Hera Lindsay Bird by Hera Lindsay Bird (Victoria University Press, 2016), 112 pp., $25; Carbon Shapes and Dark Matter by Stephanie Christie (Titus Books, 2015), 70 pp., $28; Withstanding by Helen Jacobs (Mākaro Press, 2016), 58 pp., $25
Other people will call me a rebel, but I just feel like I’m living my life and doing what I want to do. Sometimes people call that rebellion, especially when you’re a woman – Joan Jett.
It is often the poet’s lot to reside at and write from the margins of society, bearing witness to the inequities of personal, social, gender, ethnic and political mores, the better to speak out about and draw attention to injustices wherever they exist. Radicals; dissidents; insurgents; protestors: our poets are all of these things and more. They are also our consciences, our emancipators of new thinking and our preservers of oral narrative pasts. Three new collections by New Zealand women poets – Hera Lindsay Bird by Hera Lindsay Bird, Stephanie Christie’s Carbon Shapes and Dark Matter and Withstanding by Helen Jacobs – remind us of how, in inhabiting the borders of accepted language, custom and logic, our verse-makers fulfill all of these functions as part of their craft. In this, each poet’s proficiency, astuteness and enjoyment is clear. That these writers are women isn’t what marks them out as different, as Jett intimates above; rather it’s the fact that they are artists striving, each in her own way, to defy the status quo.
Hera Lindsay Bird made a dramatic entrance into our literary world a few months ago. Like some provocative, poetic, post-Punk woman, all swears and rile, all self-revelation and self-deprecation, all smarts and smiles, the book drew immediate attention and applause; and along the way has firmly ensconced itself atop the New Zealand best-sellers charts (not unknown, but equally not standard fayre for a first collection of poetry).
It’s clear from first reading, however, that Hera Lindsay Bird is no brash performer. Rather this is a nuanced agitator, a fist-shaker capable of offering lines that are carefully weighted between revelation and denunciation, honesty and irony. The opening poem, ‘Write a book’, manifesto-meets-raison d’être, charts the complexity of book and author’s motivations:
You might think this book is ironic
But to me, it is deeply sentimental
like……. if you slit your wrists while winking – does that make it a joke?
To be alive
Is the greatest sentimentality there is
And I live to be sentimental
And I love to be alive
Always weeping at the end of a movie
Over the frosted carriages of yesteryear …
Whether it’s the love poem, ‘Having sex in a field in 2013’, the wryly tender, ‘Ways of making love After Bernadette Mayer’, the reflective ‘Bisexuality’ or the already much discussed ‘Keats is dead so fuck me from behind’, sex features significantly. Given that this book acknowledges itself as a challenge to the establishment, it’s perhaps hardly surprising this is so. Nor that the language used along the way to explore the carnal, thematically, is equally provocative:
Keats is dead, so fuck me from behind
Slowly and with carnal purpose
Some black midwinter afternoon
While all the children are walking home from school …
But, as this quote ably illustrates, as risqué as the words might be, their greater import and power is poetry: music, cadence, lyric. Indeed, you read these poems – and others, such as the epic ‘Lost scrolls After Mark Leidner’, ‘Wild geese by Mary Oliver by Hera Lindsay Bird’, and the meditative ‘Pain imperatives After Chelsey Minnis’ – and realise these are less verses confronting sexual repression than challenges to contemporary poetry. The borrowing of poems by Leidner, Mayer and Oliver – in either content and/or style – and the references to Keats, Auden, Wordsworth and Manhire, subtextually layer counterpoints between the traditional and the new into the book, debunking accepted verse wisdoms along the way, as is done throughout ‘Pain imperatives’ where:
I write this poem like a chastity belt made of bottle caps …
The moral of poetry is too lonely to be written
It’s a sad old hygiene, like Cleopatra’s hand soap …
Poetry should be democratic – that’s the modern view
It’s like murder on the train where everyone did it …
You have to make a career out of your pain
You have to pinch yourself and think ow like you mean it …
Part-persona, part-actualité, book – and author – are to be congratulated for unflinchingly fashioning work from an unconventional place, of resolutely – to paraphrase that arch rebel herself, Patti Smith – writing something great and with attitude rather than doing something mediocre just to be popular. In the case of Hera Lindsay Bird, the titular author has managed to pen something grand, and thankfully has found it far from overlooked. Bravo!
The Auckland independent imprint, Titus Books, has built up a rich list of clever, avant-garde titles and authors. Recent noteworthy offerings include Olivia Macassey’s dark, lush The Burnt Hotel, and the soulful and haunting The Ballad of Rue Belliard by Bill Direen. The sense of the ominous and experimental also imbues Titus’ latest offering, Stephanie Christie’s Carbon Shapes and Dark Matter. As the title intimates, these are narratives, eerie in their atmosphere, exacting in their interplay between word and meaning. An early poem, ‘Ambiviolence’ is emblematic of the work as a whole:
Before I put on my face
the morning voice is tight as lightning.
