Fully Clothed and So Forgetful by Hannah Mettner (Victoria University Press, 2017), 91 pp., $25; The Internet of Things by Kate Camp (Victoria University Press, 2017), 61 pp., $25
We become unmoored. We forget how
to build boats. We forget how to swim.
(‘Another failed sea battle’, Hannah Mettner)
One quality I love about first volumes of poetry is that they often contain an element of the poet’s origin story. Hannah Mettner’s Fully Clothed and So Forgetful certainly does: there are poems referencing childhood, relationships with siblings and wider family, elements of cultural confusion after an across-the-world move, parenthood – all described with deftness, wit and originality. How about that title? It’s a delight … inviting, and very human.
A beautiful poem, ‘Higher ground’, leads her collection. It describes climbing steps as a metaphor for life. This could so easily have gone wrong, but Mettner uses an affecting list of images to convey life’s confusions: ‘There are short-cuts, a pulley system, booby traps, blown dandelions / unbreakable eggs, galvanised / nails walking the planks of the steps, / bivouacs and halfway houses’. Each small thing alone is full of vast metaphorical potential, and so the list works to describe life’s chaotic randomness. Heaven (or something like it) is a ‘cool pond at the top where the sun- / carp clean our feet and where / we can sleep’. Throughout this collection people are often positioned towards or away from God, as believers or atheists. The props of spirituality – crucifixes, tarot cards, koans, seances – feature with humour and ambivalence but also a bit of allowance for mystery.
There are poignant poems about parenting, about the growing awareness of being a link in an ancestral chain and all that comes with shared genetic history. In ‘Girl talk’ the voice in the poem wishes not to repeat the mistakes and failures of her mother but can feel how hopeless this desire is; children will inevitably be disappointed or annoyed by their parents. The speaker tries to mend this inevitability with a blanket statement of love: ‘I tell / her the one thing I still want to hear.’ Mettner expresses emotion well through the tangible. In ‘A history’, her description of visiting her parents conveys all the complex emotions of return and the renegotiation of intimacy in familial relationships, through observations about beds, old and new: ‘My old bed, the one that rode / all the way from America, has / galloped its last mile and / been put to pasture at the dump. / The guest bed is a firm handshake.’ Mettner looks both up and down the ancestral line in a number of her poems. She examines the scars of childhood, and yet is clear that no one escapes without influencing their wider family, for better or worse.
Mettner has a fresh eye for an old concept: ‘The southerly is / thinning Autumn’s weak / exhalations. Everything has / just stopped burning’ (‘A history’). It struck me what a perfect statement for the ‘energy’ of autumn that last line is – the long cooling of summer’s burn. ‘Schrodinger’s pink corduroy miniskirt’ explores the potentiality of our every little decision, using humour to tease out heady concepts. Mettner uses the prose poem form quite a bit in an accomplished way. Occasional poems (‘An argument for reincarnation illustrated by cars’, ‘Fill in the blanks’, ‘Queen bed’) read as a little throwaway, lacking the depth and nuance of the rest of the collection, but these are only noticeable because most of the poems are so very good. Her poetic voice is intelligent, self-aware and has an assured eye for the humanely askew. ‘Down any road is a poem,’ Mettner writes in ‘Alone in the woods’, and this nourishing debut collection conveys that very idea. Here is a poet awake to the world who can see the poetic potential in everything.
In The Internet of Things Kate Camp is not angry, she is just disappointed. ‘The human condition / is always to wish for the wrong thing’, she writes in the title poem. This is Camp’s sixth poetry collection. Her work is known for both its sharp wit and tenderness. This collection is full of yearning, compassion and an appreciation of the value that exists in our most ordinary moments despite our human failings. Again from the title poem: ‘Like leaves on a tree we are something amazing / that behaves in predictable ways.’ This line could almost act as a one-line synopsis for the whole collection. The voice in the poems is an odd and compelling combination of world-weary and yet still (cautiously) enchanted by life. Camp spins art out of pragmatism, and overcomes challenges to look for and sometimes find pleasure.
For me, the imagery in the poems doesn’t possess quite the same sense of delight as Mettner’s, and the tone in Camp’s work is a little more subdued, even cynical at times, but not so cynical that the work gets stuck in a dark corner. Life’s predictability and repetition feature as themes throughout: ‘It was always going to be / that some parts of your life would swell / while other would only be shown their natural size … (‘The Mercator projection’); ‘Women are less likely to be struck by lightning / for all the boring reasons’ (‘Lightning’); and ‘One day the tsunami will come / draw back the ocean like a blanket / and destroy it all / and I know I will care / but I don’t even care.’ (‘On the waterfront’).
In some poems there is a tension between heartbreak and pleasure, sadness and delight – the poet makes it clear she is aware that intense emotion can be cloying and, alone, is never excuse enough for poetry, and that these are not those types of poems. In ‘On the waterfront’ this tension is further expressed in a reaction to a Lauris Edmond quote ‘carved into concrete’: ‘I disagree with this quote … I even find it a bit embarrassing / but that makes me love her more / she was always a poet / who didn’t try to hide her feelings / which I can only salute.’ This wariness towards over-embellishment gives rise to the occasional moment where the images are a little flat: ‘The past is something you only notice is heavy / when you’re moving’(‘The biology of loneliness’), or ‘The sun is shining like an enormous light’ (‘On the waterfront’). She writes, ‘We were quite messed up / but it was still a wonderful time …’ (‘On the waterfront’), a line that captures the tension at the centre of many of the poems.
The pain of life is no surprise to anyone, but Camp expresses it anew with lively imagery and metaphor: ‘You fall into disaster with the dull familiarity of the snake / taking you back to the same old square’ (‘The Mercator projection’). There is curiosity, connection and the invigorating cold splash of beautifully observed moments in the poems: ‘As you approach the airport / you think for the first time: air port. / The sky becomes an ocean./ … travel / makes the world so tiny / just you and your ears / popping, your eyes in their mask / your bag with its family / of clever compartments’ (‘Flight’).
Mettner and Camp are both amusing: not groan-funny, but the kind of slant, dark wit that I imagine would make them great dinner guests. ‘[My appliances] … tell me I am running low / on memory. Nothing could be further from the truth! / I am a billionaire of memory / I am the one / percent’, Camp writes playfully in ‘Welcome to your new sky’. Both books examine some of life’s big themes: family, desire, disappointment. These are books of comradeship and encouragement. Yes, they say, everything is going to hell in a hand-basket. Yes, people are maddening and disappointing and nothing is as we imagined it might be when we were younger … but there is still much to live for, laugh at and enjoy. Both books possess many life-affirming poems that have the effect of lighting a candle on a mantlepiece on a gloomy winter’s afternoon. What these collections share the desire to be allowed to keep on loving and feeling and noticing the world, and both poets draw the reader in to share that hope, despite the fact we are constantly, as Hannah Mettner says (in ‘Baking a maybe’), ‘drowning a little bit. A little bit drowning.’
HELEN LEHNDORF’s second book, Write to the Centre, about the practice of keeping a journal, was published by Haunui Press in 2016. She writes poetry and non-fiction, and has been published in Sport, Landfall, JAAM and many other publications.