Coming Ashore, Peter Bland (Steele Roberts, 2011), 72 pp., $19.99; This City, Jennifer Compton (Otago University Press, 2011), 64 pp., $30.00.
It’s an exemplar of our age that, as the earth becomes more intimate and accessible so conversely the nature of displacement becomes more extensive, and those experiencing migrant life become more disjointed from the concept of ‘home’. It has long seemed to me that poetry is one of the best platforms to voice the complexities of migration. After all, it is poetry – that most expressive, emotional and lyrical of literary mediums – that in its other guise, the most marginalised, best parallels the immigrant’s lot.
In this, both Coming Ashore, the latest collection by Peter Bland (who has just received the 2011 Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry), and Jennifer Compton’s This City (which won the 2010 Kathleen Grattan Award for Poetry), illustrate the fact that ideas associated with being an emigrant are far more nuanced and diverse than the traditional Western European model of the refugee (in other words: ethnically different; immoral; poverty-stricken). More than this, though, each book reminds us how, in times when, in the teeth of globalisation, we continue to use our literature to determine our national identity, the explorations they offer of the widest remits of what it means to be a contemporary migrant bring us closer – paradoxically – to what it means to be a New Zealander today:
The childhood I couldn’t wait to leave
is the one I keep spotting
from the train or bus…
there’s never time to wave back
before I’m carried swiftly on
to another stopping place up ahead
Thus, Bland writing in the poem, ‘Mixed signals’ (1). It’s a verse which, along with others in Coming Ashore, such as ‘The gift’ and the title poem, broadens our insight into émigré existence by tagging its relevance to communal experiences such as the unsettling shift from childhood to adolescence. In ‘The gift’, for instance, Bland explores the enduring relevance of displacement thus:
You love the new land
truly you love it
you pile up year
upon year until
and before you know it
the old land
drifts into myth
which you visit
disguised as a child… (2).
Dislocation then is a way in which we tell our stories; in the same way that we recount our growing-up. Ditto death. For, like links to Bland’s previous collection, Loss (3), such poems in Coming Ashore as ‘Absence’, ‘Wilderness moments in Orange County’ and ‘The groves of Isis’ are not just dedicated to the author’s deceased wife, Beryl (who died in 2009) but revivify, poetically, the experience of being with someone now lost, as these lines from the latter poem illustrate:
Two years on, distance creeps
between us. You’re becoming
the essence you came from.
Increasingly, only love can reach you
and when it does you’re a long way off … (4)
Growing-up, dying, displacement, memory, story-telling: time and again, poems in Coming Ashore remind us that these are the things we all carry with us, particularly we New Zealanders for whom these affairs are the stuff of our everyday and/or our ancestry.
In Coming Ashore, Bland is less charting the individual life in small detail than the big idea told in emotive language. Therein, the book is a joyous celebration of the way in which lives can be lived fully, rather than a series of laments to that which has passed us by.
Jennifer Compton’s This City is, like its author, a triptych of geographies: Italy, New Zealand and Australia. From the start of the book, geographical schisms equal existential schisms, as the opening-line of the titular, prologue poem demonstrates:
I am travelling from my life, towards my life. (5).
As with Bland, Compton’s primary thesis is that our lives are a series of points – locations – we navigate, in the same way itinerants do. Like Bland too, often such sites are as much thematic as geographic, as in the poem, ‘The Threepenny Kowhai Stamp Brooch’, a meditation on personal and historical misplacement which concludes:
Of course I will be posted back into the past –
back to when kowhai was pronounced kowhai. (6).
History, that which is lost and yet still defines us, reappears and is reconfigured through This City, as in a later poem like ‘Street View’, which employs the subject matter of Google Earth as an exploration of how we are all dislodged by chronology:
with cameras are even
now! driving your street
filming your letterbox.
It’s not real time
– the mistake I made –
they are shooting us from
the past into the future. (7).
Where Bland looks at ‘big picture’ stuff, Compton is more concerned with the small, the details, the individual – the specific location rather than the large landmass. Thus, though the collection’s sections are ‘In Italy’, ‘In New Zealand’ and ‘In Australia’, it’s Compton’s more informal environments which construct the true poetic panorama of This City and which have the most forceful impact on the reader. Florence, Genoa, Moxham Avenue, Hataitai, ‘Palmy’ (according to the title of one of the collection’s poems), the Yarra Ranges, Kings Park: in these settings, Compton alights upon small, personal incidents and uses them to speak of things which hold universal relevance, as in the poem ‘Lost Property’:
I had been warned of an imminent loss
the knowledge of loss had thrummed by
so I kept checking I had everything
one hand delving in my shoulderbag.
And more than the knitting is the pillowcase
made by my husband’s mother, now deceased,
she had run it up from a summery cotton frock
with two ties at the top to keep the knitting safe. (8).
As with Coming Ashore, the verses in This City return us to loss, memory and ancestry. Here Compton’s poems are mythologies we read to better understand how we arrived here and now.
‘Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted,’ wrote Edward Said (9). To be isolated from one’s birth country can intensify, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, physically and geographically, one’s passage through other lands, their communities and value-systems. In their new collections, Jennifer Compton and Peter Bland write richly and extensively about the impact of topographical and personal distance from the place or places they know as home. By reading these books where we learn about what it is to be a contemporary migrant, we also learn what it is to be ourselves, connected to a land forged by ancestral displacement.
1. Peter Bland, ‘Mixed Signals’ in Coming Ashore, Wellington, Steele Roberts, 2011, page 52.
2. Peter Bland, ‘The gift’ in Coming Ashore, Wellington, Steele Roberts, 2011, page 32.
3. Peter Bland, Loss, Wellington, Steele Roberts, 2010.
4. Peter Bland, ‘The groves of Isis’ in Coming Ashore, Wellington, Steele Roberts, 2011, page 55.
5. Jennifer Compton, ‘This City’ in This City, Dunedin, Otago University Press, 2011, page 7.
6. Jennifer Compton, ‘The Threepenny Kowhai Stamp Brooch’ in This City, Dunedin, Otago University Press, 2011, page 24.
7. Jennifer Compton, ‘Street View’ in This City, Dunedin, Otago University Press, 2011, page 39.
8. Jennifer Compton, ‘Lost Property’ in This City, Dunedin, Otago University Press, 2011, page 51.
9. Edward Said, Reflections of Exile and Other Essays, Harvard University Press, 2000, page 173.
SIOBHAN HARVEY is the author of the poetry collection Lost Relatives (Steele Roberts, 2011). She teaches at the University of Auckland.