Gathering Evidence, by Caoilinn Hughes (Victoria University Press, 2014), 60 pp., $28; Page Stone Leaf, by Dinah Hawken (Holloway Press, 2013), 36 pp., $350
Like any form of narrative, a poem is a journey: of ideas, form, shape, language and music. In the same manner that a novel might take us back into history to refresh and reanimate the peoples and times, so too a poem. Just as a nonfiction work examines the social, historic, personal, familial and emotional impact of booze upon our lives, so too a poem. We live in a time when our Literature has deepened in its voices, its output, the number of its practitioners and its geographical reach, not to mention its success in scooping major international awards. For too long we have been told that Poetry is the weak relative, the black sheep of the book world, though audience attendance at literary festival events flourishes and collections regularly appear on the Top 10 New Zealand Booksellers charts. A new collection, Gathering Evidence by Caoilinn Hughes, recently announced as a finalist in the Poetry Category of the 2014 New Zealand Post Book Awards, and a fresh book, Page Stone Leaf, by well-established poet Dinah Hawken, not only prove the vitality of contemporary New Zealand poetry but also how verse in Aotearoa can take the reader on an excursion just as fulfilling as any of our novels or our nonfiction books.
There’s something of the journey-woman about Irish immigrant, Caoilinn Hughes. Her navigations have been as much professional as geographic. Years spent studying BA and MA degrees at Queen’s University, Belfast, were followed by career stints at Google and running her own small business; and in the midst of this, a migration to New Zealand. Perhaps then, it’s inevitable that her first collection, Gathering Evidence, simultaneously published by Carcanet in the UK and Victoria University Press here, offers the same sense of expedition: personal, vocational and topographic.
New Zealanders have been telling me of home and times gone;
the tense most accustomed to the tongue in Ireland.
They visited counties, they announce, like Old Testament Gospels,
which I didn’t know had survived beyond history books …
They sum up their impressions of Ireland in consecutive days of rain:
twenty-five-I-reckon-eh, we had forty-one-I-swear-to-Cuchulain,
making up their own mythology with invented vowel sounds
and shaking their heads for not having enough hands or ribs to count on … (p. 34)
Wales, Russia, Aotearoa, Eire, Bolivia, Peru: places North, South, East and West appear, a supporting troupe, in this collection. In ‘Bolivian Children’, the titular enfants ‘rushed up to examine us, prodding our rucksacks / like alien illnesses with Aymara hecklings and muddy / index fingers: momentary bridges between existences …’ (p. 50). In ‘Dublin Can Be Heaven’, meanwhile, ‘We drank coffee in carriage two, dropping in cream / and watching it plume. We scooped out the nectarines / of hand-me-down lipsticks, convinced of the romance / of orange-lipped adulthood when we could sneak our daughters / out of school and onto trains with paper cups and fountain pens, / so they could watch their mother’s gold-dust hair …’ (p. 44). Even the ethereal and extraterrestrial realms get a look-in:
Heaven knows the planets are not silent in their orbits.
They sound of swallows making cyclical migrations;
returning blue-feathered, quavering melancholic airs.
Though, Angelic unison is compromised on Earth
for we are not its audience: its song is directed Sun-
ward. A degree of alteration is required for melodic heirs.
Celestial orbs were placed by the Creator to balance
consonance with dissonance; discord with concord:
with each revolution resounds chromatic fanfares … (4)
Colour, melody, divine disciple: in the world Hughes creates and evokes, the landscape supports human interaction, action and consideration. So the opening poem ‘Avalanche’ is the story of the titular disaster witnessed by the personal, the existential in which, ‘Our lungs made fists. I thought of lips freezing shut / once and for all, the uncommon cold, no human fingers to close / the lids nor chance of rescuing the bodies, stiff as candy canes …’ (p. 11). While German astronomer, astrologer and mathematician Johannes Kepler becomes a character in the story of his existence, landscapes, wars, stars, ancestry and all; and the narrator in ‘We Are Experiencing Delays’ tells of the time that lapses in their life when a train excursion is halted due to a fatal accident.
