Dancing with Dragons by Ila Selwyn (Westridge Publishing, 2018), 112 pp., $20; Tongue Burglar by Jane Blaikie (Steele Roberts, 2018), 69 pp., $24.99; Poeta: Selected and new poems by Cilla McQueen (Otago University Press, 2018), 296 pp., $39.95
Once women were the subjects, not originators, of myths. Aphrodite, Pandora, Medusa, Baba Yaga, the Ice Maiden: the litany of women portrayed in fables as deceitful, shameful, manipulative and destructive is unfortunately extensive. Women, such depictions told us, must either conform or risk censure, perhaps even death.
It took a long time before women could control the creation of narrative. Since doing so, we’ve reshaped not just the voice and the subject of storytelling, but also its style and significance. In this, the ancient art of mythmaking isn’t dead, but rather is prevalent and, with each new set of storytellers, refreshed. In three recent poetry collections – Ila Selwyn’s Dancing with Dragons, Jane Blaikie’s Tongue Burglary and Cilla McQueen’s Poeta: Selected and new poems – there is evidence of contemporary women authors who both take back the practice of mythmaking and – as instigators and controllers of narrative – bring fresh meaning to the traditional use of story as a medium of social and personal message.
The presence of the mythical and demonised dragon in the title of Titirangi author Ila Selwyn’s imaginative and emotional second collection places us firmly in the realm of modern fable. As with the writer’s first collection, Two Sisters, the heroine in Selwyn’s new book is the archetypal mythical woman: the outsider. But rather than a staid female fiend, the narrator of Dancing with Dragons is a woman undertaking journeys of geography, experience and self-exploration. Yes, she is flawed and aware of her shortcomings, but she’s always in control of her destiny and the story she reveals.
These matters are apparent from the beginning. Early poems such as ‘hook for a book’, ‘pickled impressions’ and ‘stealing a charge’ offer a story of fact, adventure, tribulation, lyric, lines borrowed from the work of deceased poets and phrases descended from popular songs. The first poem begins:
catching the dragon’s tail is the hook i steal from Ya-wen
holding fast to the belief that all artists pilfer ideas and then re-concoct them …
The hybrid nature of the work – a drama shaped from a series of poems – further accentuates the creativity of the storytelling. The poems that follow, such as ‘life in the round’, continue the marriage of imaginative style and melodic medley:
a lone wolf howled for its mate while standing under a full
moon, I thank thee for thy sunny beams/ I thank thee, moon, for shining now so bright:/
For thy gracious, golden, glittering
‘Beam me up Scotty’, a catchphrase in pop culture, came from the science fiction TV series
Star light, star bright/ The first star I see tonight/ I wish I may, I wish I might …
In ‘food for love’, Selwyn channels her inner Billie Holliday and Jennifer Rush:
blue eyes/ I saw you looking so sad/ without a friend standing by/ where is the
Love’s heralds should be thoughts/ Which ten times faster glide than the sun’s beams …
overcoats, woollen hats, mittens, scarves, socks and boots are needed in Winnipeg to keep
you are my guy/ i am your girl/ you are the string/ i am your pearl …
Here then is the mythology of a woman’s life, her loves and heartaches, her writings and love of music, her travels and settlements. Wonderful.
Tongue Burglar, the first collection by Wellington poet Jane Blaikie, offers a two-part narrative about disability, creativity, romance, death, inequity, family and dysfunction.
The titular first section transforms the existence of designer Dave Kent and his brave battle against motor neuron disease into an allegory of struggle and survival against the odds. Where Selwyn forms verses into a poetic-play, Blaikie constructs poems like ‘toe-to-toe’, ‘but I would’ and ‘progressive bulbar palsy’ into an elegiac biography. The narrative is alive with art, intimacy, suffering, joy and saga, as in the poem ‘myths and legend’:
back when an uncle took Dave
out of school for a day at the races
Misty Delights began La Vie En Rose
at diagnosis he punts on Walk the Tiger
Between the Beats, Village Road
Later on it’s Surreal Storm
Tidal Wave, Dreams Unwind
Trust and Redeem, Skysoblue
After the first section’s tragic conclusion, ‘readying for the night routine and he just died’, we are lead into the section called ‘Miss Anxiety Jean’. Like a two-act play, this twin-part structure permits thematic and experiential complements, contrasts, fusions and estrangements. The poetic biography of the first segment, for instance, grows into second-section first-person narratives like ‘Stormy blasts go by’, ‘Ante-natal class’ and ‘Exchange’, as well as work – ‘And so you find another family’ – in which Kent reappears:
Street above the harbour top step
rat-crouched and latched to a B&H,
you look up and find your luck is in.
