Selected Poems by Jenny Bornholdt (Victoria University Press, 2016), 208 pp., $40; Walking to Pencarrow: Selected poems by Michael Jackson (Cold Hub Press, 2016), 165 pp., $39.95
It is generally considered bad form for a reviewer to turn a review into a personal exposition, however the prescience of my relationship with Jenny Bornholdt’s poem ‘Make Sure’ came into play in an extraordinary way during the period I was reviewing her book, to an extent that I think the following may be forgivable. As a person who fell in love with a man who loves to go on solo and often off-track bush-bashing tramps, since first reading this poem ‘Make sure’ in the 1990s I’ve always loved it:
Make sure you fall in love with a man who you know will survive in the bush.
This way, when he is three nights overdue from his trip and the search
and rescue team is out looking for him and the helicopter has been called
back because the weather is closing in and they’re interviewing you on
television in a close-up camera shot, asking you what you think his chances
are – hoping you will cry and your lip will tremble – you can look them
straight in the eye and say you know he will be all right, he has had plenty
of experience and he knows what to do, he was carrying plenty of food and
warm clothing and he is strong.
Even if he is hurt, you know he will be all right.
He’s a fighter, you’ll say. He won’t give in.
But the weather is closing in, you must be worried, they’ll ask. You keep
your resolve. He will be all right, you say. I know he will.
My husband Fraser always seemed to me the embodiment of the ‘he’ in Bornholdt’s poem: practical, sensible and confident in the wilds. However, on Saturday 15 November Fraser failed to return from an overnight tramp and I found myself in the position of having to call the police, who quickly enlisted a search and rescue team. All day, for the seven hours between when I first considered him missing to the time the search and rescue team found him, ‘Make sure’ went through my mind like a prayer, an incantation: ‘He will be all right, you say. I know he will’ going around and around my head.
This anecdote has a happy ending: he was all right, albeit wet, hungry and in pain after spending a stressful night in the bush with a broken ankle, stuck beside a swelling stream in the heavy rain. Bornholdt’s poem gave me an anchoring comfort during that awful day. In my gut I knew he would be all right, however much my mind wavered to all possible horrible alternatives.
Jenny Bornholdt’s poems often have this effect: like low-key, secular prayers or carefully contained hopes. The strength arises from the precision of her noticing, the nouns in her poems take on a heightened power, ‘the thingness of things’ as Joanna Margaret Paul referred to it. Bornholdt’s poetry builds on the solid interiority of Joanna Margaret Paul’s work. Both poets elevate the ordinary ‘stuff’ of life to a point where it holds intense significance.
Bornholdt also has a way of telling other people’s stories in her more narrative poems, whereby she doesn’t seem to steal the narrative, or the dignity, of the subjects but adds to both with her humour and great compassion. Bornholdt’s central message through Selected Poems seems to echo the famous Ian MacLaren adage, ‘Be kind, for every man [sic] is fighting a hard battle.’ From her friends and relatives to more random encounters, Bornholdt holds the same space for all who appear in her poems; she has a gentle and non-judging manner which offers great solace to the reader.
The world of Bornholdt’s poetry is not an especially adventurous one. The poet’s vantage is one of comfortable middle-class respectability, the life described in her poems seems largely pleasant, easy: she describes overseas travel, gardening, house renovations, pleasant wider family gatherings where everyone seems – for the most part – to get along. This aspect adds to the ‘warm bath’ effect of Bornholdt’s poems read en-masse. Which is not to say there are not challenges or difficulties explored within the poems. The full spectrum of life is represented here: children, deaths, other losses, physical pain – ‘Coming up out of pain, coming up out of/ nothing but body, to find the world …’ (‘Big minty nose’) – but there is a spaciousness around these events that a ‘luckier’ life affords. Bornholdt knows how lucky she is, though, and notes it often, in different ways, through the precise noticing of her images, through the tenderness in her point-of-view, and sometimes even baldly stating it, as in ‘The inner life’:
Life has never been
so good. In the morning
I get up and there are the cups
and saucers – one always to go
with the other.
I feel lucky to know
what a cup of flour
Bornholdt’s voice has an endearing and intelligent wry humour. In many of her poems she invites the reader in with it, it is a knowing humour, a kind of wink – as if to say ‘all this stuff we get so stressed about, isn’t it quite ridiculous?’ In ‘Fitter turner’ – a litany of physical and medical woes – she writes about the things she is not allowed to do, but ‘Poetry, being low impact, is fine’. The double-meaning of ‘low impact’ here is a delight.
