This Thin Now by Jo Thorpe (Mākaro Press, 2018), 50 pp, $25; Her Limitless Her by Reihana Robinson (Mākaro Press, 2018), 82 pp, $25; Over There a Mountain by Elizabeth Welsh (Mākaro Press, 2018), 88pp, $25
Fifteen years ago an illness enabled me a spell on the sickness benefit. I had time on my hands. In lieu of a formal arts education, I decided to undertake my own immersion job studying the poetry of New Zealand/Aotearoa. I spent my days scouring shops like Moa Hunter, paperback exchanges, op-shops and book fairs, seeking out collections by well-known and obscure poets. At night I stayed up late reading the collection I was building.
When the benefit ended, as benefits do, I took work in secondhand bookstores. The pay was shit, but it enabled me to go on collecting. Feeding my collection was, at times, more important than feeding myself. Some of the most rewarding experiences from this period of my reading life came from discoveries like Graham Lindsay’s Return to Earth, Peter Olds’ ‘It Was A Tuesday Morning’, Mike Johnson’s The Palanquin Ropes, Rob Allan’s Karitane Postcards and Stephen Oliver’s Night of Warehouses – books published by presses with names like Caveman, Hazard, Voice, Sudden Valley and Headworx.
Nearly a decade has passed since I worked in a secondhand bookstore, but my immersion job goes on. And it goes on showing me two things: firstly, New Zealand is a colony of poets (there are probably as many poets as there are lawyers and doctors); and the groundswell of much of its interesting poetry seems to be published by independent, boutique and fugitive presses.
Since its inception in 2014, the Hoopla Series, published by Mākaro Press, has released an annual troika of books by ‘a late-career, mid-career and debut New Zealand poet’. The 2018 instalment features Jo Thorpe (late-career), Reihana Robinson (mid-career), and Elizabeth Welsh (debut). Three poets. Three singular and accomplished new collections.
Jo Thorpe’s This Thin Now is a lean, fine-tuned performance of three poem cycles. It clocks in at just under fifty pages, if you include the Notes, Acknowledgements and Afterword. She writes: ‘Shouldn’t this be enough – space, amplitude of light?’ This short book is full of both – Thorpe is a poet of space and light:
You can find yourself gobsmacked by light –
this shaft of moon troubadouring pell-mell down your ceiling,
solid-looking, milk-white – the kind a child from Sendak
might slide down, though not quite –
edges so sharp they cut.
When I first read this poem, I was the child, the child sliding into the luminous and terrifying coolness of the giant milk bottle in Maurice Sendak’s hallucinatory dream story, In the Night Kitchen. There is a nimble élan to the way her phrases move and implicate their reader. She can give us the whole cosmos, the earth and the sky and the distance between, in two concise lines (lifted from the book’s titular poem):
Overhead the sprinting barrage of altocumulus.
On the risen grass, their shadows cross like stingrays on speed.
Thorpe’s gift is for building poems around one or two succinct, and often psychological, images – images that announce themselves at the juncture of our waking mind and memory. They are often the signifiers of ending, loss and parting. What she makes are gnomic diorama, mysterious tableaux. The strongest writing in this collection happens when the enigma of her imagery has not been overshadowed by the speaker’s need to explicate, or quantify the experience. It happens also when the occasion of the poem is left open, and is not staged or curated towards an easy conclusion or resolution. Thorpe is at her best when image and anecdote work together, in balance. I think she hits it out of the park with this one:
The care/taker in winter
He was working his way up a narrow valley,
in his hands, a saw, some yellow secateurs,
when he came upon the slaughtered sheep
laid out by hunters– a lure for wild pig.
Something went out of him,
the way it straddled the fallen karaka –
head slung over, the empty neck,
the half-fleeced rigging of its ribs
the front legs, stiff, outstretched,
as if toward clover field,
some meadowy holding-place.
He tended it, he said, as gently as he could.
