Enough, by Louise Wallace, (Victoria University Press, 2013), 63 pp., $25.00; Tear Water Tea, by Saradha Koirala, (Steele Roberts, 2013), 66 pp., $19.99
Louise Wallace’s first collection, Since June, was published in 2009. Four years is a pretty respectable time in which to produce a second collection, let alone come up with the material to produce a whole new body of work. This, her second collection, is then predictably entrenched in process and the self: the female self, the writing self, the cooperative self, the domestic self, the self-in-relationship, the getting-things-done self:
In the new house she takes
things out of boxes,
puts them in their proper place.
She does washing,
she mows the lawns –
the catcher scratches at her legs,
which she doesn’t mind and actually quite likes
because this is a sign of things done
that everyone can see.
from ‘Getting things done’
There’s a lot going on in here: there is banality, pleasure, a certain music, and a discomforting undercurrent of cynicism. It’s this cynicism that carries this poem and, to an extent, the whole collection. In it, we can hear the consciousness of the poet, the hyper-reality of being alive in a combustible and productivity-driven time. The poem undermines the status quo by talking about things in the real world ‘that everyone can see’, and yet makes a very subtle hint at how poetry can help us see these things. Or, unabridged perhaps, it is an argument for the necessity of arts in a country run by a right-wing government, where ‘getting things done’ is the ultimate of our daily tasks and, in fact, the only currency through which we can coexist. Again, a concept beautifully wrought in ‘The feathered hat’:
I worry myself into a grisly stew
over a qualification in teaching,
because my stringing words together
like a popcorn necklace, doesn’t pay.
We see this also in the book’s title-poem, a playful and superb prose poem, ‘Enough’: ‘The cough/ joined with other coughs, the coughs of a thousand whistling and/ wheezing children, and the father realised nothing would ever be/ enough …’ Looking closely into this poem will reveal a swamp of poetic technique to the trained eye (the internal rhyme of ‘cough’ and ‘enough’ is but one example), but standing back from it will produce an equal-footed affect. And this is something that Wallace does so well: she’s not showy about her technique and craft. If anything, she’s so good at it you can hardly see the seams and folds.
Some of the pieces in the collection tilt precariously towards self-indulgence and confessional (‘I will get things done// she writes,’ in ‘Getting things done’; ‘The things I write/ that are the most true are the things people say/ don’t yet feel like poetry. How to write things/ closest to yourself?’ from ‘At the airport’). For the most part, however, Wallace seems to know when to stop, when to pull back and let the readers come to their own conclusion. This is no doubt something she learnt at school, and no doubt something she’ll be teaching her own students (to show, not tell). But poets will easily recognise the skill and practice it takes to actually pull this off; other readers will enjoy the ease in which she upturns the banal to reveal hidden connotations.
On the inside of the front cover, the publisher’s description of Wallace’s second book paints it thus: ‘Enough is a book about moving to the South Island, about the gestation of a difficult second book, about teaching writing, about imagining others’ lives from their internet traces, about the ageing of loved ones, and about looking forward.’ Dear reader, forgive my criticism, but this did not inspire me to read the collection. Having done so (and perhaps given the choice I wouldn’t have), I was genuinely surprised: this collection is far more than the description suggests. It is about all of those things, but rather than being couched in the ennui of parochialism, Enough is an uncompromising examination of, and meditation on, the existential poetic psyche. Albeit middle-classed and born of the IIML trajectory, the collection is far greater than the sum of its parts, and in particular, more than the poorly worded publisher’s description. Enough illustrates the possibilities of perseverance beyond the institution, and the rewards to be garnered from pursuing the craft in the spaces beyond the literary elite. Clean, tight, honest – at times, heartbreakingly so – Wallace’s second collection is the real stuff.
Unlike Wallace’s existential queries, Koirala’s second collection strikes more towards the sacred, the absolute. In it, Koirala successfully navigates deep moments of contemplation and delves into questions about her own personal spirituality. She flirts with scripture, mortality, embodiment and sexuality, with the same nimble touch that readers will recognise from her first, rather beautiful collection, The Wit of the Staircase (2009). What differentiates Tear Water Tea from Koirala’s first collection is the maturity of her poetic voice, beyond the framework of the institution. Like Wallace, Koirala too came through the IIML. Rather than following the VUP route, she sidestepped towards an alternative publisher – Steele Roberts. This is all very well, but what of the work itself?
The book takes its title from the opening poem (or the other way around), a short lyric which sets a rather demure and enchanting tone:
Over and over they told me the story:
a boy, an imagined wolf.
As if sorrow can be likened to mischief.
I hold the teapot in both hands
another satisfying, salty brew.
What story? What boy? What wolf? It’s clear from the first page that what follows will be a playful rendering of the poet’s imagination (and shot through with small monochrome arboreal etchings by David Randall Peters). From there, we’re thrust rapidly into the big stuff: mortality (‘This morning’s northerly/ throws death out into my path’, from ‘Echolalia’); love (‘You blow me kisses from doorways’, from ‘Too early’); and the challenges of marrying language to felt experience:
And yet months pass like clouds, like white-caps
floating across blue-grey leaving
tidal marks, driftwood
and spume, like clouds.
Clumps of heavy spume-like clouds.
This poet likes to play with language, and these kinds of techniques – word play, internal rhyme, repetition, disrupting syntax – is something we see throughout the collection. While this differentiates her from her peers on a local level, it’s clear she’s talking back to a tradition of poets, one in particular who we can easily see in the line ‘I role the image between finger and thumb’ (in ‘Tassel’). At the centre of the collection there is a short series of sonnets titled ‘Wherever Glory Dwells’, which uses excerpts from the Book of Psalms. While this will discomfort even the slightest atheistic of dispositions, it also felt to me like an audacious flick of the tail: at a time when it’s really not cool to be citing passages from the Bible, Koirala does it unashamedly. Again, it illustrates the unselfconscious nature of her poetic preoccupations: the sacred, the enchanted, the reflective.
There is a slowness to Koirala’s poetry, and kind of demonstration or exemplification of the contemplative nature of her subject matter. Her use and manipulation of language invites us into her pace of seeing things, albeit with a shy and timid hand. Some of the weaker moments of the collection therefore occur when the poems try to speed up, as though by lifting their gaze to the larger rhetoric, the poems might find a solution more promptly or effectively. Where her poetry works is in the smaller details, where the minutiae of life speaks of the larger issues at hand, and where we feel she’s having fun with the language in order to do so:
Someone used to busk
on Manners Mall
my students smoked cigarettes
calling out to each other
across the paved space
People act rueful
in the face of devastation
but say Whatever though, eh?
In the harbour a ferry
tilts yachts in its wake
but that’s not a real question.
A real question would be
Are you sure?
I mean sure sure?
from ‘City Living’
At times Koirala’s tone and subject matter can be a little sickly-sweet, but then there is something comforting in the innocence of it. But again, this innocence seems to come from a place of audacity rather than naivety. It’s clear she knows what she is doing, and she’s honed her craft to suit the tenderness of her disposition. Where Wallace’s collection highlights inherent absences in our all-too-narrow existence, Koirala’s collection offers some solace to those absences. Both of these collections are highly accomplished, skilled and insightful pieces of literature, and make valuable contributions to New Zealand poetry.
LYNLEY EDMEADES is a Dunedin-based poet and reviewer. She reviews regularly for the Listener and Landfall Review Online, and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Otago. Her poetry has been widely published in NZ and internationally.