This review was first published in the print edition of Landfall 241
No Traveller Returns by Ruth France (Cold Hub Press, 2020), 104pp, $27.50; Wanting to Tell You Everything by Elizabeth Brooke-Carr (Caselberg Press, 2020), 66pp, $25; The Needles of the Marram Grass by W.S. Broughton (SwampThing, 2019), 130pp, $25
The ease with which we forget or cast aside writers after their deaths, particularly those identifying as women, non-Pākehā and non-hetero-normative, is a problem with a long history. For centuries, authors around the world and their bodies of work have been lost to subsequent generations.
No Traveller Returns by Ruth France, Wanting to Tell You Everything by Elizabeth Brooke-Carr and The Needles of the Marram Grass by W.S. Broughton are three posthumously published New Zealand collections. The poetry within their covers illustrates the way that powerful work endures beyond an author’s passing. These books are potential prompts to us to rethink how we save and savour contemporary literature so that future generations have access to it.
It’s always a pleasure to discover a consummate poet and their breathtaking work. In the case of Ruth France, the delight in engaging with the selection of poems assembled in No Traveller Returns is enhanced by their extensive number and the cogent introduction by Christchurch poet and literary critic Robert McLean. There are nearly fifty poems showcased in the book. These are chosen from the two collections France published in her lifetime under the pseudonym Paul Henderson—Unwilling Pilgrim (Caxton Press, 1955) and The Halting Place (Caxton Press, 1961) —as well as from the titular unpublished book of verse.
France’s poems are interesting because of their complexity. So often in the past women writers have been dismissed for their singularity of focus and subject: the domestic. Those New Zealand women poets of the 1930s–50s—like Hyde and Mackay—whose work too often broke this socially engineering perception, did so in the face of distrust and sneering from members of a male-dominated literati. As in France’s award-winning novels The Race (1958) and Ice Cold River (1961), the layers and nuances to the work in No Traveller Returns pulls the reader into an exploration of double meanings, lyrical language and shifts in subject matter. With its opening lines focused on deconstructing the notion that personhood is composed of two selves, the first poem, ‘Unwilling Pilgrim’, is evidence of this:
If there were no second self he would sit
Comfortably at home among the cabbages,
And persuade himself that to tend the puny ravages
Of butterfly, and drought upon the lawn, and spot
In espaliered peaches, would enclose his soul …
The idea that life is more knotted than its portrayals in religion, politics, the economy and even the arts is a message threaded through most of the early poems in No Traveller Returns. The schmaltz of love songs is exposed in ‘The Young Legend’, for instance. The migrant dream of a better future to be found in Aotearoa is condemned in ‘The Ghost Ships’.
Instead, France’s work reminds us that life is multifaceted; only by accepting this and the intricate layers that compose our personality will we find self-acceptance and value in existence. Such ideas are inherited and developed by the verses from the book’s other sections, ‘The Halting Place’ and ‘No Traveller Returns’. Here, in poems such as ‘Elegy’, ‘Suburb at Night’ and ‘I Think of Those’, life isn’t harmonious but rather is a complicated intersection of the good, the bad and the mundane. Death; our intricate connection to others; the hollowness of suburban living; the power and profundity of nature: these things triumph in the messages layered into France’s poems.
No Traveller Returns is a powerful and surprisingly modern collection. Its topics and themes might have been forged in the 1950s and 60s but they resound down the decades and remain prescient today. I applaud Cold Hub Press and Robert McLean for collecting and analysing Ruth France’s work. Too long overlooked, France and her compelling work are given the attention they rightfully deserve in this book of selected poems.
The first two poems in Elizabeth Brooke-Carr’s Wanting to Tell You Everything occur around the kitchen table. Proof that women poets are absorbed by the domestic space? Not at all. Rather, this setting is an arena for deeper interrogation. In the introductory poem ‘Upright’, for instance, an entire era of familial interaction unfolds, while in the next verse, ‘Many Breakfasts Since’, the minutiae of a marriage is unpicked.