A favourite scent secures my nerves
to the ground. Pirates loom
down evening primrose-inspired nightmares
all missing teeth and rusty skin
and faces sweet as fishermen
but grown so hungry.
Self-integration’s a terrible risk.
It kills off economies, spits out romance,
mashes ecosystems, opens up the records,
Life is shocking. After the accident
I changed my hair, my job,
my friends. I could see too clearly
how the self is made …
From the homage to the past, ‘Clod’, to the earth elegy ‘Watercolour’; from the artistry-inspired verse ‘On core’ to the consumerist composition ‘Mall song’: how the self is shaped, changed, troubled, pained is the substance of Christie’s concerns in this collection. Everywhere, the poet examines new ways to examine and express these matters. This is nowhere more apparent than in the standout poem, ‘Cleave’:
Once you develop the maths
anything can be abandoned.
People used to dropping everything
at the demand of an addiction
or a fused sorrow,
they have this look in times of crisis
like they’re considering whether
to go through with the love
they swore to.
Being destroyed is wild and drastic
and for a while you’re intact enough
to enjoy the show.
I can see you choose.
Next, you get to work,
cutting strings and torching fields,
your methods slow and exact.
I fight to remind you
and usually you win,
killing me off on the grounds
of something muttered in my sleep.
Houses built back into hills
wish for earthquakes to complete
their potential, the same way your heart
breaks today and you pick up
the phone, the bottle,
the needle, the argument.
The punchiness of the denouement here offers a paradigm – in tempo and trajectory – to how many of the poems in this collection work. Never repetitive, they journey towards conclusions that offer simple truths as powerful disclosures. Christie’s is a fresh, progressive voice, and one we’ll surely be hearing more of in the future.
Christchurch author Helen Jacobs (nom de plume for Elaine Jakobsson) is certainly a more familiar name. At 88 years of age, she might have long shed the youthful intensity of debutants like Bird, but that doesn’t mean she lacks their energetic defiance. Far from it. If Jacob’s latest book Withstanding is anything to go by, dissent grows seemingly stronger with each decade lived.
Withstanding is part of the third incarnation of the wonderful Mākaro Press HOOPLA series which annually publishes collections by a first-time author, a mid-career writer and an established poet. There have been some profound HOOPLA publications so far, including Stefanie Lash’s Bird Murder (2014), Helen Rickerby’s Cinema (2014) and Bryan Walpert’s Native Bird (2015); for its bold energy and unstinting resistance, Jacob’s offering to the series deserves favourable comparison.
At heart, this is a collection about breaking taboos, about not growing old gracefully. The author’s medium for her insolence is the everyday garden, real and symbolic platform for Nature’s prolificacy and decay. An early poem like ‘Signs’ captures the thematic drive and tone of the wider collection well:
The calendar and crabapples
have both indicated
a change of season.
The kitchen steams
with soup stock;
the jars lined up
for squirrelled harvests
of jellies and sauces.
Plentitude, you think,
but it has its own asceticism
and warning signs –
red for the sap receding,
a reduction to the bone.
In the garden the poet bears witness to new life, ‘clematis / springing up the trellis, / catching on, / blatant in white’; renewal and perpetuity, ‘we will nurture the earth / on its circuits. Consider the trees’; as well as destruction, ‘then the earth speaks – / the hour and the vista ruptured. / A fissured line drawn heavily in ink.’ Through the lens of the garden also, its seasonal shifts release the poet’s memories, returning her to youthful cycling and old Eastbourne haunts, and temporary temporal freedom from the constrictions of her flowering back yard and diminishment in old age:
roses that hardly hint of ramblers,
hay and hot paddocks and the whole
chain of daisies
that coloured your girlhood of the
brown photographs – marguerite, shasta,
Battler, witness, oratory of change: the poet remains outspoken, returning to the here and now to face down death with the pragmatism and metaphor the garden grants her:
Yesterday was another funeral
and I counted more walking frames.
This morning, even though the sun
fills a clear sky, autumn is giving
a nudge – almost frost.
But in the garden below the window,
there are four more freesia spikes
than yesterday, twenty-four, bold.
Though I carry my cereal with care,
walking slowly from bench to table,
I am dancing.
Ruminative and compassionate, Withstanding is proof of Jacobs’ poetic prowess and the glory to be mined, like Bird and Christie, in railing against complacency.
SIOBHAN HARVEY is the author of Cloudboy (Otago University Press, 2014) and co-editor of Essential New Zealand Poems (Penguin Random House, 2014). She is a lecturer at the Centre for Creative Writing, Auckland University of Technology. Recently her work has appeared in Griffith Review (Aus), Segue (US), Sobotka (US), Stand (UK) and Structo (UK). She is winner of the 2016 Write Well Award (Fiction, US), and was runner-up in the 2014 and 2015 New Zealand Poetry Society International Poetry Competitions. The Poetry Archive (UK) holds a Poet’s Page devoted to her work.