Topographic and personal travels, though, aren’t the frame of this collection but rather a prism by which we witness sorties in science, psychology, history and poetic form.
the gift is an hourglass, turned.
its leaking silts are gilings of
unhandled skin, inhaled commands.
I gauge the slip, the guilt of sand,
heat escapes our teacups, disbands.
we neglect the elemental.)
Noughts stain my writing desk, distend.
Our heat cannot be reconciled,
regarding time. (p. 37)
Throughout narrators, characters people this book, voicing stories, like an ensemble troupe composing a series of related monologues. ‘These soliloquys are souterrains …’ an individual declares towards the close of concluding poem, ‘Legacy’ (p. 59). They speak as much for their fellow caste as they do for their self.
From a first collection to a final book. Dinah Hawken’s Page Stone Leaf, accompanied by drawings from John Edgar, is the last book published by Auckland boutique publisher Holloway Press. It comes in a limited series of 55 copies. Printed upon artisan paper, 290 gsm Tiepolo mould-made in Italy, each handcrafted, hardbound book retails for $350.
Hawken’s poems are less directly accessible than Hughes, more elusive in theme and meaning, but remain no less inventive. In Page Stone Leaf, for instance, the titular entities are cyclical subjects, with the first two poems devoted to ‘Stone’ giving way to a verse about ‘Page’ which hands over to works about ‘Stone’, back to ‘Page’, back to ‘Stone’ then on to ‘Leaf’ and so forth. If such poetic baton-passing provides structure for Page Stone Leaf’s written word, it also provides linkages to the interconnecting drawings by Edgar: ‘Page’, ‘Stone’, ‘Leaf’ … If there’s something of the high-end art market about the book, the tome as sculptural craft, the poems, through their interrelation, also, partly, strive for elusiveness:
Leaf as one of many.
Leaf as incredible colour.
Leaf as silence, and silence
as a cave and the wall of a cave.
Leaf as an invitation: as a screen
to come leafing through.
Leaf as a leafy machine. From water and light
you have breathable air!
Leaf as a life partner, a moveable feast.
Leaf, a soft whisper. Leaf as leaf. (p. 26).
This isn’t elusiveness for the sake of it, a deliberate show in obscurity. Rather it is subtlety and suggestion, a fashioning of word towards transcendental, meditative effect:
on earth there is more than
one chance to sing out, to find the right
tone, to be struck down by who you are – a single
stone on a beach of stones. Do nothing. A calm, clamouring
tone comes with sea-surge. Be smoothed. Be
one of the ones rattling and tumbling around
on the swell, in the sorrow, in the interim
o (p. 28).
There is evoked here, through modern understanding of form, a frisson of the old masters/ mistresses: Nature at work, its almost hidden but constant transformative effect upon our lives, page, leaf and stone, underpinned by Hawken’s rich, clever language, portals through to meaning and insight, as evidenced by the last poem:
Evergreen ivory type
cuts the fibres
of the damped flax paper
and light strikes
The letters of the word
are struck by how light
as it strikes
each one at different angles
Leaf-light (p. 30).
Accompanied by Edgar’s sparse, imaginative drawings, it is Hawken’s vision, her portrayal of pictures in words, which highlights Page Stone Leaf.
Both Gathering Evidence by Caoilinn Hughes and Page Stone Leaf by Dinah Hawken are distinct examples of the depth and complexity of contemporary New Zealand poetry, and thereby New Zealand Literature. Poetic meditations, lyrical reflections of the everyday, present and historic, here are two books that journey us through their pages, the lives and environs crafted therein, and in doing so transform our perceptions of reality, possibility and discovery.
SIOBHAN HARVEY was runner-up in the 2012 Dorothy Porter Poetry Prize (Aus), the 2012 Kevin Ireland Poetry Competition, the 2011 Landfall Essay Prize and the 2011 Kathleen Grattan Prize for a Sequence of Poems, and nominated for the 2011 Pushcart Prize (US). Her most recent collection of poems Cloudboy (OUP, 2014) won the 2013 Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award. She lectures in Creative Writing at Auckland University of Technology.