What follows are poems focused on what women poets often write about so well (the very issues for which, historically, they’ve been dismissed and misunderstood): the significance found in details and small exchanges, in garden plots and garden fences, and in raising children and communing with grandchildren.
As in France’s No Traveller Returns, so with Brooke-Carr’s poetry: the subjects are only part of the rich poetic interplay on the page. For both poets, the other part of the lyrical exchange is craft. Both collections prove their authors are skilled technical practitioners. Where Wanting to Tell You Everything is concerned, for instance, the varied forms—free verse, prose-poem—are tightly knit and symphonic. Poetic concision requires an expert hand, eye and tongue, and poems such as ‘Memory of Snow’ prove Brooke-Carr possessed all the necessary faculties for literary success. This is a poem which, upon first and subsequent readings, offers echoes of the work of that greatly underrated poet Jane Kenyon, whose melodic spirituality is present also in Brooke-Carr’s lines, such as:
From the wall beside the window
my bearded brother stares down,
shadow cast across his face. Snow,
we called him. Blond hair slicked back,
blue eyes, corner-crinkled, laughing into mine …
The lines are consistent in their length and syllabic music as well as in their restraint. Nothing here shouts of loss; instead, bereavement is offered with precision in such carefully chosen elements as the shadow, the brother’s nickname and his blue eyes.
Reading Brooke-Carr reminds us of the importance of poetry and, as this is her first and only collection, of not letting the work of those poets who are no longer alive slip into obscurity.
Talk of craft and poetic dexterity makes for an excellent segue into W.S. Broughton’s posthumous collection, The Needles of the Marram Grass. Broughton was best known for his selfless and persuasive championing of other writers’ work. For over four decades he taught New Zealand literature at Massey University and occasionally found his poems published in fine literary journals like Evergreen Review (US). On the strength of The Needles of the Marram Grass, this reviewer is left feeling that Broughton deserved to focus as much on his own output as that of others.
Collectively, the poems possess a painterly quality. Imagery—particularly that evoking the innumerable luscious landscapes of Aotearoa—acts as core subject matter again and again; the poems ‘A Poem to Colin McCahon—Kahuterawa Valley’, ‘Recollections—Lyttelton Harbour’ and ‘Triptych’ deserve particular praise.
‘Triptych’, for instance, is so crisp in its descriptions that they come immediately alive in the mind:
I kissed my love three times
once in the night with the hoar haze
crinkling the stars, making them moist
in the dry sky, while the houses
and the streets lay pale in the black
and black in the pale light of the
winter’s breathing …
Here is a nightscape so worthy of McCahon, Angus or Bensemann it might almost be framed. The same kind of visual and aesthetic interaction between the pictorial and poetic is evident in ‘A Poem for Colin McCahon—Kahuterawa Valley’. In the nine lines of this work, Broughton forges an unequivocal chemistry between canvas, consciousness and poetic craft, as evidenced by this section:
Because I’ve seen your paintings,
clean, cold, sharp, loving,
it follows that I see these hills.
Each time the car wheel turns
—the road following—my windscreen frames
a new vision, three, four lines
clean, cold green …
The sections of The Needles of the Marram Grass offer elements from three unpublished collections crafted during Broughton’s lifetime. Though they didn’t see the light of day as individual books, their assemblage in this recent publication offers their own triptych of a poet and his work deserving of wider local recognition.
There’s a poignancy—and necessity—in reading these three posthumous publications. At a time when there’s a welcome abundance of new books by local authors being published, particularly poetry collections, it’s noticeable to this reviewer how the work of talented writers of the past like France, Brooke-Carr and Broughton is not being remembered, anthologised and celebrated as widely and thoroughly as is warranted. In part, these books restore some of this cultural neglect. More importantly, of course, they showcase the poetry, craft and storytelling of three amazing and highly gifted New Zealand poets.
SIOBHAN HARVEY is the author of five books, including the 2013 Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award-winning collection Cloudboy (Otago University Press, 2014) and Ghosts (Otago University Press, 2021).