Found a cleft for the parts – a small ravine
above seas roiling with light.
The second poet in the series is Reihana Robinson, a poet who deals in ecstatically charged invocations. She is at once a shaman expressionist, cultural historian and eco-defender. At work in the poems of her second full-length collection, Her Limitless Her, is a fierce bodily intelligence and an acute sensitivity to wairua, to the spirits of person and place. Robinson engages with the past and present world, with the dead and living, in ways that are sonic and structural. Watch how her lines leap and run:
yes I have donned the garments
the feathers the skin the fur the scales of animals
I have crawled earthworm-snug into earth
have tasted the minty cocktails of dirt and root
and squirmed headlong into nothingness
full of urgency without anxiety I have slimed
and furred navigating myself at low levels
in this darkness yet in light I was always hungry
That’s the first part of a sequence called ‘Mourning song’ and it exemplifies the rhythmic energy of her syntax; a kinetic aspect that satisfies as often as it startles. Robinson has, with the exception of the odd en-dash and parenthetical bracket, abandoned all punctuation. No unnecessary marks clutter the page. There is nothing to halter or impede the current of her utterance:
how the sea yes how the sea
slid long arms and did not let go
and maybe a spider’s web is the only
way left to make home anew
when so much is taken and
like others adrift amid strewn rubble
you lift your heart
to the tender sky and make a wide face
(from ‘The brat memory’)
Robinson writes with the foreknowledge that no experience or perception can be replicated, and thus the forms of her poems represent this. They are open and restless. Some read like lost epistles, spells and incantations, while others still are like transcripts to lyrical interrogations of time and memory, love and motherhood; towns and coasts, the tidelines of life and death. Robinson’s language is earthy and primal, and always active.
The feeling in her poems moves between quietude, the ecstatic and the hysterical. She shares a simpatico in her composition techniques (paratactic juxtaposition, fragmentation, psychic reportage) with female post-Projectivists such as Denise Levertov and C.D. Wright. Many times while reading Her Limitless Her it felt as if the book were a movement or instalment from a larger scale work; a longer poem, say, in the tradition of the Cantos or the Maximus Poems. The range of her poetic concerns has the same sweep and strata as an epicist.
In the Foreword to poet Brook Haxton’s translation of Heraclitus’ Fragments, James Hillman writes, ‘To speculate about the lost book distracts from the power of the fragments and their message: all things change, all things flow. The world is revealed only in quick glances. There can be no completion.’ Of the three books in the 2018 series, the most beguiling and likely to reward close reading is Elizabeth Welsh’s debut, Over There a Mountain. This is the ‘no completion’ life and world of a character named the mountain-daughter, told to us in ‘quick glances’ – in discordant fragments, in distillate aperçus. It is narrative poetry fractured by the prism of its telling. It is life reduced to the brushstroke, to shorthand:
Her mountain mother charted the splayed structures
of the podocarp broadleaved forest and the cangiante
viridian-yellow of the alpine herb fields.
Her mountain-father took care of the braided rivers
wending gracefully to the harried foot of glaciers, heaving
ache, ache, make, forsake, ache, partake, make
The character of the mountain daughter is almost a modernist archetype. A student of geology and fine arts. She reads the architectonics of mountains, transposing them into drawings and woodcuts. Like the lines her character makes, Welsh’s writing is tautly controlled, compressed. From poems, diary-like confessions, snippets of recorded conversations between mother and father, these are the scattered fragments of a life calling out to each other. Welsh’s book is also a great one to dip into at random. Like Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, it can be opened on any page, the shards of narrative read and savoured without regard for their continuity.
MICHAEL STEVEN is the author of the acclaimed Walking to Jutland Street (Otago University Press, 2018). He was recipient of the 2018 Todd New Writer’s Bursary. His poems were shortlisted for the 2019 Sarah Broom Poetry Prize. A new collection, The Lifers, is forthcoming with Otago University Press in 2020. He lives and writes in West Auckland.