration and is mentioned frequently, alongside many other poets: Brasch, Baxter, Eliot, Hardy. Hooper’s own teaching philosophy is encapsulated in ‘Distance Pacing with 3G’:
You’re fooling yourselves
you teachers of literature
by chopping Chaucer
into digestible gobbets
with chalk and tape recorder
you must take him outside
feet in the mud and dung
and startle to delight
in the throat of a blackbird.
Ultimately, Hooper’s ambivalence means a refusal to over-simplify, to sugar-coat or to succumb to hopelessness. The later poems written in Hooper’s ‘old man’ persona range from grim to stubbornly alive and joyful, like the poem from which the collection takes its name. It seems notable that rejoicing is defined here by its oppositional nature; by being what is done ‘instead’; by its very relation and proximity to despair. For Hooper—and to an extent, for all three poets discussed in this review—rejoicing is much less an easy impulse than a determined, conscious effort, a decision reached only after time. In Hooper’s words, ‘happiness is a quality of light / a way of seeing’.
GENEVIEVE SCANLAN lives in Ōtepoti Dunedin. She has reviewed poetry for Landfall, HAMSTER magazine and the Rochford Street Review, and her own work has been published in the Otago Daily Times, the Rise Up Review and Poetry New Zealand.