Listening In by Lynley Edmeades (Otago University Press, 2019), 74 pp., $27.50; AUP New Poets 5 by Carolyn DeCarlo, Rebecca Hawkes and Sophie van Waardenberg (Auckland University Press, 2020), 114 pp., $29.99
Lynley Edmeades’ second poetry collection, Listening In, is a celebration of poetic craft. Edmeades plays with the multiplicity of language in contemporary daily life, and the poetry is so rich and layered that I found it difficult to write a concise review. There are references to diverse literary influences, including a twelfth-century French troubadour and the poets John Ashbery, Caroline Bergvall and David Eggleton. Poems about personal domesticity sit alongside others about the pervasive discourse of politics. Translations and ‘un-translations’ are peppered through the book. At its heart, this collection is about language itself: how the words we use are slippery and meaning is always contingent on context.
The book begins with the gentle poem ‘Calm and’ which immediately introduces the concept of listening in, overhearing the world, as the poem’s subject ‘could hear / sound making a right go of it’ while his lobes ‘were a cat’s footsteps / on a wooden floor’. It is an empathetic voyeurism, and here is the initial encounter with the cleverness of Edmeades’ language, as the lobes evoke first the ear, then the lobes of the brain ‘with all their tucks and echoes’. This small poem is more complex than it first appears and maintains a softness of ‘calm and almost-static’.
Turn the page and the calm is immediately disrupted by the blurting intensity of ‘Nodding is soft’, a poem that clamours through short, enjambed sentences about ‘this / most hardest and. Baddest thing’. This type of disruption is repeated throughout the collection as Edmeades plays with form and subject. The poems shift through time and space, playing with volume and tone but always returning to acts of listening and interpretation. The third poem, ‘Where would you like to sit’, captures the impersonal and intrusive questions of an interview without revealing the specific setting. There is a strong sense of a clinical or institutional process invading a private internal life without caring about the answers – a process that will feel familiar to anyone who has spent time answering medical history or mental health questionnaires.
One aspect of Edmeades’ voice that shines through the collection is her careful attention to the sound of words. Some of the poems are sculptures for the ear, such as ‘Island’:
It’s always yellow inside
and the nylon is an island
for the to and from the grass.
In this poem the sibilance slides around the plosiveness of phrases like ‘foot-stuck’ and ‘forgotten sock’. When read aloud, the words add another layer to the soft nostalgia of a poem about zipping into a sleeping bag, and create the semblance of a cicada hiss in the background.
Listening In frequently engages with translation, starting with a self-translation of a poem from Edmeades’ first collection As the Verb Tenses. This small poem, ‘The order of things’, appears in seven different versions in the text, touching on French, Japanese, German and phonetic translation. The reappearance of this poem in different forms becomes a touchstone for the reader, and makes a game of unravelling reference and meaning as the familiar is made strange and then, through repetition, familiar again.
Another way that Listening In defamiliarises language is through found text. Found text has been used in various poetic forms, and Edmeades demonstrates a versatile ability to adapt such text so that it carries something of her own voice. The poem ‘Octagonal’, for instance, is a cento composed of lines from poems about Dunedin written by New Zealand authors. A cento is both homage and remix, and it is difficult to blend the work of different writers to read as a seamless whole. ‘Octagonal’ highlights the depth of writing rooted in Dunedin, as well as the sense of humour that is a common thread through New Zealand poetry.
Other found text poems are less subtle in their use of found text, such as ‘Speetch’, ‘Ask a woman’, and ‘Again America great make’. Here, political quotations are presented in a way that preserves the reader’s ability to identify the original speaker. Yet this lack of subtlety is still used to good effect and serves as a counterpoint to the more delicate poems. For example, ‘Again America great make’ alphabetises and quantifies all the words in Donald Trump’s inaugural address, emphasising the creepy spam-nature of political speech-making. The literal accounting of words makes a point about the lack of accountability when it comes to the outrageous and contradictory things Trump said throughout his campaign and into his presidency.
