Wild Honey: Reading New Zealand women’s poetry by Paula Green (Massey University Press, 2019), 572 pp., $45
Intergenerational conceptions of poetry, conveyed through the voices of my lesbian foremothers, are paramount to my existence. Historical definitions of the poetic gather and coalesce into my own ability to write within the space my foremothers have cleared for me. Not just lesbian women poets, but all women poets have contributed to this clearing.
In Paula Green’s Wild Honey: Reading New Zealand women’s poetry this space becomes a house, and its surroundings, filled from ceiling to sky with a lineage of New Zealand women poets. Green’s book brings together a menagerie of women poets, both historical and contemporary, to map women’s poetry in New Zealand onto the larger poetic landscape. Wild Honey is reminiscent of Stephanie Burt’s 2016 book The Poem is You: 60 contemporary American poems and how to read them, in that Green likewise composes critical odes with her lyrical close reading. This was an extremely difficult book to review because it merits much more than a linear reading. It’s a book that beckons the reader to return to it, with pencil markings and post-it notes.
I’m not from New Zealand, but my genesis as a poet was moulded by New Zealand poets. My first lyrical love was Hinemoana Baker, who appears in a section in the book titled ‘the sky’:
I am a needle of bone
on my aunty’s knee
I have cut my hair
(‘Tangihanga’, mātuhi | needle, 2004)
At the beginning of October I found myself on a panel that discussed writing. The questions and discussion focused on the creation of safe spaces from which to address personal trauma. The poetry I create does often stem from a personal place, but its germination past that point is something beyond my control. As Green says in the mirror, ‘All poetry must be viewed as a form of autobiography in that poems wear traces of the poet, like deliberate little signatures or unwitting exposures, but some poets use the poem for extended self-reflection’ (81). My favourite poet to discuss poetic reflection and concerns with is Carolyn McCurdie, whose work sits in the section of the book labelled ‘the love nest’: ‘This is old, wondrous / as moonrise, // mundane / as the maternal voice // that calls, come in / to the table’ (‘A potato sonnet: Jersey Bennes for Christmas’, Bones in the Octagon, 2015).
As a writer and critic, I believe in the political, academic and creative potential of the personal; queering the personal in my work using autotheory which Arienne Zwartjes describes as ‘mixing “high theory” with our panting, sweating physicality, the embodied experience’. Most importantly for me, autotheory dispenses with ‘the pretense of neutrality’ (Zwartjes, 2019) as Dodie Bellamy writes, ‘To deny one’s lens is corrupt. Immoral even’ (Bellamy, 2008, 21). In my close reading, I use autotheory and pop culture to undercut academic pretension, by incorporating my body, my milieu, into the theory, and acknowledging the ways in which I experience the world as a working class, Irish lesbian woman. My reaction to Wild Honey is also inevitably shaped by these elements.
When I came out as a lesbian I feverishly searched for the work of lesbian poets. I wanted their words in my wounds like salve. By wounds I refer to the rift that occurs between a queer person and the heterosexual world around them, and the discovery that the world does not cater to their needs. New Zealand poet Heather McPherson has become an insurmountable influence on my worldview. She would be the only guest at my fantasy dinner party so I could listen to her uninterrupted. Her clarity, and the directness of detail about the personal conditions of her life as a lesbian, heals to scar tissue over certain psychic wounds. She has the gift of making the personal political: as Green writes of another poet, Hilaire Kirkland, ‘The “I” makes the poetry personal even when it acts as ventriloquist, because the poet is speaking, observing, contemplating, sleeping, dreaming’ (88). In ‘the garden’, the section in which Green discusses McPherson’s work, McPherson observes the view available to her and, while ostensibly writing about a grapevine, contemplates her phenomenological engagement with the world:
It flounced across my deck like a leafy Gay Pride Queen
parading her satin bustier spangles tutu and wig
and knighting courtiers and gay-boy naughties
with her fairy wand and strutting
(‘There’s a mirror on my wall’, This Joyous, Chaotic Place, 2018)
As a lesbian reader, and a scholar working on McPherson’s work, I am delighted to see her poetry included in Wild Honey along with many other queer writers. (For a closer reading of McPherson’s work, see my review ‘Gardens and Gloom’, Landfall Review Online, 1 December 2018). The inclusion though, further makes me aware of the historical exclusion of queer women from poetic conversations and spaces. This anthology makes me think about the availability of certain poets’ work, which may be out of print, or only ever had a limited print run, or was self-published or self-made and distributed. Green does acknowledge the difficulty in choosing who to include, and how: for example, poets who prioritise performance over publication are excluded. Publishing reinforces inequalities based around binaries, and if these are to be deconstructed then perhaps literary criticism needs to embrace more than just the page.
