What Fire by Alice Miller (Liverpool University Press, 2021), 52pp, $37; Unseasoned Campaigner by Janet Newman (Otago University Press, 2021), 104pp, $27.50
What fire, indeed? This attractively printed collection with its fifty pages of poetry is prefaced with a quote from Volumnia, the honour-at-all-cost matron in Coriolanus:
I am hush’d until our city be a-fire,
And then I’ll speak a little.
There is also a poem called ‘Volumnia’, with its lines:
We had no use for history but Volumnia’s.
That woman against fire.
Recall for a moment ‘that woman’ in Shakespeare’s play. An unbending, dominating Roman matron, if ever there was one, pushing her son from success to success until he turns against Rome itself, and she prevents the burning of the city. However, it is never quite clear why she is so important in Miller’s complex deployment of recurring figures and places in her book, with its dense web of mood and anguish and revenge, and very occasionally, hope. With that celebrated saving of Rome, there is still the question:
‘Oh mother, what have you done?’
The shades of other legends and stories are stirring, without being defined. But ‘mother’ is there in contrary roles. In a poem called ‘The Goddess of Death’, a baggage train of consumerist status symbols accompanies Maui’s antics, as if hoping to make us forget that we’re no more likely than that trickster figure to outsmart death:
Now I guess we’re not only crawling up between her thighs
but I’m bringing everything we can carry
driving up in our SUVs and our jetplanes
stuffing this woman’s vulva full of metal, plastic …
and so on: ‘We will never let her rest.’
There is another poem called ‘Mutter’. (Miller now lives permanently in Berlin.) Here, the poem carries an unexpected twist. This is not following in the well-worn tracks of much feminist writing, with its demand that breaking away from maternal influences is a painful but necessary duty. Here, her advice is to the contrary:
Women, untrap your mother. Let her go free.
Don’t wait till she is dead. Hug your mother, hold her.
She is flawed like you,
And floored by you.
And as the poem ends, Oscar Wilde’s remark from The Importance of Being Earnest is brought to mind, to wit, that all women become their mothers, which is their tragedy:
while she still has authority
over your body, and well,
now look at it,
how your skin rumples
blooms and crumples and yes,
how it becomes her.
For all the evidence of regret at failed love, at the pull of a distant home that will not be returned to, and at the detritus we pile up like a garbage-stacked city, there is a sense of archetypal patterns over the course of the book, a thread that stitches together the common concerns and the endurance of women. It is a thread that feels too distant to grasp in some poems, but later we see its emergence in a stunning image. The shadow Volumnia casts across this collection is profound, when you look carefully at how often fire, and its obvious antagonist, ice, offer the poet a structure that allows so much else to be subtly implied.
The poem ‘Mary Shelley’ aligns the novelist Mary Shelley, woman as creator, with Doctor Frankenstein, his monster, and the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, her husband. She:
to a man who gives birth
to a monster, it is morning
on the lake, the poet not yet drowned
As his wife anticipates the monstrosity of science, the unlikeliness of halting its ‘progress’, her writer’s eye already on ‘the glacier unmelted in her gaze’, where only Nature might declare: No Further. This poem seems to me to arc back to ‘The Man’, a scalpel-like anatomising of a failed relationship, a surgical attempt to get ‘inside’ another being. The lover’s fake hair is a dead animal’s and the poem’s protagonist attempts to ‘breathe life’ into what she imagines she makes, only to find she is carrying a bleeding corpse. But where the Mary Shelley poem depicts control, this poem projects failure and incandescent rage: ‘I had been so angry’. At its end, the narrator is waiting for dawn, with the dead weight ‘still locked over my shoulders … I want more than this light.’
Miller’s is a challenging world. It probes and provokes, and her resources are not always sufficient for the purposes required. It’s ‘one woman versus the Rest’, if one was into glib, but pertinent, advertising. Relationships, geography, friendship, casual indifference to how we live in an environmental sense, the promises and failure of poetry – Miller’s ‘pressure points’ are many, her ground-zero humanism is up against a lot. It is why What Fire is such a demanding and deeply rewarding book.
But there is another reason why this book demands attentive reading. Poem by poem, the control, the verbal ‘rightness’, the rhythmic assurance, rise forcefully from the page. Yet for all their returning to, or obsessing with, motifs, the effect of the poems en masse is not that of a straight-forward sequence, but rather of a circling about, a casting off and a return, as when the gleam of something we randomly have seen before again draws us in willy-nilly to try to remember where or when that was. To read is also a quest: ‘something has to hold you.’
Although we don’t need to hazard too much about what went on outside the poetry before it was written, the initial voltage for the volume is a wrecked love affair where preliminary glitter has washed up as feelings of disillusion and deep regret. There is much more to the poems than that, but rage of various kinds is constant. The opening poem ‘Seams’ introduces apt images of take-offs and landings and travelling by plane from place to place to depict the journey through life. Its conclusion is what the catechism used to call ‘an examination of conscience’, with its expected afterword to not let yourself off too lightly:
Did you use your time on earth to save
what you wanted? Did you use anyone
the way you should? What song
will you sing as the light leaves,
as the mask’s lowered over your eyes?
