Pins by Natalie Morrison (Victoria University Press, 2020), 70pp., $25; Things OK With You? by Vincent O’Sullivan (Victoria University Press, 2021), 96pp., $25; I Am In Bed With You by Emma Barnes (Auckland University Press, 2021), 88pp., $24.99
Writing in the first person is a way of establishing a narrative character with a specific voice and perspective. It can be easy to conflate the ‘I’ of the poem with the ‘I’ of its author, but ‘I’ can be much more subtle and even mischievous. Who speaks, and to whom? The following three collections are very different case studies on how poets engage with the first person singular.
Pins by Natalie Morrison is a book-length poem that explores a fictional narrator’s relationship to her missing sister. This long character study reminded me of Canadian poet Sandy Pool, whose poetry books Exploding into Night and Undark each pursue an untold narrative about a publicly reported tragedy. I enjoy this approach to the book-length project, where a particular perspective is thoroughly investigated. In Pins, the narrator adopts her lost sister’s obsession with pins:
I have begun to dedicate things to you.
These poems, for example; I pin snippets
to your bedroom wall.
This sister is revealed in pinpricks, small poems that link across the pages. As a reader, I feel the longing of the narrator as she considers various aspects of her sister and frames her memories through this strange fixation. The pins themselves become a metaphor for trying to capture nostalgia and pin down slippery memories. It is a perfect entry-way into grief.
Unfortunately, as the collection develops the device of the pins becomes predictable. While there are moments of wonder—’A barcode: tight-knit family of pins’—there are also many very literal interpretations: a surgical pin, a pinball game, pins on a violin. I kept waiting for an unexpected image or twist that never came, and perhaps venturing further from this device may have allowed the poems to explore a greater range of what it means to have a pin, to be pinned, to come unpinned. I was intrigued by the narrative of the sister, but as the collection developed I wished for a greater variation in tone to increase the emotional urgency of the poems. Yet Morrison is very smart with her use of white space, and lets small, precise stanzas do the heavy lifting. This experiment in the long poem is very promising, and I hope to see Morrison continue to develop within this form.
In contrast, Things OK With You? by Vincent O’Sullivan contains a multitude of voices across poems that are generally a page or two in length. The poems shift between perspectives, sometimes in first person, sometimes third. Different voices emerge to speak as the collection moves between literary and historical references and poems rooted in the quotidian. ‘What River Means’ stands out as a poem that crystalises nostalgia, as the woman in the poem (notably written in the third person) remembers looking at the river:
making her think how it’s always wanting,
the river, to be the river miles ahead, like a sister
waiting to be her older sister
This collection reflects the ambiguity of writing about very human characters. Certain poems intrude in order to elicit discomfort; for instance, the poem ‘As Sinclaire Promised in Standard Six’ is violent in both language and content, enthusing in a boy’s voice about watching a ‘Aussie outback cowboy’ getting thrown. The poem uses a racial slur as a verb to describe the image of the cowboy landing on the rails and ends with the death of the horse. The tone of the poem captures the grotesquery of rodeo spectacle and ties it into the physical and linguistic violence against BIPOC.
The Sinclaire poem returns to mind when the final poem claims that ‘Poets now find it harder / to put across offensive verses’. Do they really? This provocative statement is complicated as the poem draws attention to the lack of meaning behind the everyday pleasantries. The poem is titled ‘Since You Kindly Enquire, in the Elevator, Yes’ and continues to describe the speaker’s cosy life. The voice of age supposes that fewer people expect words to contain ‘the gilded truth’, and the rest of the collection has already revealed truth to be a relative proposition. The poem ends with the title line: ‘And you? Things OK with you?’ The very ambiguity is built carefully to showcase complexity and nuance. The poems that delve deepest into minute details of a character study are where this collection is at its strongest.
Of the three titles under discussion, I Am In Bed With You by Emma Barnes is where the ‘I’ at first appears to be the most conventional personal lyric voice. However, the collection draws attention to the constructed nature of a poetic ‘I’ when, right up front, it tells us ‘this is a creation myth’. The collection flows through dream, myth and pop culture as various means of constructing a story and, along with story, an identity. Barnes explores gender and adulthood with a full range of affect, from ‘I think you know what noise I’m making / here. The panting of a deer trapped in a partly / frozen river (‘I Am in Bed With You’) to ‘Ah, Signourney Weaver. Knower of hearts and minds. My womb is a derelict house and you want to spray-paint your name on it’ (‘Sigourney Weaver and the Impregnation’). Sometimes the body is a site of frustration, illness and pain; at other times it is a romping celebration.
Parataxis and enjambment work particularly well in this collection. Barnes knows how to let ideas sit next to each other without adding unnecessary explanation. ‘We are all the harakeke clicking in the wind. I am refreshing my inbox and refreshing my inbox then turning all my notifications off.’ The majority of the collection takes the form of prose poems, which makes the tight lines of the lineated poems really sing out.
Of all three books, I Am In Bed With You spoke to me the most personally. I inscribe on the page of ‘Low Boughs’ that I want to be the you of the poems, but I feel more like the me. There is intimacy within the lines:
oh I loved you but now instead I try to love smaller things like the bees and borage on the stairs and the kingfisher on the powerlines and the young woman who smiled at me on the bus … and just once I’d like to smooth the air between us again but you leave all oxygen in the past. (‘Low Boughs’)
This intimacy calls to me as a reader, invites me to relate to both the ‘I’ and the ‘you’. This might be that as a queer chronically ill person with many of the same cultural references, I can feel myself on both sides of the poems. Another reader may respond differently, but this calls to my own cultural predilections, such as the video game referenced in the poem ‘You are a Horrible Goose’:
We end each day face up to the sky and it does nothing for us until we are prepared to become the horrible goose in our own lives. I will be the most joyous goose of my own heart and hound many of you in the village. Put the rake in the lake. Honk your heart out. Unfettered by who I was before. Set free by stealing your bell for myself.
This poem is a raucous manifesto for how to slip off the weight of politeness and expectation. It ties into the themes of finding self through experimentation both within and without the bounds of social norms, and damn the consequences. In an age of anxiety, the horrible goose is a gentle symbol of chaos. It lives joyfully making mischief but it doesn’t actually hurt anybody. The goose is its own loud, vibrant self. It never makes itself small or apologises. The Untitled Goose Game became a font of memes when it was released, and this book moves fluently within the discourse of pop culture remixing. What glorious multiplicities. What wry humour.
Each of these poetry collections brings attention to how the writer’s craft shapes the reader’s relationship with the poems. Whether you feel pulled towards or repelled by the ‘I’ of a poem reflects choices that the poet makes regarding voice and character. A well-constructed poem can be a thing of beauty or an unsettling encounter. Across all three very different collections, I found much richness in pausing to question what the narrative perspective is trying to achieve. They are a fascinating study in the different uses of the narrative ‘I’, and showcase the diversity of approaches being published in New Zealand today.
CLAIRE LACEY is a Canadian writer currently completing their creative/critical PhD on poetry and brain injury at the University of Otago. Claire is the author of Twin Tongues and Selkie, and has an essay in the forthcoming anthology Impact: Women writing after concussion (University of Alberta Press, 2021). Claire can be found online at clairelacey.ca