Body Politic by Mary Cresswell (The Cuba Press, 2020), 68pp., $25; Far-Flung by Rhian Gallagher (Auckland University Press, 2020), 96pp., $24.99; Michael, I Thought You Were Dead by Michael Fitzsimons (The Cuba Press, 2020), 92pp., $25.00
Body Politic by Mary Cresswell is an inspired collection of poems. It is an ambitious attempt to transfer a scientist’s concern for detail into poetry. In part the volume describes the strange paradox of the pandemic that threatens humanity, while at the same time revealing the fortitude of humankind to overcome adversity.
As a surgeon cuts into the human body, the poet cuts into our perceptions of the world. Cresswell’s poems consist of words, satire and absurdity as they move between people, science and nature.
The most expressive poems in this collection are in those lucid and limpid lines where time slows—lines that lodge in the reader’s mind, as in the following stanza from the title poem, ‘Body politic’:
I liked the sinister look of you—we all did—and I was left alone to
play on your banks.
My parents talked and talked and looked into the black lake. Perhaps
they swam through you—though I never saw wet footprints in their
I was happiest by the white water, listening to divers who had come
up for good, afraid of strange bubbles in their blood. (p. 9)
The poem’s subtle rhythm lends an echo that reverberates through the poet’s memories of childhood.
In the most intimate poems, concepts are cast aside in the fullness of the moment. The moving and beautiful lines of ‘Apex’ transcend theories. The poem begins:
We climbed ungloved, hand over hand,
the sour-needle pines,
expecting to see the glacier from here.
We heard the clock strike (several times),
and the red-coated oompah band
belted out brass on the miniature pier. (p. 15)
These lines reveal the freedom experienced in a climb above the turmoil that is going on in the countryside below, where time is abolished ‘in favour of space’.
Indeed, mountains are a vital part of Cresswell’s landscape. The poem ‘Taranaki’ would be far less memorable without its simple couplets, swooping the reader’s gaze to the snow, the snow poles standing at an angle. The poem ends:
grit and suspicion
basalt and whiteouts—
we reach out for stories
based upon rock (p. 26)
Some of the longer poems in the collection reveal the poet’s scientific concerns. ‘Gigabyte’, a prose poem, captures the reader’s attention in its opening lines:
How much memory can you sell me? I want it all, asleep and awake,
at the light touch of a finger, I want the blood to stay liquid, the
bones never to rise again, the stink to stay undissipated in either
still or moving air. (p. 19)
But even if scientifically engaged, Cresswell’s poetry is not difficult. Nor does it demand to be read in opposition to the traditional verse with which many readers will be familiar. Even when she is theorising, as in the prose poem ‘We the wreckers wait by the rocks’, she is at ease with her style, as we see in the first section of the poem:
Incomplete sentences reach up from the sea floor, Bright-striped
fishes race through them to the first lagoon, hooked south of a
back-curved bay. Clause by clause, they make waves in a light-free
world. Seaweed circumspectly covers parts left naked in the sand,
keeping to patterns of dead men’s pain and dead women’s rage. (p. 32)
The prose poem as a form is not particularly abstruse, and Cresswell uses prose to great effect. We could say her poetry springs from a state of heightened awareness of her surroundings. This manifests beautifully in the poem ‘High tide at Epigwaitt’. This is a story about the schooner Grafton that was wrecked in Carney Harbour in 1864. All that remains is the stone fireplace of the survivors’ hut. The poem is told from a personal viewpoint:
I trust the sheets to serve me right, she whined at the wheel as
she whirled into the dying light. The sound of noise not only
annoys an oyster, it stills the soul and recapitulates the sad
ghost of master roisterdoister. (p. 38)
The attention to the experience is undistracted and unclouded. Here we see Cresswell’s creative energy of language. Take, for example, the poem ‘The pied pipers of’, which is, unusually for Cresswell, a rhyming poem. It is based on the fairy tale ‘The Pied Piper of Hamlin’:
A motley of ratcatchers appeared on the tracks,
with the best of intentions to cover their backs—
the township en masse to the party has come
to make predators pay for the evil they’ve done. (p. 46)
In general, Cresswell shapes not merely the poem but the realities she experiences. At the same time she is aware of the things beyond our control, such as the virus, or natural events that rip open the ground, toss hillsides and make rubble of buildings. At other times she writes about feral dogs that attack guinea pigs, as in ‘Going viral’, which ends:
Right now it’s something else again
and we hope it’ll stay there
but it’s hard to tell
with feral dogs
and the guinea pigs keep
running wild and free
regardless (p. 53)
What the scenario may offer is one thing; what she makes of it is another.
Life and its satisfactions occupy the poet, but intimations of infinity attract her also, as we see in the last poem, ‘Once more, with feeling’, which ends:
My soul moves a thousand ways, like Bruegel
peasants caught cavorting on the village green.