I first met Paula Green at the ‘Poetry & the Essay’ conference in 2017 that Green refers to in her afterword. The conference was held in one room at Victoria University Wellington. The room became, to use a term from psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, a holding environment where ideas were nurtured, and the space of the room blossomed with affective connections. It was there that I met Anahera Gildea who lounges in the hammock:
Sometimes it is enough
To sit and look out.
Other times you have to walk
Across bone, stone and shell
(from Poroporoaki: To the Lord My God: Weaving the Via Dolorosa: Ekphrasis in Response to Walk (Series C) by Colin McCahon, 2016)
Throughout Wild Honey Green addresses the difficulty of writing about the work of non-Pākehā poets, and she expresses the need for a book that centres solely on their work, from their perspective. As an Irish person I have always felt the strain of narratives of colonisation in New Zealand, and the prominence of white guilt that surrounds the privilege of Pākehā. Conversations about colonisation do seem to be opening out, but there is still much hesitation. Saying this, there is less – or even no – sense of this hesitation in regards to discussing poets of differing class, sexuality or gender. Gender, and class, are distinctly absent from Wild Honey. Green dissects the work of lesbian and queer women poets without the caveat afforded Māori or Pasifika poets, even as she states in her discussion of one of the foundation stone poets, Jessie Mackay, ‘Today, we fight to recognise that the history of Aotearoa New Zealand must incorporate all our histories’ (29).
‘[The] Fluidity of Identity’ (87) is mentioned in regards to Tusiata Avia who masters the ventriloquism of multiple voice poetics. As a poet I privilege performance. I always wonder upon reading a poem on the page how it would sound aloud, and find it difficult to be moved by poetry I can’t hear. Avia’s collection Wild Dogs Under My Skirt (2004) transcends the static of the page in every possible way with lyrics that swirl with the communities of a hive mind:
Mum and Dad are separating soon.
There are lots of reasons why
One of them is Mum’s a lesbian.
Today I went to Brighton
And got my ears pierced for the third time.
That makes six holes now.
(‘13th October 1979’)
In the hallway, Green catalogues a number of poets who ‘germinate poems while walking’ (123). Rhian Gallagher is a poet I most associate with poetic meditation while walking. During her year (2018) as the Robert Burns Fellow at Otago University I would often run into Gallagher en route into the urban landscape. Green has placed Gallagher in the section she calls ‘the love nest’, and understandably so, as ‘Gallagher’s love poems alight upon the miracle of connection, of being together in a loving partnership with another woman’ (360). Gallagher’s poetry often battles with post-human embodiment and connection. I also believe Gallagher to be a true master of line endings:
I gaze and you
reply to my gaze
as the mountains have never replied
nor the sea.
(‘Gaze’, Shift, 2011)
I have attempted to touch on some of the women poets in Wild Honey with whom I feel the most connection. Everybody’s version of this review, and of this book would, I’m sure, be different in some way. Paula Green has done an exceptional job with a very difficult task. Green openly acknowledges the limitations of her book, that there are many poets without collections or who have performance-focused practices, who are not included. Yet Wild Honey initiates a conversation; it is an invitation or, as I said at the beginning, a clearing. Anthologies by their very nature are directed towards a wide range of readers, those wishing to gain a bird’s eye view of the genre. If readers require a more detailed discussion of topics touched on within Wild Honey then I suggest they go directly to the collections of the poets who have piqued their interest, as I believe that Green’s intention here is to draw attention to the poetry, and to extend the audience for each poet. Green has foraged the fields of New Zealand poetry to champion the voices of two hundred and one women. I look forward to the ongoing dialogues I’m sure this book will harvest.
EMER LYONS is a creative/critical PhD candidate in the English programme at the University of Otago and is originally from Cork. Her poetry, fiction and reviews have appeared in journals such as The Stinging Fly, Poetry Ireland Review, The Tangerine, Headland, Mimicry, takahē, Southword, The Cardiff Review, London Grip and Queen Mob’s Tea House.