Sparks Among the Stubble by John Weir (Cold Hub Press, 2021), 88pp, $28; Meeting Rita by Jenny Powell (Cold Hub Press, 2021), 80pp, $27.50; Locals Only: An outsider’s insider perspective on Aotearoa by Craig Foltz (Compound Press, 2020), 108pp, $25
The back cover of Sparks Among the Stubble describes John Weir as ‘a priest as well as a poet’. In this, his fifth collection of poetry, Weir’s two vocations are undoubtedly entwined. The title is taken from scripture: ‘He has tested them like gold in a furnace … When the time comes for his visitation they will shine and run to and fro like sparks among the stubble.’ What these verses mean to Weir is open to inference, and it quickly becomes clear that this poetic homily will not be a dour one. Weir’s poetry places equal thematic emphasis on the ways people are ‘tested’ and the way they ‘shine’.
A clear-eyed awareness of the world’s beauty and complications is subtly signalled right from the start. The opening poems present earthy and earthly images: ‘the bruised apple I found once on a toppled tree / the log lying for months in the sawpit / […] cream clotting in the blue bowl in the dairy’. Located in a rural past and filtered through memory, the tone of these poems is nonetheless too bittersweet to be described as simply nostalgic. Weir captures the complications of reminiscence, describing sharp emotional aches that feel ‘as if, while hanging out at Harvey’s Corner, / I’d swallowed a handful of tart blackberries / not ripe enough for eating’ (‘The farm’).
The sense of time and place in this collection is broad and reflects a lifetime of experience. Aotearoa New Zealand is evoked in familiar aspects of landscape and birdlife. ‘The gift (for Stephen Baxter)’ notes Weir’s long friendship with James K. Baxter and his family. The poems travel further afield, too, to England and America. But more than with any particular place, these are poems concerned with interior life and deeply personal perspective. Place often has less staying power within memory than those odd details that come in impressionistic bursts, as in ‘The tour’:
or was that when we went to
the Butterfly House near
wherever it was and my cousin
broke the heel off her shoe?
Even those poems that take a more objective, historical view are inevitably the product of Weir’s own perception. A section of biographical poems reflects his academic background in English literature, covering writers from Sitwell to Hemingway. I admit I find myself more drawn to Weir’s directly personal poems, however—perhaps because he has demonstrated just how clearly he can crystallise his own individual experience.
‘At the hospital’ describes a relative who ‘used to hide her advice in wordy ambush. / She seldom just talked’. It strikes me that Weir’s poetry is the very opposite; there is no ‘wordy ambush’ sprung on the reader. Instead, he ‘just talks’—beautifully and lyrically, yes, but with an essential honesty. This can be disconcerting at times. In ‘The tea-party’, the speaker expresses a kind of apathy we might not expect from a priest:
It’s likely that Jennifer will be there
talking earnestly about Syrian refugees.
Uncomfortably aware of my weight
eyeing each cake as if it were a landmine
I’ll nod and think about inter-planetary
travel, black holes, collapsing stars.
Weir’s Christianity is a gentle and broadly encompassing presence throughout this collection. ‘The toys (for Ngaire)’ describes a woman—perhaps one of Weir’s parishioners—who died in possession of ‘a large congregation’ of toy animals. There is a stubborn dignity and a loving unpretentiousness in the poet’s valediction:
May they variously
roar, squeak, growl, buzz,
howl, yap, drone,
and ululate for her
while she makes her way
towards that ultimate
where toy lions
lie down with
Although mention is made of Lot’s wife, Weir’s primary emphasis seems to be on grace, extended widely—and not always framed in explicitly religious terms. ‘The letter’ ends with the image of ‘a shag perched on a rock, / staring over the waves’, and declares: ‘No doubt it didn’t care a fig / about what we try so hard to remember. Or forget.’
The opening, titular poem of Jenny Powell’s Meeting Rita describes the moment of encounter, and it does so in terms we might almost call a ‘meet-cute’. There is a sense of meant-to-be, of serendipity: ‘Hanging around in the gallery / for a ticket-only discussion / of fashion, we were singles / leaning on opposite walls. / […] Rita and I / were wearing the same coat’. There is wordplay here, of course. The renowned Rita Angus hangs in our finest galleries and, as we learn in the Preface, was the theme of a Dunedin ID Fashion Show that Powell attended in 2018. This was not Powell’s first encounter with Rita, but it provided a catalyst, a kind of inspiration that became ‘a gift [Powell] couldn’t refuse’. The title sets up the intimate tone of this collection and its relational focus. Weir sketches biographies of his artistic heroes, but Powell goes further and actually imagines a friendship with hers. The result is not simply clever or charming, but genuinely moving as well.
