Lost and Somewhere Else by Jenny Bornholdt (Victoria University Press, 2019), 80pp, $25; Moth Hour by Anne Kennedy (Auckland University Press, 2019), 104pp, $25; The Grief Almanac: A sequel by Vana Manasiadis (Seraph Press, 2019), 110pp, $30
I love to read poets who circle certain material and go deeper in with each new book. I remember feeling this sense of archaeological pleasure when I read Jenny Bornholdt’s wonderful The Rocky Shore, and I feel it again now, reading Lost and Somewhere Else. The book weaves in preoccupations we have met before in her work, including reflections on family and friends, gardens and clothes. The clothes on the line in the opening poem all have a story attached to them, including ‘The shirt / he wore to talk about / paintings.’ I enjoy how the world of art and work and the world of our private domestic selves, our vulnerable animal selves, are not separated from each other. It is a book about connections, and the striking cover design includes a mushroom – fungi being the great connector, the internet of the underground. Lost and Somewhere Else is also a book about the often-bewildering process of becoming ‘girl’ and about the process of unbecoming. It charts losses: children go out and ‘forget / to come home again’. Family members die: ‘Our middle age / is one long goodbye.’ The Earth is in peril, and just living (and especially flying) is dangerous. It puts the relationship between love and loss front and centre: ‘Now, nearing sixty, / this woman loves her husband/ferociously.’
Lost and Somewhere Else is also about poetry and its lineage and continuity, and where poetry might ‘fit’ or work for us in this age of uncertainty. How do we take solace from its traditions and continuity, while trying to find a language for what is happening now? Bornholdt’s poem ‘Old Prayer’ speaks back to Hone Tuwhare’s ‘Bird of Prayer’ but is a more prayer-like poem than its predecessor, even using biblical language: ‘Take us not up / the way you raise the sparrow / and the finch.’ Because who wants to be ‘raised’ this way, in a hawk’s claw? This hawk is also nearer than the hawk in Tuwhare’s poem, ‘languidly typing / a hunting poem / with its wings’. Both poems play with the chime between pray and prey, but Bornholdt’s poem suggests that nature is not the new divine, and that we are at risk from it. I’m at risk here myself of taking things a bit too seriously, because Bornholdt’s poems are often witty and they capture process; wary of resolution. But there are other poems in the collection that use biblical language, and I think they are also exploring the poetic tradition and wondering about poetry’s ancestry and its place in these times. ‘Hearken’ is a witty and dynamic example. Hearken is an instruction to listen – saints and prophets asked people to listen to their words this way. It may also ‘hark’ back to Beowulf, with its opening instruction to listen. It’s written with the Anglo Saxon two half lines, and is very funny as the poet attempts to ‘keep up’ with the weight and tradition of the form. Here’s an excerpt:
Hearken, this is my word.
My speech ends here. Hearken,
the hairs of my head
have become grey. That is all
I have to say. Hearken, the light
is great. Enough. I have finished.
And so on! It mixes humour with deep pain, ‘I have been made an orphan’. But it finishes with a proverb, that demotic common-sense form, and so the poet finds a way to end the poem and draw the line, without severing it:
The proverb says: Leaving the things
which are behind, I press forward
to those which are before. That is all
I have to say. Enough.
‘Flight’ is technically high-wire, and a terrific poem. It’s about a terrifying plane journey where the plane suddenly falls through the air and eventually lands, with just one engine running and not in the place where it was headed. This poem also uses biblical language, interweaving it into the lyrical musicality of the poem. The phrase ‘It came to pass’ is repeated through the poem. The repetitions are a kind of fulcrum upon which the rest of the poem moves from ordinary life to being pressed up against mortality and back to a (changed) ordinary again. Death has swept in mighty close, with beauty at its heels. The poem finishes with these lines:
Being out of danger
it came to pass
that we broke the chain of hands
that held us, though not the chain
of thoughts – that held.
And held. And led us
to the tightly fenced park
where bodies lie, decomposing,
terrifying yet natural,
faces slurred into earth,
and to the deer who come
and delicately nuzzle bone.