No record now of what it ever meant.
This is resigned to reason, construed by
both what it has and what it hasn’t seen. (p. 66)
One cannot but be impressed by the poet’s lifetime of experience and learning that have gone into crafting this volume.
Award-winning poet Rhian Gallagher returns with a new collection, Far-Flung, lyrical poems about the aural world and the physical experiences that inspire her.
In this generous gathering of Gallagher’s work a resourceful imagination is at work and language is given a bright new currency. Here are poems presented and contemplated in language that stills the mind. The reader is taken to situations that remain grounded both in nature and in the everyday. There are beautiful images and a wonderful array of landscapes and atmospheric delights. Close observation gives shape to the verses. Filled with meditative sound and thoughtful gravity, and on occasion spiced with wit, these poems are a delight to read.
Divided into two sections, ‘The Speed of God’ and ‘Seacliff Epistles’, the poems are beautifully sustained and natural. The opening poem, ‘Into the blue light’, establishes the poet’s instinctive tone with a sharp shift between ephemeral and concrete images: ‘I’m walking above myself in the blue light’ and ‘I’m high as a wing tip’ (p.3).
Gallagher describes the beauty of scenery in ‘Mackenzie Country’:
Tucked into snow tussock’s span
shy gentian—one life holding another—
did butterfly consent
to draw her wings closed? Come October
rose like an earth-sun, orchid
pecked from its cover (p. 7)
Here the poet suggests the idyll of the countryside, but the poem ends with the subtle phrase: ‘nothing // but the great loneliness / of grass’.
Gallagher gives the reader something lighter in ‘Country hall’, with its recollection of all the events that took place there: a ‘final year / school concert, a twenty-first, the wedding dance’. Still, she manages to surprise with the unexpected: ‘men / with a skinful, gone berserk: and the dangerous / liaisons in the car-room, backseat bedsit’. (p. 16)
The poet is brilliant at compressing concrete details with powerful emotional states. In ‘The roost trees’ she writes with clear, concise images to which everyone can relate:
Two shaggy old macrocarpas
break into morning song, the birds
having sheltered the night freeze
one body to another in a hug of green;
come spring, they will claim their territories
but we’re not there yet. (p. 32)
Then there’s the delightful portrayal of family connections in ‘Short takes on my father’, with its desire to expunge the emotions that a man inherited from his youth:
The boy bottled up inside him
wrote Irish for the short days of his schooling
his sister called him ‘the scholar’,
the rest of his life
was a great unlearning. (p. 35)
In the second section of the book, ‘Seacliff Epistles’, the opening poem, ‘Epistle of Maeve’, begins in a lilting Irish voice:
Isn’t it queer how things come out? If we only knew what
was down the road … you marryin an opportunity (God
rest his soul) & me up here in the attic room pen in me hand,
thinking me thoughts like & talkin with you. (p. 43)
The poems manage to feed off one another and yet remain as stand-alone offerings. Gallagher’s wide-ranging portrayal of water, a young girl, the sea road, passengers on a ship and much more—loss, a luckless birth, the workhouse—carry a resigned faith in some kind of renewal or shift in circumstances. The poems are beautifully sustained and natural, with interweaving motifs of love, God, the sea, ships and human survival:
so began my wilding
I went on the roads, I carried
the shame of it, the women
I come from carried the Fall
these things were happening (p. 47)
Gallagher takes us back in time, too. ‘The workhouse girls’ begins in the year 1874:
Never having been
as far as the town of Belfast,
you land in Dunedin like cargo
filling a shortfall in the ship’s quota
—a workhouse surplus
there were so many
of your people
in the workhouse
gave up on plates
& introduced feeding troughs. (p. 54)
Both Cresswell and Gallagher shape poems from life. Moving from personal and ‘confessional’ poetry, their poems take the reader to places that few people will have knowledge of. An urgent voice is at work in these poems with their concise imagery and deep thought. At the heart of both collections are committed voices that care deeply for the world and its people.
Michael Fitzsimons’ collection, Michael, I Thought You Were Dead, is divided into two sections: ‘Lifeboat’ and ‘Markings’. The poems explore the anxieties of belonging and isolation, of fear and uncertainties—and, like the other collections discussed here, transmit concise imagery and deep thought.
