Heartland, by Michele Leggott (Auckland University Press, 2014), 114 pp., $27.99
Not since Ian Wedde’s The Commonplace Odes have I read a poetry collection with this rich combination of earthy sensuousness, celebration of the fleeting moment, sense of mortality and unashamed kiwiana. Michele Leggott’s contemplative poetry invites slow reading. She controls tempo by unorthodox means: of the three poetic resources that traditionally put the brakes on our reading pace – punctuation, metre and the line-break – she uses only the third, and more often than not lines are enjambed in ways that make the break incidental. In lieu of punctuation, Leggott will frequently follow a phrase with a space, an interval within the line:
I saw my angels they were beautiful
beyond compare flags snapping above the headland
combed blond by wind they were sitting
each with disaster in a small pocket and they were
so beautiful in their resistance to the idea
of letting it fall into the world they were meeting
in a room with light powered by small engines
(from ‘degli angeli’)
The tenors of Leggott’s metaphors can be elusive. In this poem she is alluding (I think) to the American poet Richard Wilbur’s ‘Love Calls Us to the Things of this World’, but when Wilbur sees angels in the laundry on the clotheline, he also sees the laundry:
The morning air is all awash with angels.
Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
(from ‘Love Calls Us to the Things of this World’)
Leggott’s angels may be flags; but these flags may themselves be metaphor (windmills? windsocks?). The opacity of the referent throws us back to ‘beyond compare’: language doesn’t translate easily, here, into things, nor things into language. And where the enjambments push us on beyond the constraint of the line-breaks, those spaces within the lines make us pause, giving each phrase, each detail of an image, if not clarity, a considered weight. Leggott’s spaces, like Emily Dickinson’s famous dashes, make us ponder parts, fragments, before we see wholes: what is momentary and passing is distilled, held. Anyone who has heard Michele Leggott recite her poems will have noticed how she uses silence to concentrate attention on the image: it’s as if she has dropped a stone into still water and waited for the ripples to recede before dropping another, and the typographical arrangement on the page reflects this. Such frequent and concentrated emphasis has a flattening effect on tone (as it does in Dickinson), and risks portentousness, but it can also be very beautiful (a word Leggott isn’t shy of using). These spaces also convey a sense of lacunae, of other things the poem might say, other ways of saying.
The subjects of Leggott’s poems – the enjoyment of good food (especially kai moana), the beauties of landscape, the pleasures of literature, of companionship and family – are the territory of the contemplative ode, and would not be unfamiliar to Horace (or to Wedde). Some of these pleasures are retrospective, recalled from long-ago family excursions, and the somewhat elegiac cast of such poems segues into elegies on various losses. Many poems record or allude to the speaker’s lost sense of sight, with motifs of light and gathering dark. She finds solace in her other senses: ‘I cannot see/ but my ears are open’ (from ‘listening’). Other poems memorialise the distant past of her familial and literary tīpuna.
The collection’s most engaging poem, ‘the longest night’, brings many of these strands together in a way that is sly, playful, warm and also immensely sad. Beginning with a dig at John Donne’s abundant, knotted punctuation in his poem, ‘A Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day’ (Leggott herself, of course, uses no punctuation at all), ‘the longest night’ soon takes a (literally) darker turn. St Lucy’s Day falls in the middle of the European winter (‘the very darkest night the black night the long night’), and she is the patron saint of blind people. But the poem also turns to the light: it notes how ‘Lucy’ shares the same etymology as ‘lucent’ and ‘lucid’; that she is the ‘bright star’ (perhaps an allusion to Keats). Leggott rejects Donne’s melancholy: ‘if only John Donne would turn a little from his black fugue/ and consider some of the other stories in the sky’. ‘Consider’ is etymologically the perfect word choice here, from the Latin considerare, to observe the stars.
The poem then does exactly that, looking to our Southern Hemisphere constellations, to stories from Aotearoa writers David Eggleton and Bradford Haami related to our own indigenous midwinter festival, Matariki, and to the seasonal arrival of whitebait in our rivers and streams:
Puanga in the east at first light
Rehua in the west their child is the white-flowering
Puawānanga whose child is Īnanga so get out the frypan
and plenty of butter when the long vigil is done
the warm kitchen the steaming mugs of tea these too
are part of the navigation we make through darkness
towards the breaking light of day
(from ‘the longest night’)
Leggott begins her poem with the darkest, longest night of the year, but finishes with sustenance, plenitude and the coming of dawn, and closes with an image that is at once terrifying and hospitable: ‘from the abyss we come/ through doorways that remain forever open’.
The poem is a corrective to Donne’s elegy of grief and mourning, but it achieves this by embracing Donne’s darkness within the context of a greater, more optimistic whole. These poems, which are so much concerned with darkness, are thus notable for their warmth. This is occasionally the warmth of nostalgia (along with whitebait fritters, there are crayfish in the chillybin, jelly crystal packets and a Rinso box) and the warmth of sentiment (dying dogs get elegies, too). But Leggott’s poetry is the kind that welcomes things in rather than keeps things out: in the heartland, feeling, in all its sensuous variety, is first.
TIM UPPERTON’s poems have appeared in a number of anthologies, including The Best of Best New Zealand Poems (VUP), Villanelles (Everyman), and Obsession: Sestinas in the twenty-first century (Dartmouth University Press). He won the Bronwyn Tate Memorial International Poetry Competition in 2011 and the Caselberg Trust International Poetry Competition in 2012 and 2013. His second collection of poems, The Night We Ate the Baby, was published by Haunui Press in August 2014.