Lost and Somewhere Else opens with the title poem, which begins with the words ‘Where do I stand?’ All through the book fresh vantage points are explored. Some of the poems were written in the Ernst Plischke-designed Henderson House in Alexandra, Central Otago, and this made me remember picking up a book on Plischke in the Art and Music Library here in Edinburgh, and looking in rather homesick fashion at his gorgeous airy houses floating on Wellington hillsides. And how he said he was interested in ‘an architecture of views’ – which is what Bornholdt has made with this book.
Moth Hour is a series of poems and reflections about the death of Anne Kennedy’s brother, Philip, who fell down a bank at a party in Wellington and died. He was just 22 and Kennedy was 14. It is also about New Zealand, especially Wellington, in the early 70s; the counter-culture movement coming out of the austerity of the 50s; the abuses of the Catholic Church; and the strain of a large family on parental resources and energy. Like Jenny Bornholdt’s Lost and Somewhere Else, it is also about the restorative value of art generally, but poetry particularly.
It opens with a poem that Philip wrote called ‘The Theme’, which Kennedy carries through the book in fragments and images, within poems that contextualise, ask questions of, and try to make some sort of sense of his death. The poems bring to mind Denise Riley’s devastating 2016 poetry collection about the death of her son, Say Something Back. Of course, both poets know that poetry is a platform for voices, for speaking out and for speaking back, but that poems cannot bring the living voice to life. And yet they listen for it.
Moth Hour opens with a Foreword that tells us about Philip’s death on Guy Fawkes night. He was ‘a reader, a talker, an epileptic, a history-buff, an alcoholic, a political apologist with short fuse, and a poet’. We then read Philip’s poem, which opens with
Come catch me little child
and put me in a jar.
The ‘Thirty-Three Transformations on a Theme of Philip’ are a frame that comes from Beethoven’s Thirty-Three Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, which Kennedy listened to repeatedly after hearing about her brother’s death, while lying on her mother’s Persian rug, looking at and looking for patterns.
The poems use various forms, or variations of forms, including ballad, open form, haiku, sonnet (there are sonnets in the couplet style of Baxter’s Jerusalem Sonnets), big, rangy long lines reminiscent of Whitman or Ginsberg, nursery rhymes, songs and more. Within the different forms gather lines and words from poets and other authors her brother read, along with fragments of songs and even anti-war chants. Here’s a small poem that interweaves an anti-Vietnam war chant with the nursery rhyme ‘Solomon Grundy’ and the death of her brother. It is poem 29 of the 33:
party on a Monday
injured on a Tuesday
we don’t want your
died on a Wednesday
buried on a Friday
that was the end of
Versions of ‘Hell no we won’t go’, another anti-war chant, haunt some of the angriest poems in the book, which look at how the idealistic counter-culture activists of the 70s are among those who have delivered to New Zealand youth these dire days. In these wide-rangy lines, in the style of Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’, she writes:
They have taken the feeling of grass and divided it among the bars of gates and they are
going, Hell yes!
They have taken put me in a jar and they are running off with the jar.
They have taken Put Me in the Zoo and they are running off with the zoo.
They are the greatest egos of my generation and they are going,
The thing about these ‘Transformations’ is that we sometimes feel the difficulty of the work they are doing. The poems are trying out, thinking through, turning over and over. It is labour. With an end point that seems to dissolve. And I think this is the point. Beethoven’s ‘variations’ may have been more doable than these ‘transformations’. And in the ‘Afterword’ they become ‘variations’: ‘I am singing him away with thirty-three variations.’
The long poem after the ‘Transformations’ is called ‘The Thé’. It feels lighter to me, more resolved, though no less sad. There are some gorgeous metaphors-by-proximity in this wide, layered poem: ‘The young men wear velvet jackets // The old trees are bedded in moss’. The past and the present seem more comfortable together. I don’t think this is just me wishing for it. And is there any snapshot more true of Wellington than this: ‘The flatmates’ coats go down the zigzag. / They send their thoughts into their pockets.’
At the end of the book, ‘Pattern/Chaos: An afterword’ is a reflection on the ‘Transformations’. It talks about what tragic loss does to a family and how patterns are lost. What Kennedy hopes for in looking back at Philip, at his ‘Come catch me little child’ poem, is ‘to open up to the imagination and remind us of something we need more than ever: hopefulness’. This isn’t an easy book, but it is an important one. It’s a book of this moment, a book to return to.