The first poem, ‘Write on, Mr Poet’ (p. 13), appears to be about Fitzsimons himself; we sense a personal connection with the moment (‘a storm about to break’) and his own character (‘He is looking for his new mind’). The poet tackles a contemporary problem of a decidedly personal situation: ‘If he were a singer, / his lungs would be full of air.’ We also see the poet in ‘How the mind travels’:
all those years ago, and how
we talked and laughed so much
we only had minutes left
to do all our Christmas shopping. (p. 20)
Through the strength of close, quirky observations made through Fitzsimons’ own telescopic lens, the book focuses these personal moments against the landscape of the past. In ‘Consolation’ we peep in on a private moment: ‘She strokes my arm slowly. / Dark-haired and pretty, / she stands at my shoulder / administering a sedative’ (p. 27). Such fleeting moments also intimately connect to the personal and collective past, as in ‘Hope’ (p. 34): ‘What if one of us were dying, you say, // your head on the pillow beside me, / and we are very much alive.’
The collection also brings clear sight to the romance and reality of place, opening out from Castle Point to the Grand Canyon, and from sitting in the garden to the loss of a friend in ‘You make it so easy’:
You make it so easy,
as if sorrow and abandonment
are not holed up in the next room. (p. 36)
I believe the poem succeeds through a mixture of razor-sharp enjambment and the pairing of startling imagery and confident sentiment.
In ‘There is a poem in here somewhere’, Fitzsimons follows a series of admonitions to himself that include:
Leap to where the poem is.
to the doves,
to the next stone in the river,
to the still water at dusk. (p. 51)
He packs the same effective techniques into the territory of love and sharing. In ‘For this I have come’, he imagines himself with his lover:
for this I have come,
to write a rambling love poem,
sit in a sunny porch and listen to the sea
and the chooks and the croaky tui
and watch a scarf of cloud unravel into fragments
and listen for your footsteps on the stairs.
Is it not time for this? (p. 57)
The second section of the book, ‘Markings’, is one lengthy poem, beautifully illustrated by Bill Carden-Horton. It begins with the simple phrase ‘The first step shall be to lose the way. I read that once’ (p. 61).
With great skill and forceful honing, ‘Markings’ takes us deep into the country of the human psyche, continuously pointing out the uneasy territory of someone suffering from a dreadful disease. It begins with a visit to the specialist who gives the bad news, pointing out ‘two spots on his computer screen, one on each lung, highlighted in bright turquoise. They are the colour of a Pacific beach you dream about in winter’ (p. 61). After two surgeries, family and friends visit, the conversation moving between the broad and the specific: ‘talk about what matters, love and misfortune, can I still drink wine?’ (p. 62). The poem combines flashes of the surreal with a spoken-language tone that allows the reader to enter the poet’s thoughts and feelings as he comes to terms with mortality.
There is a transparency of complexity at play in Fitzsimons’ work, and as a reader you find yourself retracing the same lines over and over, asking yourself, ‘How did he do that?’ and ‘How did he get to this point?’ As he says,
What am I to write about now?
The blood-red camellias outside the window?
The cable beneath the heaving ocean?
The field of daffodils where we stopped in the rain that
Sunday afternoon and picked hope by the handful?
Love’s little propeller? (p. 63)
Not only does this section of the book cover personal, physical and mental territory written in exacting, heartfelt and meaningful detail, it is also formally varied. Here are prose pieces, short lyrical pieces, narrative phrases and passages of sadness that lie beneath the surface of much of the work. Here, for example, is a passage about a friend:
A friend is dying of a brain tumour, weeks to go. He
wears his grey hair long and has a lovely partner. They go
shopping and buy him a leather jacket. You’re not going out
of this world a shambles, she says. (p. 67)
The determination to remain positive is the key to this section. The collection is an informal, imaginative and well-structured work which, read against the constant reminder of mortality, is a poignant message about the urgency to live life to the full. We are told that life goes on despite what might be happening to the body:
I think of those who have died in their 50s, friends who
have lived good short lives. Strange the comfort I find
in lasting another week, another month. I am trying to
convince myself that life is being generous to me. Tom
Petty died this week, aged 66. Suddenly a new goal, to
outlive Tom Petty. (p. 72)
Fitzsimons’ skill as a poet of clarity and metrical finesse gives his writing a continual, unifying pulse, evident throughout the collection. His rhythm and meter are strengths of his work. In the final lines of ‘Markings’, he writes:
For minutes. Hours even.
More days. Into my hands.
O bless the Lord my soul. (pp. 91–92)
It is difficult to decide whether the prayer is one of defeat or defiance. For the reader what matters most is the art of exploring tragedy.
PATRICIA PRIME is the editor of Kokako, reviews/interviews editor of Contemporary Haibun Online, a reviewer for takahē, Metverse Muse (India), Atlas Poetica and others. Patricia writes haiku, tanka, tanka sequences and haibun. She published, with Dr Bruce Ross, a collection of worldwide haiku; and published with the French poet, Giselle Maya, a collection of tanka, tanka sequences and tanka prose called Shizuka; and with New Zealand poet Catherine Mair, a collection of haibun called Morning Glory. In 2019 she published a collection of her poems called The Way of All Things.