The following forty-nine poems, with their extraordinary range of allusions, implications and contrary evidence, present the case for the defence, along with strong interjections from accusing voices. In a direct, matter-of-fact tone, the poet spares nothing in the case she mounts against herself. But it is a case against the starkness and loneliness of cities, the harsh possessiveness of material greed, the corruption of what we were given, or chose.
In a quite non-programmatic way, Nature holds out the ghostly possibility of redress. Rivers are important, as touchstones and enchantments, but the tone of so much is bleak to the point of hopelessness for those of us who ‘Live on this mangy earthplace.’ (‘What’s Built Right’). I can’t readily think of poems that touch, at times, such depths of revulsion for the world that, as a German existentialist might say, we were ‘thrown into’. Irony twists its cords most painfully in a poem called ‘The Miracle’. It begins with the concession that
What you saw in the sky seemed a sign
that we’d right what had fallen,
that the gleam in the eye of the rat
was not for us …
There’d have to be something miraculous about it, mind you, for that something less disruptive to come off. The poet thought she had stitched things up, thought she had darned the miracle ‘with fingers and thread’, but no, it’s not that easy:
… the rat how it watched from its throne
on the heap of empty envelopes, of used hair-dye and the smell
of the blood from the past we had tried to keep back
but the rat knew, and watched.
After all, she was right about the miracle, just wrong about what kind it was. There are not many poems that so vividly register the moment at that entrance to abandoned hope:
and still we believed it’d come—
any minute now, the miracle—I hear
it crumbling towards us—
exactly what we deserve.
Well, that is one poem among fifty, the least cosy ‘confessional’ poem you’re likely to find. ‘New Valkyrie’ is a lovely respite, a drawing-out of sympathy for a dying friend, although its setting is grim. This is Miller, after all. She is too honest for it to be otherwise. There is no bland get-well-soon sogginess about lines where all that is offered is bleak Nordic comfort:
The Valkyries choose who dies
in battle. The half who die—
the einherjar—must prepare
for the world’s end,
the Valkyries come
to bring them mead.
Today I am still waiting
to hear from her,
still waiting to get home
to see her.
So I will bring her mead,
one way or another.
There is no question of the individual poems, with their artful twists and turns of cross-reference and darting obsessions, being dragooned into what we usually mean by a sequence. The individual poems are too insistently stand-alone for that, even though there are few that don’t have some shard of language or spiky image that connects with something else in the collection. You’d be hard put to draw up a schematic ‘outline’. The totality in this book will always remain a scooping-up of fragments; yet how marvellously one poem, for all that, can spring you to another. And isn’t this how experience comes to us in any case?
In time all cities blur and connect
as each street remembers
another … (‘Seams’)
Memory is dicey, but immediacy is always what it is. How superbly Miller catches this endless interweaving, this being caught in a current that is always running before us as well as pursuing us. If I might get away with saying so, how clearly she depicts life’s bucking against the rational as we experience it.
Three years ago, Alice Miller wrote a fine novel, More Miracle than Bird, that explored the unpromising marriage between the aging W.B. Yeats and the much younger Englishwoman, Georgie Hyde-Lees. It was a tough novel, in that it told a not-altogether-attractive story against the background of the First World War and the literary hive that hummed around the famous poet. The novel was convincing because the author established the relationship between the two without reverence or bias and because she handled with ease the period and its intricate social milieu.
Something of that confidence carries over to the extraordinary risk-taking in one of her poems. Behind ‘Two Thousand Years’ stands Yeats’s monumental ‘The Second Coming’. Miller imagines past the great slouching beast, with its uncouth barbarity that is to replace the two thousand years of Christianity and usher in the lost civility of modern history. What is so impressive in Miller’s poem is that there is no hint of bravado, any more than there is of obsequiousness, in what is a serious poetic exchange with the greatest modern poet. She simply assumes her right, as a contemporary woman, to suggest another version of myth, and it could not be done more politely. She, too, within a few lines, hints at the great unspooling of history that bewilders us. But unlike Yeats, what she imagines approaching us out of ‘someone else’s darkness’ is not terror, or Yeats’s anarchic beast, but a benign figure that has been ‘feminised’ – an alternative future cutting across the boorishness of male force. I don’t think I have ever seen the word ‘please’ do so much work by way of courteously shifting the course of history. It is all done so economically, so simply. The poem makes no claim to take on the magnificence or depth of Yeatsian rhetoric, yet with its own quiet confidence, asks that at least we might consider another possibility—mightn’t we?
Here in the snow the horses
stamp, impatient for their carriages
to give way to cars. Impatient
for time to fix itself. Two thousand
years and change, a voice calls from
someone else’s darkness. Impatient to get past
these leaders we thought impossible, we call
the desert forward, please,
we call for the woman-lion,
we kneel in the sand to welcome
her riddles, we ask
to kiss her burning paws,
if she can just remind us
how to trap time with time
to find what we came here to save.
There is so much going on in this short collection. These are poems too intelligently restless, too emotionally self-aware, to arrive at makeshift certainties. Yeats advised poets ‘to hammer their thoughts into unity’. But there are times, and there are poets, for whom a protracted hammering, and what it reveals, trumps the well-wrought urn.