The Grief Almanac: A sequel is Manasiadis’ second poetry collection. Like Kennedy and Bornholdt’s books, it has loss and grief at its centre. The Grief Almanac brings griefs immemorial – the preserved victims of the burial of Pompeii for example – into conversation with griefs contemporary, especially Manasiadis’ own attempt to ‘find’ her mother after her death. She collapses times, ages and mythologies together in effective, revealing ways. She draws on art from old and contemporary Europe, especially Greece, and from New Zealand. As a Greek and a New Zealander, Manasiadis uses both the Greek and English language in the work, sometimes interweaving them together in a poem. Like Kennedy’s Moth Hour, emigration sits at the back of the family story.
Manasiadis’ interest in form is clear from the start. From the cover with its labyrinth-like painting by Christchurch artist Marian Maguire, to the poems (that range in form from found, to prose, to ekphrastic), to the interweave of poem, memoir, essay and letter, to the layout on the page – form is considered and dynamic. There are several sequences of poems and the first, ‘Strata of Invincible Bodies’, uses the opened spread of the two pages to build a relationship between the more narrative style on the left-hand page, which always has a line underneath it, to the found poems on the right-hand page, where spaces and drift are part of the texture. If you close the book, neither of the facing poems would touch.
‘Strata of Invincible Bodies’ consists of pieces about flatting in Aro Valley, and the found poems are comprised of fragments from such documents as the write-up on an Aro Valley AGM, a piece on anarchy on Wellington’s streets from Fairfax News, and the ghostly reputation of the art school in The Wellingtonian. Reading this part of the collection felt like exploring those layers of wallpaper in old, unrenovated houses in places like Aro Valley. The layers come away to show what’s underneath: sometimes different patterns and colours, particular fashions, sometimes parts of old newspapers, sometimes scrim and the bones of the house.
In another sequence, ‘I’ve Never Seen an Ugly Bridge: A romance’, found poems made from letters and poems by Marilyn Monroe suggest the unattainable ideal for women of a certain era, while also building the story of an immigrant woman struggling to make a life. In the sequence ‘Catalogue of 40 Days’, the poem ‘I Would Rather Lose a Good Earring Than be Caught Without Make-up’ is comprised of quotes by celebrities such as Rita Hayworth, Sophia Loren and Bette Davis, and begins, ‘A woman’s dress should be like a barbed-wire fence’. From the ‘Recommended Reading’ sequence, there is the difficulty of getting anywhere easily because of the family’s (perhaps especially the mother’s) ‘ritual’ preparations:
So run run run run in heels and hard-soled buckled shoes, and clutch your materials,
your coats and fabric shopping bags, and look out for Mamá’s handbag slipping off
her shoulder and for your headband slipping down over your face.
I can imagine that maybe parts of Greece, and parts of Wellington – the South Coast say – have similarities. Are equally washed in salt and maybe wind, and have ugliness and beauty side by side; and people wander in these places having recently lost their mother. I like very much how we see one thing in the light of another in this book. The poem ‘Study, of Spaces and of Filling Them’ with its two parts, shows us the howl of mourning:
At Odlin’s the timber’s been turned into pixels The wind-tunnel effect
means draughts the size of noise get sucked between two walls
This is the inside The muscle that joins the jaw to the cheek
The pterygoid stretch of long vowels: mourn, my’o-car’di-um
The Grief Almanac: A sequel is a highly textured work that captures a complex relationship and the consequent complex grief. What it left me with more than anything is that this, like Bornholdt’s book, is about connectedness. I felt pressed up against the idea of all things being connected (an important and meaningful idea) and the difficulty of it (I want to understand all the different parts, and I don’t). There were parts that felt a little too dense, but this book is doing a big job, and doing it quite brilliantly.
LYNN DAVIDSON is a New Zealand poet and writer living in Edinburgh. Her most recent collection of poetry, Islander, was published by Shearsman Books in the UK and Victoria University Press in New Zealand. Lynn had a Hawthornden Fellowship in 2013 and a Bothy Project Residency in 2016. She is a freelance writer and teaches creative writing.