American Retrospective: Poems 1961–2016 by Eleanor Rimoldi (Hicksville Press, 2018), 56 pp., $25; Foreign Native by Lisa Samuels (Black Radish Books, 2018) 60 pp.
The poems in Eleanor Rimoldi’s American Retrospective do not put poetry qua poetry at stake. Instead the ‘lived life’ from which these poems have emerged is positioned downstage centre. There are poems as ‘witness’ and poems as markers, signs along the way. The front cover of the book is a photo of Rimoldi from what I imagine is 1961 – and the back cover presumably a photo from 2017. The sepia tones and visible folds of the front cover give way to the undamaged full colour at the end.
Rimoldi’s account of her life in her ‘Introduction’ begins in Buffalo, New York State, in 1939 and signs off on Waiheke Island in 2017. This introduction inserts poem titles as marginalia that tie a particular poem to a particular time or event in her life: ‘Our son Dylan was born in October …’ says the Introduction, and the poem ‘Meditations in the maternity ward’ tells us ‘the waves of pain went out, / indifferent as the tide’. The pain of bearing children has led on to the pleasures of their company for Rimoldi, pleasures she records in such poems as ‘Homework’ for daughter Simone, ‘Pure gold’ for son Dylan, and ‘Hook & lure’ and ‘Fraziled poetry’ for son Alex.
Eleanor Rimoldi arrived in New Zealand in the early 1960s in her early twenties, bearing with her an identity she describes as ‘A white liberal, listening / as Negro friends raged, / striking their fists into their hands; / I sat with my knitting in cool white hands.’ She published poems in such places as the left-wing New Zealand Monthly Review, the Auckland University students’ literary magazine, Kiwi, The New Zealand Universities’ Literary Yearbook, and the little magazines Orpheus and Arena. Her work was included in Riemke Ensing’s landmark anthology Private Gardens: An anthology of New Zealand women poets (1977). In 2000, along with fellow editors Alan Brunton and Michele Leggott, I included the poem ‘Meditations in the maternity ward’ in the anthology Big Smoke: New Zealand poems 1960–1975. With its 1966 dating and its signature line describing the experience of a maternity ward at the time – ‘We women were left to it’ – it fitted with the injection of a new poetic that owed a lot to Donald Allen’s 1960 anthology The New American Poetry.
Rimoldi lists her reasons for first coming to New Zealand: ‘It was 1961, and the Cold War was heating up. Nuclear testing, acid rain, private underground shelters, B52 bombers screaming overhead.’ The title poem ‘American retrospective’ records departing impressions of the country she left behind: ‘spreading out to other / places / being that ought to have been / there, / no tears shed / save those / that fall unsalted / in musty rusted cist.’ (‘Cist’ here is a term derived from Welsh; in an archaeological context it refers to a box that holds sacred ornaments.)
Rimoldi’s second husband was Roger Horrocks, who, after studying in America, had been appointed to the English department of the University of Auckland and had begun to teach a third-year course in American poetry, the first time such a course had been offered in New Zealand. Rimoldi herself went on to a career as an anthropologist in the Pacific (see the poem ‘Hook & lure’), and as a university teacher.
American Retrospective is a notable and significant collection, appropriately published under her son Dylan’s imprint, Hicksville Press. There are just 28 poems from a period of 55 years, barely a poem every two years, in purely arithmetic terms. The accumulative effect of this book amounts to the record of a successful escape, a crossing of that wide ocean (which in 1961 she and her first husband had done by ship). The Introduction concludes with this statement: ‘I am content.’
Lisa Samuels’ Foreign Native has some superficial resemblances to Rimoldi’s book in that both are short collections of lyric poems by writers of American origin resident in Aotearoa – Samuels works as an associate professor teaching poetry at the University of Auckland, and is now a New Zealand citizen – and since I received both these books more-or-less simultaneously I was struck at the time by such uncanny resemblances. However, what Foreign Native proposes is altogether different from American Retrospective. The strategic impulse of these poems is to ask you, as reader, how to read this writing?
Poetry, reading, writing, the acts that make up all three of these, are at stake in this book: ‘Let me be clear’ the first poem is called; and ‘Here you are open out’ the next; another is titled ‘I am like your grammar’; and the one after this ‘You can be in my dream if I can be in yours’. Who is this ‘I’? Who this ‘you’? Of course, ‘you’ can read it how you like, that’s the fun of it (so can I) and its canniness is to arouse the reader, to give birth to the reader’s active delight and entanglement. If Rimoldi successfully completed the passage from there to here, Samuels openly declares her non-arrival in the epigraph (from Alice Notley) that prefixes the book: ‘There is no such thing as a time zone’, and reiterates this fluid ‘quantum positioning’ in the biographical note that is the closing bookend: ‘Living in Aotearoa/New Zealand since 2006 and having also lived in the Middle East, Europe, Malaysia and the US, where she was born, has made transnationalism fundamental in her ethics and imagination.’ The title of the book Foreign Native presents an identity conundrum that answers neither of the standard identitarian questions: Who are you? (that’s the one that will let us decide whether you are in or out) and Who am I? (the psycho question, the inner dilemma, the ‘am I really for real?’ question).