Listening In rewards the attentive reader through the accretion of linkages and lineages throughout the text. The variety of formal approaches give a wonderful sense of the poet developing an intricate body of work that deals with individual perspectives and global concerns with equal deftness.
AUP New Poets 5 is a showcase of emerging New Zealand poets. The format includes three chapbook-length manuscripts, which allows space for each poet to establish her voice over multiple poems. All three have strong individual voices, and the collections have been well curated so that the craft and range of these poets are on full display.
The anthology begins with Carolyn DeCarlo’s Winter Swimmers. These poems are situated in the New Zealand landscape, and in them science and magic merge. Animal and human bodies transform across the pages: ‘cat bodies are pink and black / as pigs below the fur’ in one poem; later the cat emerges with ‘person-eyes’ in a ‘frame of orange fur’. Animals and objects reappear across the poems, always slightly altered. Even the birds refuse to stay birds when ‘a zeppelin disguised as a kereru / propels itself magnificently’. The whimsy is grounded by sombre moments such as in ‘Equilibrium of a rigid body’, where we learn that ‘everyone around you is just as uncomfortable as you are’. Winter Swimmers finds the poetry of biology, revelling in the ‘four-dimensional colour space’ of a kākā’s tetrachromatic vision, and later musing on the radioactivity of bones: ‘all of our radioactivity / is second-hand, / a product of ingesting plants / for days and days and days’.
Sophie van Waardenberg’s does a potato have a heart? laughs at the awkward gawkiness of humanity. These witty poems deal with growing up, love, pop culture and heartbreak, but maintain an overall optimism: ‘I have finished with sadness / I am foliage now.’ The poem ‘unfortunately pam beesly I fell in love with you briefly’ had me snorting with laughter. (Being admittedly unhip I had to look up Pam Beesly: a character from The Office.) Yet I recognise that feeling of ‘wanting to choose / an uncomplicated and unstoried love’, and appreciate the wistfulness that manages to sit alongside the comedy. Van Waardenberg makes full use of the physical page, demonstrating a good grasp of when to be concise and when to embrace excess, and how to let white space accent the tone of a poem.
Rebecca Hawkes’ Softcore Coldsores has a nuanced ecological concern that weaves throughout the poems. This collection incorporates the realities of food and farming and acknowledges the difficulty of establishing an ethical stance regarding human relationships to the environment. These concerns emerge powerfully in the poems ‘Add penetrant to preferred broadleaf herbicide & devastate the wildflowers’ and ‘The land without teeth’, which address the complexity of invasiveness in New Zealand. A careful attention to language throughout adds a lushness to the poems. ‘Barbecue mirage’ stands out as an itchy poem, where pavlova, humidity and coldsore crust combine to make the reader squirm. Mythology also winds its way through this collection, with one poem about a werewolf and another about Circe, who reminds us that ‘a woman’s first blood doesn’t come / from between her legs but from biting her tongue’.
Bringing these three poets together provides an interesting insight into the current landscape of new poets, highlighting similar concerns over ecology, interpersonal relationships and life in a troubled contemporary world. Rebecca Hawkes writes with the versatility of a violinist, with both gentle notes and hair-raising pitches. Sophie van Waardenberg’s movement from comedy to calamity elicits a xylophone’s ability to score any mood. Carolyn DeCarlo puts me in mind of a saxophone, the bridge between woodwind and brass. And if I’m assembling this orchestra of poetry, Lynley Edmeades adds the piano, each note carefully considered. When these four poets are read together, it becomes clear each voice adds a unique line to the melody of New Zealand poetry, and taken together, these variations in tone and rhythm contribute to a vibrant score, the stronger for the diversity of its many parts.
CLAIRE LACEY is a Canadian writer currently pursuing her creative/critical PhD on the topic of brain injury and poetry at the University of Otago. Her award-winning book of poetry, Twin Tongues, was published by Invisible Publishing (2013). Her second book, Selkie, is a graphic novel collaboration with Sachie Ogawa. Claire can be found online at poetactics.blogspot.com.