Bad Things by Louise Wallace (Victoria University Press, 2017), 79 pp., $25; Kinds of Hunger by Jan Hutchison (Steele Roberts, 2017) 64 pp., $19.99; Ordinary Time by Anna Livesey (Victoria University Press, 2017), 55 pp., $25
Bad Things requires the reader to acknowledge an arc from fame to celebrity to obscurity and on into featureless anonymity. There is, of course, a middle ground between the extreme poles of anonymity and fame – this volume situates it at self-respect. Poetry can offer that since it’s hard, largely unpaid, voluntary work. And even at its most frivolous – like some of the poems here – retains an unswerving commitment to the non-material rewards of subtext and intellect.
Although Louise Wallace’s Bad Things is alert to the enticements that produce a public persona, it never fully embraces them. So ‘Meryl Streep’, in the poem of the same name, is caught in an indefensible diva moment. But then in the-performance-of-her-life, Meryl theatrically repents and is given, by the poem’s now equally ‘starring’ narrator ‘Louise’, a conciliatory hug – but crucially, only at ‘half-strength’.
In the opening poem ‘Once’, a child on a nostalgically remembered family holiday, who ‘won a real fake diamond/ring’ at the show, is addressed by an older, but perhaps not wiser, narrator, who finds herself as disappointed by her current sparkless Prince Charming as she was chastened long ago by her lacklustre ring. Her dilemma of dashed expectations also features in ‘Mirage/Arizona’. What at first is imagined as a grand lake turns out, on closer reflection, to be only a field of solar panels. Yet everywhere in this collection early enchantment, for all its admitted falsity, somehow retains an unforgettable majesty. The poet tempts the reader to indulge in the very phantasies she herself feels compelled to discard.
Austere grey page inserts separate what is a beautifully produced volume into two major sections. Printed on its first eminence grise is the proclamation, ‘I did it for myself/I did what needed to be done.’ Twenty pages later the poet’s initial declaration/disclaimer is completed in a second field of grey with the defiant assertion: ‘I would do it again.’ And in fact, despite its formal separation, the second poem sequence here does indeed ‘do it again’. It is yet more of the same alertly measured observation. Both sections of the collection offer the reader an engaging sampler of styles and techniques: lyrics, modern haiku, concrete drumbeat, found language, prose poems, magic realism. In myriad forms and unfathomable coincidences, the collection’s intimate deflations of famous people restore a faulty humanity to once remote public figures. Alongside these unexpected citings, Wallace places a series of doggedly unresolved episodes from the tragi-comic theatre of daily life.
Jan Hutchison’s collection Kinds of Hunger animates respected historic voices from art and literature to reverentially engage, through them, with the natural world. Katherine Mansfield, uncomfortably damp in the louring Urewera, wields her pen despite all. Sappho receives a letter from the Antipodes, which tells of a strange girl who, though alarming to the neighbours, pleases the writer, the girl’s mother, with her correspondence to a white flowering kohekohe. The poet John Clare finds himself locked away in an asylum. His is a land where rapidly imposed monocultural pastoral farming has increased profits and extinguished the biodiversity of the countryside. Clare’s reason was to become as unbalanced as the ecologies of the forests and common lands whose wild lives, animal and human, his poems had celebrated. But in Hutchison’s poem he is allowed a last mournful hurrah. Lucky Renoir paints at his leisure by the riverbank. His ‘heron’ eye freely produces a girl, a picnic, anything that in pleasant self-sufficiency might spring to his wandering imagination.
Among these famous ‘names’ anonymous voices are heard. A grandmother, now away with the fairies, is shown to be growing happily closer than sanity would ever have allowed, to the trees in her orchard. Then in ‘Conversation with a longfin eel’ the poet lodges an affidavit on deforestation. Later her close-up of a weta records its extraordinary mechanisms – just before it’s stamped out. At another point the ice of the Ross Dependency is found to be as everlasting in memory as a mother’s love – and her games of bridge.
But Hutchison’s short lyrics, for all their poignancy and quirky insights, tiptoe round the elephant in the room, which is the imminence of irreversible climate change. Hers is, of course, a speaking silence, in which everywhere here the apocalyptic future presses for readerly attention.
It seems to me that environmentally focused poets, like Hutchison, too readily pull their punches. The dire consequences we will all face before the end of the century are now unavoidable. The ethical question this collection therefore raises is whether it is enough, in hope of arousing environmental remorse, to poke the reader’s conscience only obliquely? For surely what is needed now is an outpouring of profound alarm, some Wagnerian intervention that will motivate rigorous flax-roots political action to mitigate the trauma of our looming ecocide. Can poetry do that?
