Vanishing Points by Michele Leggott (Auckland University Press, 2017), 132 pp., $27.99; Flow by Airini Beautrais (Victoria University Press, 2017), 181 pp., $30; Tightrope by Selina Tusitala Marsh (Auckland University Press, 2017), 112 pp., $27.99
Michele Leggott’s latest offering is a hybridised feast. It is equal parts poetry, essay and memoir, put together with the light touch of a poet at ease with her craft. Vanishing Points ruminates on themes big and small, from obscure astral constellations to a child’s drawing; from the flimsiness of memory to gradual loss of sight. It is kaleidoscopic, and as sonant as it is glittering.
The first section, ‘The Looking Glass’, is an extended meditation on several of the late Leigh Davis’s flags, which hang in a ‘beach house in Matapouri’. The series is a mixture of imagined conversations between the poet and Davis, and considerations of the subject matter of the flags themselves, all of which are based around minor south-seas constellations. The series is a constellation of thoughts, memories and visual cues, and yet also works through the shape of myth. The reader must relinquish any kind of empirical sense-making, and swim about in Leggott’s poetic landscape:
he is restless with myth
and the sense of a future that will not hold him long
what is the distance between us what
is the distance covered shade in the heat of the day
(from ‘caelum/the chisel’)
Another section is a prose meditation on family histories. ‘Self-Portrait: Still Life. A family story’ traverses four generations of child- and adulthood, contemplating moments caught on film and the stories that hover in the ripples of memories. ‘Telling Detail’ shows Leggott’s proclivity for the prismatic. Not satisfied with a single poem on a subject – in this case, Monique Redmond’s 1996 installation Spectacular Blossom – she tilts the thing on an imaginary axis and writes another that ‘tells it slant’, as she herself reflects on Emily Dickinson’s proclamation. Likewise, the stunning final section, ‘Figures in the Distance’, is both circular and reflexive. Part 26 literally mirrors itself, reversing the order of the sentences so the first sentence of the first section becomes the last sentence of the second.
In reading Vanishing Points I often had the feeling that the poet is tuned in to an elusive frequency, that there are conversations happening – historical, artistic, environmental – that only the most attentive ear can hear. The underlying theme of the book is the loss of sight; this collection makes clear that when most of us watch and look, Leggott listens and pays attention. Even when much of this collection is concerned with the visual, her attention is also sensuous, sonic and textured. Her own words sum up her rich, poetic psyche: ‘I had always imagined Paradise as a kind of library … It is a bowl that one fills and fills’ (from ‘Figures in the Distance’). This book fills and fills; I cannot recommend it enough.
In her fourth book, Flow, Airini Beautrais turns her gaze to an important and pertinent aspect of our cultural identity, the body of water, namely, the Whanganui River. The river as a theme for a collection might recall Alice Oswald’s Dart (2002), which literally follows the River Dart from source to sea in an exemplifying meditation; yet structurally Beautrais’ Flow is more of a montage. Fractured and disjunctive at times, ultimately it is imaginative and extensive. As substantial as its subject matter, Flow traverses the many dimensions of the river, past and present. However, as Beautrais says in the foreword, Flow is not meant to be a historical rendition. Rather, it is what she calls a ‘collage or polyphony of stories: some small, some large, some geological, some ecological, most human’.
Densely populated, Flow retells lost histories, renders inanimate objects into personable subjects, and reinvigorates ghosts – Sister Aubert, James K. Baxter, Reverend Richard Taylor, to name a few. It is also haunted by poetic voices, most of which are conjured up in homage: Tennyson and Keats can be heard in various lyrics; Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnets abound; William Pember Reeves and other balladeers of our pioneering landfall feature in epigrams.
While the book is organised in three sections – ‘Catchment’, ‘A Body of Water’, and ‘The Moving Sand’ – these sections leak into each other, like the flow of the river itself. ‘Catchment’ deals, more or less, with the historical aspect of the river, with poems located and dated from 1864 through to 2014. For the most part it is chronological, apart from an inconsistent smattering of contemporary pieces. It is also rooted in traditional forms, made up of couplets and quatrains, relying heavily on rhyme. While the use of rhyme is quite novel at first, it quickly becomes tired and relentless.