It may seem a fairly tenuous connection, but certainly not an unflattering one, to say that in reading Janet Newman’s first collection, I was at times reminded of Ursula Bethell. Here surely was a similar tone, a similar low-key introduction to poems of real substance. To think that, while admitting how far the hard yakka and gutsiness of farming is from Bethell’s distant vistas of the Alps, the garden that is at the centre of her life, her mind’s devotional cast.
This is the beginning of Newman’s poem called ‘Summer’:
The day I cut the willow trees down
because there is nothing else for the ewes to eat …
[He] passes lines of macrocarpa broken
by black spaces where the westerly tore through.
While the collection’s title poem tells us:
‘Next year I’ll be ready,’ I say,
splinting my shin on the shovel head,
jamming the blade on clay hard as tundra.
It’s not too fanciful to pick up the rhythms of Bethell’s quietly drawing attention to how things actually are, the point at which she comes in, and how she then fits into this economically conjured scene. Newton, of course, goes into much tougher places than her predecessor did, but there is never any doubt where her interests lie, and what she values as she engages physically with where she is. Nor is there any doubt who the figure is that dominates both this land, and her thinking about it.
The driving force of the collection, the touchstone of its values, is her father, with his looming, affectionate companionship presented in dozens of fine poems. He is too grounded and hard-nosed to allow sentimentality a look-in. But as a man, and as a way of life, the volume celebrates what he did, and where it was done.
Newman is good at observing what people do, at giving the actual heft of farming. This isn’t ‘pastoral’ verse, with its opportunities for detached meditation, as it takes in rural life from a distance. No, this is the real thing, its grunt, its unblinking acceptance that much of what it gets on with is a far cry from diners ordering their high-priced steaks. The poem ‘The rig’ gives in unsettling detail the whack and skitter of a panicking steer that would sicken should we see it on film:
unaware his life and death
shadow a series of blunders,
he breaks two galvanised gates,
chases up the rails the drafter
who energises his electric prod,
vows to get rid of that attitude,
the testosterone pounding.
Newman gives us, as a matter of daily fact, what most New Zealanders think of as vaguely ‘back there’ somewhere as we take our farms from the supermarket shelves. Whatever else, an accurate view of farming inevitably brings us point blank to the killing room we’d prefer not to think about; that raw visceral starkness that Grahame Sydney’s chilling realism shoves us so close to. But how telling, too, is her spelling out that apparent paradox of how caringly, how tenderly even, a man of her father’s temperament accepts the naturalness of the cycles that farming works through.
Born during the peace negotiations at the end of World War I and named after the French politician Clemenceau, Newman’s father was the perfect age for the next war. He was a man of his generation, and should you not have known his kind, you missed out on a lot. Young men thrown into violence returned to civilian life that was often more testing than war, a generation of ‘silent men’, grimly stoic, as generalisation now tends to see them. They could also be men of quiet wisdom, and that is how Newman’s father comes through. There is one poem that shows how proficiently such a man slaughters a sheep, and in ‘The Carrier’ we see a similar man dealing with spooked cattle:
He gentles them with low murmurings,
a father soothing a nightmare son:
Easy now, big boy. They walk toward
imagined fields, his voice lulling
them forward. He carries them to slaughter.
… When they see him they are not
afraid. A measured gait, sidelong glance,
quietness—could be kindred.
These are poems that bring home how few New Zealand poets there are who write in attentive detail about physical work. In a long exact poem called ‘Diesel’, Newman quite properly acknowledges Ian Wedde as a forebear, and there’s an ancestry of a kind in Ruth Dallas, Baxter and Baughan, while way back, and seldom read, there are the ballads mostly lifted from Australian templates. But there’s little that you might point to on the scale of Unseasoned Campaigner. Almost every poem, in one way or another, is seasonal, with animal and human lives dictated by weather, attuned to natural cycles, determined by geography. Some poems tell you directedly what is going on. Others move into intricate family memory and grieving. What I so admire is the clarity that sets each poem so precisely and the volume’s concluding insistence that, yes, what you have read of here is the certainty of lives committed and fulfilled completely by what they do. I was taken with the droll cheek, almost, of a sonnet that is next thing to a love poem to a hammer, as I was with the quick sly incisiveness of a thirty-five-word poem called ‘In the auction room’:
of the sale yards
as the Charolais mob below,
the men, mostly men, nod
or raise a finger to bid
the way a diner
raises a finger
to ask the waiter
for a bill.
And how extensive the span of this collection is, from that poem to ‘Father’s funeral’, a poem that stands as a compelling, local counterpoint to The Book of Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3. There are few local volumes of verse of which you can say: there’s something substantial here that’s been added to what New Zealand poetry is and what it does. Well, you can say it about this one.
VINCENT O’SULLIVAN is an editor, poet, short story writer, novelist, playwright, essayist and critic. He has won numerous literary prizes for his writing. His most recent collection of poems is Things OK With You? (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2021). He lives in Kōpūtai Port Chalmers.