Aspiring Light: Tititea Ma by Robynanne Milford (Pukeko Publications, 2015), 119 pp., $25; Where the Fish Grow by Ish Doney (Hoopla: Mākaro Press, 2016), 50 pp., $25: Dance of Blue Dragonflies by Ron Riddell (Printable Reality, 2016), 73 pp., $25
Robynanne Milford’s eclectic, sometimes gutsy text, Aspiring Light: Tititea Ma, uses both poetry and prose. It is an interpretation of the Wanaka/Mt Aspiring region, often using Māori words and concepts. It gives back to the mountain its original name, Tititea, while also retaining its European name, Aspiring.
The author has a medical training and uses some of the apparatus of scholarship. This fuses with myth and anecdote. In a sense it is a poetic mini-thesis with non-academic intentions that sacralises Tititea and, to a lesser extent, Wanaka. The lake stands as calm amid the dynamic, sometimes violent upthrust of ice and mountain. Milford has a generous breadth of reference that takes in the natural world, Māori and Pākehā culture, art and metaphysics. Many Pākehā works are used directly: paintings by Rita Angus, John Thompson, John Drawbridge, William Fox and Sofia Minson, historical photographs and a photograph by Martin Hill illustrate the book. Quotation from, or glosses on poetry by Baxter and Bernadette Hall, and allusion to and interpretation of music by Douglas Lilburn are present here.
She does not evade human darkness, Māori or Pākehā. The bloody and dramatic ‘Poem on the shores of Lake Wanaka’, telling of Te Puoho’s butchery of Te Mohene and Te Raki hapū in 1836 is balanced against the probable murder of Elizabeth Anne Walsh by young Pākehā men at the Pembroke wharf in 1889. The latter becomes virtually a play, and is the longest piece in the book. It makes plain the misogyny of the male culture that ran the inquest into Elizabeth’s death. She speaks to them from her after-living and asks that we ‘Sing my whispers from the bed of Lake Wanaka’.
Wearing my pedagogic hat, I find that there are some problems with the book’s central spine of poetry. At times a vocabulary is used that does not work in this time or landscape. On p. 61 ‘vale’ and ‘village’, perfectly good words in themselves, need to be contextualised in a different way to resonate in twenty-first-century New Zealand rather than nineteenth-century England. She boldly uses unusual words, often to good effect, but ‘tourmaline’ on p. 34 seems wrongly used and makes no sense in its context. She does not avoid feelings of rapture. I’m all in favour of them and do not agree with their unvarying censure by tight-lipped ironists. However, rapture can be over-cooked in poetry, as in ‘Lake of dreamy beauty’, where lines go soft like ‘rapture of birds, brooks burbling’ or the phrase, ‘these shores of paradise’. Commerce has largely ruined the word paradise for serious use. Poets must handle it with extreme care. In instances like these the tension between innocence and experience collapses and we get a romanticism without bones.
Her imagery is often very strong, as when Elizabeth Anne Walsh, whose body was found underwater, speaks beyond death to say: ‘Raise me up with grappling hooks of question’. But at times there is a vagueness and the imagery, rather than building analogy, gives us a sense of dissociation among things. A good poem, spoken by the Clutha River, ‘Mata-Au’, is spoiled by three lines that put the ending right out of focus:
Clarity is banked upon
dinner is a shadow
flicker under a varnish cloth …
I struggled to see the meaning of this imagery in the mind/mouth of a river that is here literally reaching its geographic mouth.
However, I now want to remove my pedagogic hat to the extent that I believe this book is vital, interesting, relevant to our history and well worth having.
Fish grow in water, mostly the sea. Though Ish Doney is not particularly amphibious in Where the Fish Grow, the sea is often a place of return. It hints at redemptive or healing qualities, as when her damaged mother is:
Wading out into the salt
at Amberley Beach.
Going back into the water.
Such lines are full of meaning without undue heaviness. The poet is deft, sharp-witted, at times cheeky and capable of a light, exact touch. The poems often carry strong personal feelings, but she does not drown in them. ‘The heart is placed obliquely in the chest’, for instance, is virtually free of subjectivity. It is as abstract as algebra, carefully constructed to avoid any ‘self’-expression or experience. The human is just a datum:
the skin generally is thicker in the male
than in the female.
The substance of the heart
It could be from a medical text and is described as being ‘after’ The Classic 1860 Edition Gray’s Anatomy. Quietly and deliberately though, she undermines the ‘objectivity’ of science with her uncertainty about the heart’s substance. All else is withheld. We could almost believe the poet sees life solely in terms of anatomical reductionism, but this is not maintained in other poems. ‘Articulation’ shows a more subjective engagement with the body:
Her skeleton is pinned together.