The second and third sections, however, (the third made up entirely of sonnets), are more conceptually driven and show Beautrais at her best. The title poem is a brilliant litany of aquatic activity: ‘to the stone, to the hill, to the heap, to the seep … to the swell, to the ebb, to the well, to the sea’. One of the best poems in the collection is a small, six-line rhyming lyric called ‘Whio’ (subtitled Blue duck/Hymenolaimus malacorhynchos). It shows remarkable restraint and an acute ear:
The low guttural groan,
the whistle. How they hone
it, in clear water, pair
judiciously. They wear
a monetary hue.
Hard to come by, that blue.
Although the connection with the Whanganui River in this and some other poems is oblique, and because historical figures, events and poetic forms weigh upon the bulk of the book, these subtle and nuanced observations are like gold dust.
Flow is the outcome of a PhD in creative writing. As such, there seems to be no stone left unturned in Beautrais’ consideration of the wider themes of the book. But this is perhaps also why the collection feels, at times, baggy. As ‘Whio’ illustrates, less is usually more. However, Beautrais’ meticulous research, imaginative musings on historical events, and her eye for the quirks, makes this book worthwhile.
The new offering from our freshly minted Poet Laureate is something of a carnival. Tightrope is performative, personal and political. Just over 100 pages long, Selina Tusitala Marsh’s third book is a vast and varied collection.
Readers familiar with Marsh’s previous collections will know of the orality that forms the core of her poetic voice. Her first collection, Fast Talking PI, was highly lauded for its title piece, which, when witnessed in performance, is nothing short of compelling. Another performance piece, ‘Unity’, serves as a centerpiece for Tightrope. Written for Queen Elizabeth II and performed at Westminster Abbey in 2016, the poem draws on oral traditions to weave together a tightly crafted composition in couplets. ‘Unity’ deals with issues such as environmental catastrophe, equality and the ‘common wealth’ with a measured hand and idiosyncratic wit. It repeats a twee but catchy refrain: ‘there’s a ‘U’ and an ‘I’ in unity/ costs the earth and yet it’s free’.
Like many of Marsh’s poems, ‘Unity’ was written to be read aloud, and some of its magic is lost in the printed form. But if you’ve ever heard Marsh deliver a poem, it is not difficult to conjure up her rhythmic delivery in your mind’s ear. Other poems in this collection also demand to be spoken, such as ‘Eviction notice 113’:
her house has become a party her house has become a body her house has
become a party her house has become a body her house has become a party
her house has become a body her house has become a party her house […]
Here Marsh pushes herself linguistically and stylistically. When read aloud it does something peculiar and pleasing to the mouth and ear. Other poems see the poet use techniques that have been popular with American poets for some time; such as the erasure method, which she calls on for her series of ‘Black Out Poems’. Marsh performs erasure on Albert Wendt’s 1977 Pouliuli, revealing often humorous, often political messages: ‘wake up/ Samoa and bring/ a/ New Zealand/ storyteller/ A PEN’, and ‘alofa/ The only trustworthy/ promise’. These black out poems are scattered throughout the collection, providing a kind of punctuation; an inversion of white on black.
The selection of Wendt’s novel for the black out poems is pertinent; Pouliuli is said to be a Samoan reconsideration of King Lear. Such is the tone of Marsh’s new collection: it marries her Pasifika heritage and story-telling legacy with the Euro-centric poetic traditions that anyone writing in English cannot help but pay tribute to. However, the formal treatment of some of these poems seems a bit flimsy at times. On occasion, Marsh seems to rely too heavily on the subject matter to drive the poem, where some more crafting could make them really glisten.
Marsh is at her best, I think, when she is writing about community, about the importance of community, as many of the poems in this new collection exhibit. Even when this collection does – at times unnecessarily – turn its gaze towards the self, Tightrope maintains Marsh’s place as an important voice in Aotearoa poetics.
LYNLEY EDMEADES’ first collection of poetry, As the Verb Tenses, was published in 2016 by Otago University Press and longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. She completed her PhD in avant-garde poetics in 2017, and in 2018 will be both Writer-in-Residence at Massey University and Ursula Bethell Fellow at Canterbury University.