These poems are themselves ‘events on the page’, and with the lyrics of Samuels’ book, there is nothing to be found in the search for reference to an a priori moment or occasion that can be said to bind together all the instances, information and rhetoric the poem contains. Of course this is true of many poems. When someone called Crazy Jane (who she?) meets someone called ‘the Bishop on the road’, we can take it as read that there weren’t no Bishop nor no Crazy Jane and Yeats just made all that up. Samuels’ poetry teases us with the notion that this might be true of all poems, even those that pretend otherwise. When Samuels writes a poem called ‘Flesh map,’ then this is it, this is your flesh map.
The poem fits on one page of this book, which at 12x18cm might almost slip into a large pocket. The poems fill the small pages. In the case of ‘Flesh map’ this is achieved by spacing the thirteen lines widely. Each line sits in its own space: ‘we hit a rocket with the force of horses’ followed by ‘oh, we owe our hundreds to the fright’ and then ‘the gum exploded in his face’ and then ‘saving the star for the moon’ after which ‘a fraught ship resumed under its own’ and let’s pause after the next line, ‘half planetary desiderata’. The lines bounce and crash into each other in some kind of space conflict. Each line is indeed like a desideratum, as if with a broken ship, some part has fallen off and longs to be fixed. Each line explodes or breaks on the page. At the end of the poem we read: ‘with an edge taking a solid bath / in the apoplectic we drew a hole and / chewed to the other side’. This hole is strange, it can be drawn and therefore seems to be conceptual, but it can also be chewed through – perhaps the hole is ‘black’ in the sense that it is the result of massive gravitational collapse. Escape from the borders of a black hole should be impossible, but we made it, we chewed through. Such is our ‘flesh map.’
Samuels’ work as a poet arrives quickly, her production rate of books is high and each book asserts a particular kind of writing. Foreign Native with its bundle of lyrics is by no means typical. Symphony for Human Transport (Shearsman, 2017) is a book-length poem in four parts that uses lyric pulses to drive it forward; the title of Over Hear: Six types of poetry experiment in Aotearoa/New Zealand (Tinfish, 2015) explains its function as critical writing; Tender Girl (Dusie, 2015) is an ecstatic novel that morphs Lautreamont’s prose poetry with the Little Mermaid; Anti M (Chax, 2013) performs as a memoir with all the mystery left in; and Wild Dialectics (Shearsman, 2012) is a book of poems that really looks like a book of poems. She has produced six books in the past six years, as well as an art film, CDs, an edited anthology and other work. The aim of all these works is to keep the energy up at all points, constructing a kind of charged language field, and not to surrender to any given boundaries.
The second epigraph of Foreign Native is from Charles Sanders Peirce, and concludes: ‘There is no outer boundary at all.’ There is a political aspect to this. In his recent book The Cold War: A world history (2017), Odd Arne Westad writes in relation to nineteenth-century revolutionaries: ‘They saw the struggle for a new world as having no borders.’ Samuels carries this spirit in her transnationalism.
It might be that the Samuels’ poems have ‘found’ sources of language or work within ‘territories’ of language. The poem ‘Democratic Vistas’, for instance, sprawls over three pages in a very Whitman-like way. Whitman’s eponymously titled 1871 essay proclaimed: ‘What is life but an experiment? … And so shall my poems be.’ This seems to fit the world of Samuels’ work. Her ‘Democratic Vistas’ evokes Whitman’s poetry’s attempt to encompass ‘these states’ when she writes: ‘he was standing on his head / opening the voice to technique / going from state to open state / depended to our backsides like America.’ Yet that word ‘state’ gives a clue to another language world in which ‘state’ means, for example, a ‘state of mind’, a ‘state of being’ or ‘a state of ecstasy’. Whitman would have been happy about that, but so would the experimental Polish theatre director, Jerzy Grotowski, who was famous for getting actors to stand on their heads to ‘open’ the voice. The poem mentions ‘street theatre’, ‘theatre of nations’, ‘a play’, ‘the audience’, ‘playing out’ and ‘expressionist drama.’ There are cross-currents (electrically) flowing back and forth in this poem (‘state to open state’) among experimenters Walt Whitman, Jerzy Grotowski and Lisa Samuels, in open, ‘democratic vistas’ in a language celebration that is ‘ringing with / that high sound way of doing love has / sharpened to a point.’
Whereas Rimoldi might be described as a ‘foreign native’ in Aotearoa, albeit one with a distinctly American retrospective view, Samuels suggests that Aotearoa itself is a ‘foreign native’ place. This conceit, almost metaphysical, but ah, actually surprisingly literal, confronts a nationalistic narrative in the arts with those questions I mentioned earlier: Who are ‘you’? Who am ‘I’? When I first looked at the cover of Foreign Native I saw Ariana Hamidi’s image as a lot of medusa jellyfish floating free in a deep blue sea. I see now that the sea might be some kind of space and those jellyfish are likely dancers in diaphanous slips with wide-spread arms – though the image of a heap of crucifixes at the bottom of a swimming pool also scintillates. This shifting of the viewer’s perceptions is a striking visual rhyme for the manoeuvres in Samuels’ poetry.
MURRAY EDMOND: Then It Was Now Again: Selected critical writing (Atuanui Press, 2014); Shaggy Magpie Songs (Auckland University Press, 2015); Strait Men and Other Tales (Steele Roberts, 2015). Editor, Ka Mate Ka Ora: A New Zealand journal of poetry and poetics (www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz/kmko/). Dramaturge for Indian Ink Theatre Company (www.indianink.co.nz).