She feels she is the fossil of bones
cut clean from the earth
and asked to stand again.
There is a directness in the poems that almost warns off interpretation. What you read is what you get. There are few symbols. Things stand for themselves – plain fact – sometimes odd, painful or intense events, as in her courageous account of miscarriage:
‘Broken’ is what they’ve named you.
My body rids itself
You weren’t holding on.
There is love, but it is modulated by a clear-eyed scepticism. She watches its slow decline in ‘He was always leaving’:
He was always leaving
while I was in the shower.
In hat and coat
behind the curtain, saying
he was or wasn’t sorry …
He used to say he’d kiss me
every time someone
got on or off a train
at Paekākāriki Station.
The tracks must be closed
Ish Doney has achieved a poetry of humour, yet pathos; of disenchantment without cynicism; of feeling yet objectivity. Its sparseness seems just to deal with the surface of fact, but it cuts down to the incalculable emotions that must respond to fact. Her diction is simple, but I suspect her words were not easy to make into these lines. This is a strong, clear and promising beginning – her first book.
Ron Riddell has written 21 volumes of poetry over the last 40 years. He has worked partly outside the Anglophone world, spending long periods in Colombia and learning Spanish. Several of his books are bi-lingual. This volume, Dance of the Blue Dragonflies, is not, but some of its subject matter is Latin-American and affected by that culture. Most notably, ‘The silent rain in Cereté’ evokes an atmosphere not dissimilar to that of A Hundred Years of Solitude:
where, after the readings of rain
the silence is left to dragonflies, mandarins
a wall of blue bougainvillea
the cool stone under iguana’s feet
the waking of one hundred generations
dying of love and privation?
His poetry involves the lyricism of Spanish and English. There is a difference between the English/New Zealand and the Spanish/Latin American linguistic mind. It took a talent as great as Pablo Neruda to begin bridging this gap. Pākehā New Zealanders could no longer remain as mono-lingual when he began to speak across the Pacific. This and the resurgent use of Māori meant we had to take note of poetics no longer derived exclusively from England and the US. Since Neruda, Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz, we have become reachable by a subtly different music, and Riddell has played a significant transcultural role in all this. What about our use of Asian poetics through the agency of Arthur Waley, Ernest Fenollosa, Ezra Pound, Gary Snyder? Riddell has been active in this transliteration as well, and is the author of at least one extensive volume of haiku.
At the centre of his poetry is the dream – the dream as receptor, as extending into conscious life and enabling poems to act as containers both of the physical and metaphysical, enabling them in all their manifestations to become a continuum. In ‘Dealing with the deluge at St Eustache’ this is spelled out:
so little distance dreamed
between what we imagined
and what we experienced
A poem for him is a vessel in which various phenomena, events, ideas, dreams, experiences work closely together as one. The element of air in ‘The air is full’ stands for this unity. It embraces most of the natural and human world and is a natural constant. A heartbeat, a wolf-call, a carousel, dance and the nearness of things all occupy this poetic vessel, which is a free-form sonnet that ends succinctly with the couplet:
The air is full of itself
the air is full of us.
‘The dream of life’ is unlike that famously spoken by Shelley in ‘Adonais’. Life and dream are not so much unreal as inclusive for Riddell. His work does not grind axes of political or social theory, though there are some political poems in the collection. He promotes no particular religion or spirituality. The work seeks empathy between human and non-human beings. Its diction is not radical. It seeks reconciliations. It allows ‘emergent properties’ to occur, as in ‘For Tich Nhat Hanh’ and ‘The monk’s voice’. Both, I assume, are conceived in a Buddhist context. The ‘chi’ or common energy that persists through all things, even individual death, is subject in these poems. Like emergent properties it goes, yet stays, forever being distributed anew:
gone into air, gone into light
into rivers, seas, stars
gone and yet not gone
Riddell sometimes comes off the alert with his imagery. The title poem, set in broad daylight, uses the phrase ‘crimson light’. It is unlikely (for me), but the poet may be able to vouchsafe for its accuracy. Occasionally an over-used image appears, as in ‘The day room’, where there is flying ‘on wings of song’. His proofreader should have noted ‘In memory of a poet’ that tableaux should have been tableau, etc., etc. Such infelicities do not detract from the overall success of the collection – the felicity it brings in its moments of an unqualified celebration and acceptance of being.
DENYS TRUSSELL, born 1946, trained as a classical pianist and continues to teach and perform music. He has published 10 books of poetry, three biographies, a book of essays on art and ecology and a wide range of journalism in the UK, US, Germany, France, Australia and NZ. His most recent book, Red Woman Poems, was published in 2016. In 1975 he helped establish Friends of the Earth, and still works for them.