The blurb explains that Rita has in some way ‘shifted in time to become the poet’s friend’. They meet in Powell’s present day but reflect together on shared aspects of their pasts:
Everyone’s mother dusted an ornament
placed on the narrow table
inherited from her husband’s aunt.
[…] It’s fusion, I explain to Rita,
everything blending until there is no context
(‘Loves lies bleeding at the gallery cafe’)
There is a sense of universality being reached for here. But perhaps commonality is a better word. What Powell and Angus share are not, in fact, the experiences of ‘everyone and their mother’, but specifically those of creative women in Aotearoa New Zealand. In ‘Between two worlds’ Powell lays out the parallel clearly: ‘In the tension under a painting, / the stress of certain syllables. / We meet between two worlds’. Two eras, two forms of creative life.
The Preface assures us there is no need to be familiar with Angus’s art before we read this collection. Nor do we necessarily need to know the parts of the country referenced in these poems: Christchurch, Wellington, Central Otago, Dunedin. But if you are familiar with them, you will likely pick up on additional layers of resonance.
Powell’s connection with her subject creates a deep empathy, rendered most touchingly in the poems that deal with personal suffering. Several deal with Rita’s time at Sunnyside Hospital. ‘Not all colours are beautiful’ painfully records the loss of pregnancies. Powell likewise extends empathy for Rita’s reliefs and joys. Who else but a fellow creative could understand the value of Douglas Lilburn’s gift of paying for Rita’s time in Central Otago?
He gives you time with no conditions
except its own rules of passing.
He gives you relief of hills
when your head aches with flatness.
He gives you a painter’s holiday,
and lets you burrow into yourself.
(‘Love doesn’t always have to be said’)
In the midst of all this historical contextualising, I should not forget to mention that Powell’s poems are beautiful, both aurally and in the images they evoke. ‘Teviot Valley, Central Otago’ feels like a verbal still-life with texture and colour artfully arranged: ‘she remembers / your colours of redcurrants / bread-and-milk pudding, speckled / quail eggs and the lavender / under her pillow’.
As the collection draws to a close Powell realises she must let Rita go. In ‘All along, time has been playing with us,’ she decides: ‘I’m getting carried away. / I’m here to take off my coat, / not to swelter in extra / layers of life’. Meeting Rita testifies to the fact that artists’ experiences in differing modes can layer upon each other beautifully: time need not present a barrier.
In Craig Foltz’s Locals Only: An outsider’s insider perspective on Aotearoa, each poem corresponds to a particular location, ‘filtered through the imagined lenses of the people who would be most familiar with it’. Map references are provided—and that is a mercy, because this collection is a deliberately disorienting experience. Foltz is our guide, and in the Preface he asserts: ‘the landscape of language is degraded because it evades even the most basic components of truth’. As such, these poems resist easy interpretation. Readers may grasp at familiar topographic features, whether these be placenames they recognise or Foltz’s own stylistic mannerisms. But ultimately, Foltz is working to disorient and defamiliarise us: making us simultaneously outsiders and insiders.
Foltz’s locals view their landscapes in microscopic, idiosyncratic detail, focused so closely on personal perception that, without a map reference, there would often be little to pinpoint the poem’s setting. But if we do not always recognise our towns in these snapshots, we might recognise something more subterranean: odd glimpses of human experience, blurred like an object seen fleetingly through the window of a bus or an overheard snatch of conversation. For instance: ‘Financial independence means never having to siphon off particles of speech’ (‘Rare earth’).
Foltz revels in what words can do and in what they can’t, and finds beauty in both:
Certain words have very specific meanings,
while others obtain a kind of souped up
velocity through their ambiguity. Take the word
tunnel for instance. What shall be
revealed? Bitter leaves? Honey? Ether?
This collection may raise endless questions—and that may be the point—but occasionally there is a moment of certainty. Even if that certainty is deliberately complex: ‘What I mean / to say when I say what I mean to say is that / you know you are alive when you say / what you mean to say’ (‘Cuba libre’).
Locals Only reminds us that our own impressions of Hokianga and Moeraki will be just as impenetrably personal as these poems. More than a journey to specific geographic locations, this collection takes us on a tour of interiority and the slipperiness of language. Foltz certainly succeeds in recording ‘exactly those things that’, while they may have some connection to physical place, ‘are unable to be located in the driver’s atlas.’
GENEVIEVE SCANLAN lives in Ōtepoti Dunedin. She has reviewed poetry for Landfall, HAMSTER magazine and The Rochford Street Review, and has had her own work published in the Otago Daily Times, The Rise Up Review and Poetry New Zealand.