The blurb for the book states: ‘Jenny Bornholdt is the major New Zealand poet of her generation.’ It is a shame VUP didn’t provide an introduction expanding on this assertion. I always enjoy the introductory essays of ‘selected’ or ‘collected’ volumes of poetry, as they offer context for the writer’s work within the wider literary landscape and give a sense of the style and influence of the writer’s oeuvre. Aesthetically, the book is a beautiful object: hardcover, with a loose slip-cover, fresh minty green endpapers and a pleasing photograph of toadstools by Deborah Smith on the cover. It is a fine celebration of Jenny Bornholdt’s significant contribution to New Zealand literature.
From the genteel interiors of Bornholdt’s world to a more adventurous and peripatetic experience: Michael Jackson’s Walking to Pencarrow explores multiple worlds. He has travelled widely, from the outback of Australia to Africa and many places besides, and his poems, read en masse, reveal an unsettled quality, both literally – Jackson neither feels at home in his birthplace, New Zealand, nor in any of his adopted homes – and also emotionally. He seems often at odds in his poems, looking sideways at the subject matter. His poems lack Bornholdt’s humour, the persona in his poems more serious, tetchy, even raw at times.
Jackson’s Selected poems skips his early writing from the 1960s and covers the period from 1976 to 2013. In his introduction Jackson laments he has become a ‘footnote to local literary history’, which is debatable, but reveals how he sees his own position. Martin Edmond echoes this notion on the book’s back cover, calling him ‘… one of our most astute, humane, idiosyncratic, neglected and perdurable writers’. There is the sense that with this volume Jackson is wishing to remind people of the breadth of his contribution – and the book achieves this. The poems range impressively in subject matter and location, his anthropologist’s eye and analysis always looking at situations and trying to tease out the deeper meaning of his many life experiences across cultures and countries.
Perhaps because his life and world is less comfortable than Bornholdt’s there is sometimes a tone of weariness and wariness in Jackson’s work, as though his poems are defences against perceived shunning. If Bornholdt is the comfortable insider, Jackson is the uneasy outsider; but perhaps he subconsciously prefers it this way? Could it be a philosophical stance? It brings to mind the Groucho Marx gag: ‘I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.’ It is tricky to be a critic of ‘the Establishment’, and then to lament at not being included in the institutions rallied and kicked against. If Bornholdt’s world is one of urban charms, Jackson’s is one of rural Gothic, the non-romantic wilds and the margins.
Even his poems about close family members and friends contain a cautious, hesitant tone. This makes his poems very human and real. He allows his vulnerability to show: ‘People everywhere / saw to me with the same indifference’ (‘The red road’). The terrain of Jackson’s poems is wide, gritty, he isn’t afraid to write about life’s struggles and dark corners. He puts himself squarely in the frame with the people he encounters: ‘drank port wine and meths with them / under barbaric eucalypts at Red Cliffs’ (‘Murray Rosella’). There is a sense of the mythic in Jackson’s work: he is aware of cultural myths and also attempting to instil a sense of the mythic in his own life experiences, aware of ‘the need of heroes in a hard time’ (‘The red flag’).
Read altogether, Jackson’s poems can be a dark brew, but I appreciated the wide scope and fearlessness of both his subject matter and his imagery. He wants to shine a torch on struggle, on loss, on people cursed by circumstance. There were many sharp, affecting lines although I think his poems sometimes stumble at the last hurdle: endings are not his strength. Some of the lines that saw me scrambling for a pen include ‘the good / is as random as the bad’; ‘the harnesses and halters of our wishful thinking come apart’ (‘Accidents’); and ‘Who in this drought has tears?’ (‘Sudan’).
Jackson keeps the reader alert through this selection to sudden changes of location, mood, tone. His drive to push the reader out of comfortable terrain into new and challenging areas of life is admirable and effective. He dodges ease and simplicity; exploring nuance on nuance and the difficult dodge-and-weave fate can be for the less fortunate. To me, this image from ‘Inside everyone’ captures Jackson’s poetic persona:
somewhere in who I am
a human being has lost its way
in a labyrinth of labels
with strings attached,
words that capture
even the most fugitive,
holding life hostage
holding it back.
HELEN LEHNDORF’s book, The Comforter, made the New Zealand Listener’s Best 100 Books of 2012 list, while her poem ‘Wabi-sabi’ was selected for Best New Zealand Poems in 2011. Her second book, Write to the Centre, about the practice of keeping a journal, was published by Haunui Press in 2016. She writes poetry and non-fiction, and has been published in Sport, Landfall, JAAM, and many other publications.