The Rope Walk, Maria McMillan (Seraph Press, 2013), 36 pp., $20
Two Sisters, Ila Selwyn (Ventifact Press, 2011), 82 pp., $20
The Corrosion Zone, Barbara Strang (HeadworX Press, 2011), 84 pp., $24.99
You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don’t try to forget the mistakes, but you don’t dwell on it. You don’t let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space. (Johnny Cash)
The migrant journey is one predicated upon failure: the need to close down an unsuccessful, dysfunctional and/or ineffective past then undertake relocation, a severing of all that went before, based upon the slimmest possibility of achieving success elsewhere. Three new or recent poetry collections published by New Zealand writers explore what it means to live in the present while shadowed by knowledge of an emigrant past. Maria McMillan’s striking new, first publication, The Rope Walk (Seraph Press, 2013), Ila Selwyn’s satisfying latest collection, Two Sisters (Ventifact Press, 2011) and Barbara Strang’s welcome rumination upon earthquakes, upheavals and existences in multiple geographies, The Corrosion Zone (HeadworX Press, 2011) examine what it means to be displaced, to process and find catharsis in loss, and to reconstruct self through difficult times in foreign topographies. In so doing, each adds to New Zealand’s longstanding literary tradition of writing about and negotiating/renegotiating with exodus and resettlement, and, unlike Cash, posit that the past isn’t something which can or should be disregarded, but rather must be embraced, sifted through and befriended the better to enjoy a rich here and now.
I have seen ghosts
sliding under the surface
skittish things flitting
in the boat’s wake … (p. 24)
Ghosts, the past, the presence of other, previous existences inhabit activist, librarian and writer, Maria McMillan’s first collection, The Rope Walk. For McMillan, the ghost isn’t so much a meditation of spiritualism and the occult as a manifestation of experience and overheard story, which inspires and informs the author’s development of this accomplished book. The dead, of course, are written of. The above lines taken from the poem ‘Ghosts’ testify to this, an introduction to a narrative about early migrant passing and its ongoing ancestral legacy:
When I said goodbye to our sister
she curled small,
would not let me touch her,
never once lifted her face
while I was in the room.
My father cried
my mother patted me on the shoulder
and looked beyond me
to the garden.
I am not afraid of the sea
or the sun on my throat
or the gasp of the wind.
I am not afraid of the nights
where the sail is a shroud,
where we are not floating
but a weight passed forward
by many hands. (pp. 24–25)
In The Rope Walk, the weights ‘passed forward’ (p. 25) include a tightrope walker, the relation of a sex-worker, a grandmother grieving for her homeland, and the experiences/voices of a shifting cast named Megan, Heidi, Maggie and Jeremy:
Hide and Seek
Jeremy would find me always
but smile up to me and walk on.
All below there would be
bellows and callings.
I would stay in the sky glorious
picking bark from my palms. (p. 32)
Here then is a body of work in which the personal, the confessional meets the fictional, the real story or aside a thread for a wider, imagined poetic-fable, so many pieces of such strand lacing together a book. The concept of the yarn embodied by the title is strengthened thematically through the manner of the storytelling, for so often an authentic conversational style of delivery is evoked in the works, as in poems such as ‘The Brothel’ and ‘Fatigue’, and in ‘The Aerialist’ where the protagonist comments (p. 29):
From here the faces
of the audience
appear to float. Once
I am spun so fast
I become a centrifuge
The tips of my fingers
prick with blood.
Taut, linguistically striking and thematically inventive, The Rope Walk is a dazzling work. The idea of rope as a link and fuse, amalgamating Victorian rope makers in Scotland, the migrant journey and experience, and the memory of exodus and settlement maintained through the ancestral chain, is a fascinating one; so much so the sole disappointment about McMillan’s book is that there isn’t more of it, a larger stage (50 or so poems) through which the writer develops further the richness of her topic.