You bring your own pens for
the first day, new job. Dave there
no profits in the non-profits
but developer pays out a whopper
and you all move to a flash space …
Poems about places like Paekakariki and Taranaki, about losing parents, farming and gardening round out ‘Miss Anxiety Jean’. The result is a book at once intimate and communal, contemporary and historic, and alive with language and its cadences, as well as the possibility of finding stories everywhere.
In Poeta: Selected and new poems, Bluff author Cilla McQueen undertakes another kind of mythmaking: the selection of salient parts of a life-story that might best represent an entire body of work. For McQueen, there are five decades of poetic parts to draw upon. Of course, range can be as much a burden as a liberation. After all, she has fifteen collections to choose from and new poems to include. The author indicates the complexities of this storytelling endeavour in the book’s Preface:
These poems have been grouped, as it were, in rooms, where they have had a chance to converse, being related in my mind to one or another of my preoccupations as a poet. Arranged as a span rather than as a time-line, the sequence remains roughly chronological, with idiosyncratic exceptions.
Eleven sections prevail; discourses upon environment and existence feature strongly. The book opens with ‘Living Here’, which includes such significant poems as ‘Homing In’, ‘Living Here’ and ‘Low Tide, Aramoana’. The opening lines of ‘Living Here’ set the thematic tone for the collection to come:
Dark’s falling. Stand
on the corner of the verandah
in the glass cold clear
night, looking out …
This poetic call to attention and safeguard is taken up in the following sections through other seminal poems like ‘Evocations’, ‘Letter to Hone’ and ‘Quark Dance’, as well as ‘Anti Gravity’ with its appeal to embrace nonconformity:
we have to get out into space
where there is no direction
there are no bearings
you don’t need them
you just lie back with your arms up and float …
Here and elsewhere, the self – particularly the female self – is offered as free in soul and mind, while the conceptual notion of the liberation of ‘space’ – physical, psychological and material – is furthered in the sections ‘Foveaux Express’ and ‘St Kilda poems’. These build saga and allegory from their respective sceneries. The opening epic verse from ‘St Kilda poems’, ‘Songs for a Far Island’, for instance, perfectly articulates the multifarious ways McQueen channels ‘space’ into a personal, existential and literary mythos:
my name; see myself threading
back through the generations,
tough as a cord
– yet here and now
I live among trees:
stippled ngaio leaves,
and the wind in them all …
Through poems such as ‘On Resolution Island’, ‘Writing Place’ and ‘stem – fiordland’, the concluding sections – ‘Qualia et alia’ and ‘here and touch’ – ably bring McQueen’s geographical and metaphysical explorations to apotheosis.
Cilla McQueen’s Poeta: Selected and new poems successfully achieves a tricky storytelling act. It offers work that is selective yet broad and meaty, sentient yet sensory, concrete yet, like the best poems, ethereal. Beautifully hardbound and illustrating the kind of production values that speak to the quality of the work on offer, this is a book of extensive engagement, not least in its manner of reframing existent mythical artefacts into fresh material; a consideration true of all the books reviewed here.
SIOBHAN HARVEY is the author of five books, including the 2013 Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award-winning collection Cloudboy (Otago University Press, 2014) and, as editor, Essential New Zealand Poems (Godwit, 2014). She’s a lecturer at the Centre for Creative Writing, AUT. She was recently longlisted for the 2019 Australian Book Review Peter Porter Poetry Prize.