tumble by Joanna Preston (Otago University Press, 2021), 85pp, $27.50; Reading the Signs by Janis Freegard (The Cuba Press, 2020), 96pp, $25; Slips: Cricket poems by Mark Pirie (Headworx, 2021), 145pp, $30.
‘Female, nude’, the opening poem of Joanna Preston’s sophomore collection tumble, makes itself known with steely assuredness:
The things we prize. Innocence,
the sleeping fire that speaks
through the long white flower
of her spine, the curve
of her hips the rim of a slow
on which to break a man.
Already, the reader surely has much to admire: a list (and lovers of poetry do love lists) given a purposively sinister edge by adroitly manipulated ambiguities of syntax—especially in the fifth line; marvellously meaningful line breaks; concisely rendered clarity of image combined with a sense of incipient energy; the delightfully damning tone. It is like reading a feminist anglophone twenty-first century Theophile Gautier, which is enough of a good thing for me to not worry too much about the strange mental picture of a wheel spoked by a flower stem. And is it a woman of flesh, marble, or paint?
Another thing that carries from the opening poem through the rest of tumble is an intimation of deeply held female power, a reserve of strength from which the book’s various speakers and subjects might draw in moments of decision the poems summon into sound. Grounding that energy is an earthy cosmopolitanism: nature, whether in New Zealand or Europe, is the domain in which the tumbling cast of women move most freely and are most free to choose without constraint. Men, by contrast, are altogether indoors creatures, presiding over cities, such as the proud fallen princeling in ‘Lucifer in Las Vegas’, who glories in the sound of his own voice and surveys his DIY four-walled kingdom of snakes, dead souls and gambling chips, pleased with what he sees. So, too, is the cabdriver in ‘Fare’, a somewhat heavy-handed retooling of ‘La belle dame sans merci’, in which his female passenger only exists for him when she is inside his taxi.
The most memorable poems are those in which the power is rising or is unloosed: Mary’s birth pains in ‘Census at Bethlehem’ or the running woman’s exhilarated quittance of ranked businessmen in ‘Atalanta’. Other poems combine expressions of female power and bodily memory with images of water, of which ‘Portrait of Great-Aunt Lavinia as a bathysphere’ stands out for its barely governed flow of images, as if tendrils of seaweed seen through clear blue water:
So reinforced—her waist, the bounty
of her chest, her coral reef of painted hair—
you’d swear she’d walk away unharmed
from being struck by lightning, by
a trolley-car, by a sudden fancy,
to walk down to the quay, and keep on walking…
tumble is a strong second collection of poems, one which—despite its recurring themes—ranges widely over time and place. Indeed, its best poem is ‘Chronicle of the Year 793’, which is set in the doomed monastic community at Lindisfarne before it was razed by Vikings. Appositely, given the marvellous creations of its residents, it shows all Preston’s craft at its best, not least of all her gift for monologue. This variety probably comes in part from tumble being largely a gathering of the best poems Preston has written in the ten years or so since her last collection, Summer King. It is an unusual but welcome exception from the routine of procrustean-themed collections. I do miss the metrical workings of Preston’s first book, which gave a feeling of welling but not quite bursting energy to some of its poems, though I suppose she has largely moved on from them. And sometimes her metaphors get oddly mixed: ‘She is spreading the wings / of her lungs’ (‘Atalanta’) conjures for me a vision of the blood-eagle, a form of skaldic ritual execution, not surprising after the Viking spectre has earlier been raised in the aforementioned poem but no doubt a far less uplifting image than what was likely intended.
Occasionally her diction seems determined by lexical novelty rather than by the freshness of particularity and her handling vowel sounds can be a little too rich for my taste. One can detect a few poetic five-finger exercises. But these are the kinds of criticisms one makes of high calibre poetry like Preston’s. She is a poet who knows what she is doing and what she does gets done very well. I look forward to when something of a real moment tests the deep investment she has obviously made in her poetic disciplines. Then the sparks might really fly from her forge.
Janis Freegard’s Reading the Signs, a book of (mostly) prose poems, is an interesting departure from her previous work. More concerned with the here and now, it attends to the evanescence of things and their ambiguities and transformations with a tender fastidiousness. Dealing with issues of grief, selfhood, place and mutability, often synecdochally, much of this collection’s interest derives from how it interleaves various registers: haibun-ish aphorism, nineteenth-century scientific description, blogpost and tweet, HD-like imagism, 1950s cookbook. These modes are adroitly manipulated, dovetailing into each other, set edge to edge, or submitted to quicksilver metamorphosis. At times, the best of the pieces reminded me of the ideogramic fictions of Guy Davenport for the frissons they generate by creative anachronism. Maintaining precision all the while—particularly in her depictions of nature and its mercurial undefined processes—is quite a feat, one which Freegard pulls off with seeming ease:
After the clearing—primary or secondary, it doesn’t matter which—comes colonisation. When the pioneer plants arrive, they immediately start changing the place. For better or worse. They might be nitrogen fixers, like gorse or broom, making it easier for the next lot who happen along, the ones that will eventually replace them and will themselves be replaced in turn. Wave upon wave.