Titirangi poet Ila Selwyn’s exploration of migrant themes is no less personal. In her first full collection, Two Sisters, she also employs the theme of the rope as a metaphor for the lure of a migrant land (p. 1):
yanks me home
step off the plane
Aotearoa grasps an ankle
my soul down under
we don’t speak the same language
back to front
I have to up-end myself to see …
What the poet sees, wrenched by the ropey attachments of that thing most people take for granted – ‘home’, the memory of a dysfunctional childhood, a contemplation upon raising her own kids – are, as migrants know only too well, matters made tangled and topsy-turvy by attempting to assimilate into one domicile, forever disconnected from the other. And so, in Two Sisters we journey initially away from ‘the sun’ of New Zealand to Canada, Selwyn’s ‘other’ homeland, in the section, ‘Vancouver Diary’, an expedition both promulgated by and symbolic of death where even the sun, that fixed point of connection for the narrator in Aotearoa, is skewed:
sun slants through
a pale body
float from my window
the solid blue south … (p. 12)
As with The Rope Walk, the reader finds themself amongst a variable cast of characters. In Two Sisters, the troupe carries different names (Doug, Pam, Vera, Gary) but they remain, à la McMillan’s collection, ghosts – selves which evoke a true story turned fictional at Selwyn’s hand, as epitomised by this touching evocation of Pam succumbing to her incurable illness (p. 12):
Pam gets lighter and lighter
gradually fades away
leaves a tiny
to my jacket
In poems such as ‘Dad Warns Me’, the titular work and ‘The House is Fearful’, these ghosts don’t people comfortable narratives or lives, ergo:
he uses his leather belt on my bare bum
doesn’t try any other way to protect me (p. 17)
This too, like The Rope Walk, is confession with an edge, one balanced beautifully by the likes of the contemplative sequence of seasonal vignettes, ‘Threads Loose’ in which,
a runny egg
my burnt toast
body bits … (p. 55)
The imaginative notion of the migrant as a being torn between the fraught and reflective is one that remains with the reader long after concluding Two Sisters.
The ghosts in Barbara Strang’s The Corrosion Zone are the land, source of so many previous acts of survival and (in Christchurch’s case) present unsettlements, and the author’s brother, Andrew, to whom the collection is (partly) dedicated and about whom the author pens a number of poems. ‘Georgic’, ‘Visiting You’, ‘Little Brother’ and an elegy to sibling authorship, ‘Reading Andrew’s Poems’: here are verses which not only evoke memory and loss, but – like McMillan and Selwyn – find parallels between personal engagement and migrant experience, as on page 19:
We’re shown into a small room
where you’re lying: you hardly fit
dressed for some period drama.
All these photos of you
exhibiting for the camera,
you pulling a face, you in a hat.
Andrew, I want you to know:
this is your worst trick yet.
At Woolworths, we buy
some bread and a chocolate sponge
for the wake,
trying to find the way
through this strange supermarket,
a lost bird
flitting through spaces
Burying her brother, extricated from the everyday by his sudden, inexplicable demise, the narrator searches for re-belonging in place and space – only the place and space chosen happen to be an environment at once spellbinding and, seismically at least, troubled. The titular poem emphasizes this disparity, one symbolic of the personal and the geographical:
Last summer I did not
go for a swim, last summer
I moved from my home.
Anyway it wasn’t much
of a summer, it poured as I left,
the basement of the new house was awash.
Last summer I did not
go on holiday, or camp.
I counted my money, paid bills,
I packed all my books,
a stiff easterly blew
every day over the estuary,
damp and clammy …
then the heat came,
weeds shot to the skies,
the mud baked like stone.
Last summer I traced the rim
of the estuary, like a shag,
from there to here, only
two miles away.
It was a foreign land
with dampish smells,
I bumped into furniture,
the light switches were mysterious. (p. 77)
Cumulatively, particularly so in poems such as ‘This House, My House’, ‘Housekeeping’, ‘Open Home’ and ‘Surviving’, Strang builds a layered narrative around exposure. In part, this is the kind of personal disclosure McMillan and Selwyn voice in their books, but for Strang exposure is also a concept and symbol: the home, the place of migrant refuge stripped away by tumultuous circumstance (be it suicide or seismic tremor) until the individual has no safe haven; all of which, of course, speaks of émigré occurrence:
Borer holes pepper my wardrobe,
branches fly round in high winds,
fuses go fizz …
The storm water drains are blocking again,
I can smell the estuary turning green,
the last high tide came over the bank. (p. 53)
This is the kind of candid admittance that, witnessed throughout all three collections discussed here, speaks of the courage and daring which accompanies all migrations. By understanding how past and present emigrant lives are always disquieted by the very real possibility of utter ruin, as is repeatedly examined by McMillan, Selwyn and Strang, we, a migrant nation, understand the kind of hardened psychological resolve we possess, that which has so often enabled the dissenters amongst us to stand against dominant, dysfunctional ideologies (apartheid, nuclearism …) and which those New Zealanders who come after us would do well to uphold.
SIOBHAN HARVEY is a poet, writer, editor, anthologist, reviewer and creative writing teacher who lives in Auckland. Her awards include the 2013 Kathleen Grattan Award for Poetry. Her new collection of poems, Cloudboy, is forthcoming from Otago University Press in 2014.