Wild Like Me, by Elizabeth Nannestad (Victoria University Press, 2013) 78 pp., $28.
Elizabeth Nannestad’s Wild Like Me reads like one long meditative poem of a lone consciousness facing the void and regularly attaining a poise between negation and acceptance. Though the vessel is certainly empty, it often feels half-full. The patina of ego is polished away in this world-picture that is almost completely without place names or proper names. Human life is a little boat whose mast is broken (‘Fear’).
This world is a relatively friendless place: none of my friends / is a friend really (‘Flies’). Flies, the poet implies, will be the only creature to know / what my insides are like, namely a bag of half-formed desires, / a carcass.
The individual is isolated in a world driven by generation. The poet regards her younger self, or maybe daughter:
I see that you are perfectly unaware
of being part of the great chain of generations (‘Song of Years’)
Nevertheless, the poet celebrates the blood-bond of family in a consoling fantasy of synchronicity in ‘We All Play’, where the four generations from grandmother to daughter play together as six year olds, although of course this can never be.
There are no mystical moments in Wild Like Me, but moments of recognition, of imagined rapport: Walt Whitman lowers his big head but lifts quick, sweet eyes (‘Walt Whitman, you – ’). These moments can also be glimpses of fatalism, of complicity in an inexorable process: the clear frightened eye met mine of a beast on the way presumably to the freezing-works (‘On Passing a Cattle Truck’).
This book contains a menagerie that includes insects, birds and a goat, which feature in little fables on the meaning of existence:
a daddy-long-legs …
trying to get a hold of existence, and slipping,
battering at the door to nowhere. (‘It Comes to Grief’)
An address to another tiny creature structures ‘Rowing to Paradise’:
Hoi there beetle: you’ve a long way to go.
If only you knew! –
Hey! The poet knows.
All of these poems on creatures intend, and show, an empathy with their fight to survive: the brood of twelve in ‘Counting the Ducklings’ that inevitably diminishes to one, and in ‘Except for the Goat’ the injured goat that the poet rescues from a busy road. These are not sentimental poems, but they do not strongly evoke these creatures, their autonomy. They are poems that could garnish a textbook on Evolutionary Psychology.
After the poet rescues the goat and places it safely over a fence, there is, actually, a whiff of sentimentality:
And I am free to imagine her, limping a touch,
laughing back at us
from among thistles and grass and water.
The poet is free to imagine. But what is that ‘freedom’? The ambivalent relationship between a blind inexorable nature and the human capability of being free to imagine is not addressed.
The interweaving of a number of tropes gives structure to Wild Like Me; one of the more effective is that of ‘ground’. In ‘We All Play’, dream ground / is perfect for digging. Ground is even anthropomorphised in ‘I Am – ’: I am kissing you back to your life. / I am the ground. The poet revisits the ground where years ago I cast her ashes and is comforted: for a short while again, I was somebody’s child (‘On the Peak’). In ‘Lost’ the poet explains that while Crossing a piece of ground, I felt for my keys – these keys of course are as abstract as ‘ground’.
Of the few named people in the book, two appear in the empathetic poem ‘Daphne’, dedicated for David. This poem vividly reconstructs details of long-gone suburban lives; there is even an actual street address. Other poems that deal with people, though full of pent-up feeling, have an obliqueness, a discretion, that more relates them to the pervasive theme of the anonymous force of nature than creates a memorable portrait. The elegiac ‘Starwoman’ though littered with cockle shells, a wood pigeon and swallows is nebulous in effect, and the God be with you of the penultimate line is strangely unironic, given the tone of the rest of the book. Two poems deal with a person called Hernan, but who or even what this character is remains unclear, though he is an object of love, even desire:
What can we do with a boy like this?
There are other men, plenty of them
but we all want this one: the one
with a poem in his back pocket
the one who falls and falls and falling flies
‘Love Song to Hernan, from All of Us Women’
Though anonymous, the deeply repressed protagonist of ‘He Longs for War’ is a powerful portrayal, but even more so is the demonic character of ‘Living with the Demon’, a threatening figure of otherness that, chillingly, turns out to be part of the self — well, that’s my take anyway on an allegory of anxiety so well crafted that the demon ‘lives’.
Another intriguing poem that turns abstraction from vice to virtue is ‘How This Very Poem Came About’. It features a mysterious entity the slight thing that could be, firstly the poem, and then what used to be called the ‘soul’, or even a foetus or . . . ? The poet discovers an even more basic particle in ‘Report’:
Here’s a particle, high above the earth
charged and willing to go in any direction
knowing of itself nothing –
. . . The particle exists
momentarily. It could be anything.
This ambiguous particle is the essence of Wild Like Me: a personification of the struggle to find equilibrium, to find the potential in negation.
There is an intense focus in this book, which coalesces in a number of strong poems, but also a tendency to abstraction that makes creatures and things subservient to the poet’s super-charged questing consciousness. In this singular journal of contemplation of an impersonal world, Nannestad achieves a versatile and vigorous verse line, embodying an individual voice that continues to evolve.
DENIS HAROLD is a literary researcher and editor living in South Otago.