Ordinary Time is Anna Livesey’s third collection. It records the impact on family life of the birth of a second child.
Livesey thus faces the risk of her work being under-read, for in patriarchy such maternally focused poems are, by definition, of limited ‘private’ significance – as opposed to those works whose ‘public’ concerns fall into the category of the male as neutral-universal.
The collection’s title, Ordinary Time, with its subtext of under-remuneration and under-recognition in a paid work setting, here acquires further ironic comedy in terms of the extraordinary time, which is ‘freely’ demanded of mothers in their children’s early years.
These constraints, even as the narrator sets out to make the best of them, are enumerated in the titular piece with which the volume opens. In this poem Livesey notes that until ‘I’ll be wearing out’, all her narrator’s art will now be accompanied by her ties to her children. This expression of mortal exhaustion is saved from bitterness and frustration by the authoritative force of Livesey’s image of the artist nonetheless ‘climbing out of the wood’ of her poem. This heroic assertion, of the female artist forthrightly emerging into culture out of nature, underpins all the work in the collection.
However, what Jenny Bornholdt characterises in the book’s back note, as Livesey’s evocation of ‘the warm, heated, swaddled feeling of early parenthood’ [my emphasis] attempts, with this carefully gender-neutral term, to deflect attention away from the dangerous undertow of pointedly feminist, unanswered questions about the maternal role in patriarchy, which actually feature in the ‘fiercely intimate’ narrative voice Bornholdt does affirm in Livesey’s work.
But the constant pressure in phallocentric discourse, for womanly compliance with the foreclosure of the active womb (which Jenny Bornholdt’s ‘neutral’ wording registers) sees Livesey too modify her tone in response to this patriarchal repression. In ‘Castor Bay’, she refers to a friend’s fourth child ‘budding in his wife’s stomach’ [my emphasis]. As men don’t have wombs, there is a taboo in patriarchy against rendering the womb as the active organ of a uniquely feminine generativity. Instead, in the face of patriarchal anxiety, the womb is explained away, as here; or if recognised, represented symbolically as a basic passive space, a mere receptacle of paternal agency.
But in co-existence with the negation of the womb in phallocentric discourse, the feminist Bracha Ettinger has theorised, in her concept of the Matrixial domain, a stunning restitution to cultural awareness, of women’s unique generativity. For Bracha Ettinger the significance of the m/Other and of the active womb is as a symbolic locus of communication that is as accessible to men as to women, but which is also intrinsic to the emergence in culture of the artist as she-hero.
However, in Ordinary Time Anna Livesey reveals, in poem after poem, her narrator’s sense that for her any such self-actualisation is frequently obstructed. In ‘Synthetic thinking’ the narrator has a clean house and a happy baby but there is still ‘[…] something I’ve been waiting to write and cannot say’. In ‘Talking to strangers’ the poet challenges the ‘lack’ that sees her negated subjectivity represented in Lacanian theory as ‘
woman’. So: ‘My daughter, dressed in yellow/inspired the query/‘With or without?’ But the narrator’s defiant answer: ‘With. Vagina.’, still privileges female receptivity, forbearing to mention uterine generativity.
Yet matrixial voices co-emerge here nonetheless. This is possible because, as Bracha Ettinger notes: ‘The phallus cannot master the matrix.’
Thus in Livesey’s poem ‘Eleven days’, the mother and her baby are ‘wrapped in our own salty language’. In the poem ‘Your mind like a pearl’, in late pre-birth the unknown becoming m/Other recognises that in her unknown becoming infans: ‘Whatever thoughts you had were in me; whatever thoughts (heartbeats, terrors, flights) I had, you drew down.’
The collection’s elderly mother and mother-in-law, its toddler son and infant daughter, its sisters as women friends and the shadowy figure of the narrator’s spouse form a limited severality. So making what Bracha Ettinger would call a transsubjective web of affect. These are ‘unknown other’ voices, which alongside the compassionate hospitality of the m/Otherly narrator, present the reader with a deeply intriguing sense of matrixial incompletion and aesthetic and intellectual possibility.
JANET CHARMAN is an award-winning Auckland poet whose current practice engages with the Matrixial theory of human connectivity as located in the feminine (as advanced in the writings of Bracha Ettinger). Her latest book is 仁 Surrender (Otago University Press, 2017).