(‘A gradual building’)
Here the idiomatic is doing a lot of good work: plain English serving complex ends, with fact sometimes flipping over into potent metaphor before you notice it’s happened.
Reading the Signs seems to me less interesting when it turns diaristic and inwards. We get jottings about feelings, which of course come and go, but the abiding sense is one of melancholic hopefulness, too much of which can sometimes become cloying. I found the interpolation of a gender-fluid Vigilian guide—to whom Freegard gives many of the book’s best lines—entirely unnecessary, as if the polyvalent personage had been parachuted in to make things more interesting. Indeed, the same is true of the tasseography—and, after all, parsing signals from acute observation of the physical world is very different to imposing wish-fulfilment on the random patterns of tealeaves. I would much rather have read more arresting accounts of the wonderful weirdness of the world than ventriloquised modish musings about identity. The oddities of a mourning cuttlefish’s shapeshifting are interesting for their own sake but I’m not sure if they suggest ways for humans to organise themselves and their thoughts. There is a big gap I struggle to span between reading in the same poem about how the cuttlefish changes his appearance by ‘expanding and contracting pigment sacs in his skin, waves of colour pulsing over the surface’—for me a fascinating observation of fact—and the interpreter volunteering the nugget that ‘Gender’s a continuum, not a dichotomy’ (‘Cuttlefish’). This is not an opinion shared by the aforementioned fish, for which opinions about gender, or about anything else at all, do not matter.
The book progresses from dreamy impressionism to impersonal ecological processes to candid self-reflection to ‘chopping wood and carrying water’ in the guise of drinking tea. In the dwelling once occupied by the poet Ema Saikō, this ritual becomes a still centre amongst whelm and welter all around us:
I pour in the water and the leaves spill over themselves like spawning salmon. I taste tall trees, mountain streams. Below are the shoals, the swarming, swimming shoals, the single intent of the group, the singular passion.
(‘I search for meaning in the leaves’)
This singular passion, I think, is the book secreted within this book. As John of Patmos was commanded to ‘write on a scroll what you see’ but couldn’t stop himself from saying what he thought about it—providing a commentary on all the signs and wonders he had seen—so too Freegard has obscured the moment’s vision, so often strikingly and strongly expressed, with confected opinion and assertion. The world is not a dream and it resists our efforts to treat it as such, a fact to which the best of this book so clearly bears witness.
The indefatigable Mark Pirie has gathered his ‘cricket poems’ in Slips, which began as a booklet in 2008 and has now grown to a hefty 140 or so pages. The only poem I knew of in which cricket has much significance is Drummond Allison’s sonnet in memory of Hedley Verity, the English cricketer who was killed in Italy during WWII not long before Allison himself. Pirie, who has also written poems about a variety of other sports, has more than filled a gap in my reading that I was not remotely aware existed.
Being of roughly the same age, and having played representative cricket as a boy, I share many of the memories Pirie makes occasions for poems: hearing Bryan Waddle’s voice through an AM radio; feeling amazement at Bradman being so much better than anyone else; searching out newsreel footage of pre-television legends; poring over columns of statistics; catching oneself at being so serious about a game; catching your adult self’s rapture at another grown-up’s entirely superfluous prodigality.
Pirie captures well that feeling of almost embarrassingly enduring wide-eyed wonder: ‘some things do get easier with age, / but never that boyish excitement: a kept journal’ (‘The Streaming Room’).
The best poems are simply stated jeux d’esprit, but many others are either nostalgia—almost always a very personal experience—or fan mail, and the ones that are not—even the good ones—often tend to the esoteric, plump with statistics and team rosters. Unfortunately, given I still follow the game more than most, I found myself arguing with the poet, for example, about his assessments of this or that player. And there are some undeniably atrocious rhymes. But there are also some surprising moments of almost Horatian gravitas, such as the end of ‘Neo-Classical’, a meditation on clubroom drinks, which carries a dedication to Allen Curnow:
Those images now seem as desirable
as ever. Not much has changed,
our poets who helped shape
our identity such as you were
speaking clear, as if it were all about beer,
while never a soul lost his cheer.
If you’re well-hopped, established, you’ll keep,
writ long in memory, sure to rise, a tangy harbinger.
Those last two lines are crackers. Even so, the idea of 140 pages of poems about cricket obviously isn’t going to appeal to a wide range of readers. And Pirie is a big enough fan of the game to appreciate its drama and eccentricities for their own sake rather than use them as metaphors for life or some such. But it is a charming and disarming book, one which clearly doesn’t take itself nearly as seriously as its author takes the game.
ROBERT MCLEAN is a poet, critic, reviewer and PhD candidate at Massey University. His collected poems were published in 2020 by Cold Hub Press. He lives in Lyttelton and works in Wellington for the New Zealand government.