Mr Clean and the Junkie, by Jennifer Compton (Hoopla/Mākaro Press, 2014) 80 pp., $25; Bullet Hole Riddle, by Miriam Barr (Steele Roberts, 2014), 64 pp., $19.99; Real Fake White Dirt, by Jess Holly Bates (Anahera, 2014), 45 pp., $24.99
Discussed here are three new collections by three very different women poets born in Aoteroa/New Zealand. All are connected to the performative side of poetry: Jennifer Compton is a playwright as well as a poet; Miriam Barr creates poetic works to be sung; Jess Holly Bates has been on the festival circuit with her spoken word work.
Jennifer Compton’s Mr Clean and the Junkie declares itself from the start: a film script, written in verse, with an omniscient authorial voice commenting as director. One wonders whether or not poetry is the best medium to express this story, until one reads a couplet like this:
The Shadow peels off from the fruit bat redolence
in the deep green shade of his Moreton Bay fig (p. 14)
This is gorgeous, evocative and musical. Or this:
An out-of-focus woman argues
because she doesn’t want to wear the rules (p. 23)
The book is dense with cinematic references.
The consistent form of the short couplets slows things down, giving the reader breathing space to fully enjoy each morsel of the narrative. It also looks good on the page, with abundant white space, making it easy on the eye. As the story progresses, one is reminded of the style of the late, great Aussie poet Dorothy Porter, with her hard-boiled, pithy, noir detective poetry. This reader was sucked into – not initially, but after a dozen pages – Compton’s world. The poet employs the nomenclature of cinematography – jump-cut, fade, zoom, crane-shot, establishing shot – to firmly realise a filmic series of visual images.
Compton shows us her imaginative workings in asides as ‘I’, the director. ‘The “I” is always a dramatic “I”’, as Adrienne Rich once wrote. Here, Jennifer Compton’s ‘I’ is ‘poet as director/script-writer’. The suggested 1970s musical pieces for the sound track are cleverly embedded by this ‘I’ voice as, for example, in the use of the Baker Street alto-sax solo (p. 41). This directorial ‘I’ even, at one stage, debates a choice of four plot points, implicitly inviting the reader to help choose, as in a pick-your-own-ending adventure story. There is some subtle and effective literary allusion to Macbeth and Oedipus Rex (‘The sticking point’, p. 46, and ‘Oedipal’, p. 72). On page 47 is possibly the first-ever poetic use of ‘Wastemaster’ as a verb.
There is a wonderful turn when Justine from Sydney reveals her past as Janet from Wainuiomata (p. 59):
… All this –
she indicates herself from top to toe –
is just an an act …
Subtle changes in patois from Australian to New Zealand slang indicate the trans-Tasman shift, such as the Kiwi use of the word trews for trousers (p. 60).
There is some transcendent poetry in this collection:
Underneath her black, her bird-like bones
his hand burns (p. 38)
The patina of the green leaf,
the earth beneath (p. 63)
The word redolence is used twice, causing this reader first to wonder if it was an oversight, but then to realise that Compton knows exactly what she is doing, and that the fruit bat at the start was meant to chime with the horses at Warwick Farm near the end. Jennifer Compton is an accomplished poet at the height of her powers, pushing the boundaries of what poetry can do.
The most remarkable thing about Miriam Barr’s Bullet Hole Riddle is its construction as a collection. There are three distinct sections entitled Bullet, Hole and Riddle, concerning themselves with childhood experiences, adolescent sequelae and adult resolution/redemption. The artwork marking each section (Andrew Blythe’s acrylic on paper work with Xs, Os and the word NO) is the same piece, magnified differently to provide variant perspectives of observation, mimicking the perspective of the collection. The cover art – a red suede lace sculpture by Elke Finkenauer – suggests holes, piercing and transparency. Everything works together seamlessly. Clearly there are themes of childhood sexual abuse, the ramifications of that and the recovery from it. Sadly, very many readers can relate to this personally. At times the profoundly personal nature of these poems can make them difficult to read.
The first section, Bullet, is set in childhood and contains the poem ‘Bullet hole riddle’ (p. 16), which employs the metaphor of shooting for exploitative sexual activity. There is no doubt that consent is an issue raised here. The poem makes something beautiful out of something unspeakably ugly. It contains these poignant lines:
knowing something, this time
of marks that do not leave marks
There is here also the theme of detachment, which persists through the entire work:
I looked over his
rise and fall shoulders
which the poet later names in ‘Self-soothing’ (p. 32):
I have the art of dissociation
The second adolescent section, titled Hole, conjures hiding, the pursuit of safety, caves. In the world that Barr creates, the woman is hole/entrance/hiding place. The fox is a fitting spirit animal for this section: clever, sly, wild. ‘Fox’ (p. 20) is a deletion poem, redacted from ‘The fox’ by the wonderful poet Bernadette Hall. ‘An art piece in mixed media’ (p. 24) contains ‘worm’, ‘space’, and the idea of burrowing (the cave). The eyes and lips are closed and cannot see and speak here, implying the complexity of disclosure. The hole appears again in ‘Found lost’ (p. 34):
Open about dirt
angel my morning said
the hole will heal
The ultimate section, Riddle, has a maturity, a coming to understanding and some peace with self, body, loved ones, and how to be in the world. In ‘Waves’ (p. 37) the intimation of healing is welcome:
I am becoming a smooth pebble
a mellowed-smooth piece
of broken glass
made more myself
by each ocean-lip-grazing
moment’s contact with you
In ‘Cohabiting’ (p. 42), the poet describes learning to live with another and, in ‘The gist of it’ (p. 45), learning to live in community. ‘Staying here’ (p. 48) discusses learning to be alive in one’s body. Here the poet becomes philosophical, taking a larger picture view of life. Other poems in this section also take this broader view of the life-span, such as ‘Summers’ (p. 53). ‘Eight ways of looking at it’ – perhaps a reference to American poet Wallace Stevens’ ‘Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird, – seems to ponder the vast scope of human life, death, survival and burial.
In ‘Becoming’ (p. 58):
the body has become itself
against its own will
and in ‘Standing’ (p. 60):
The young woman
made scars on my wrists
she did not understand
the beauty of herself
I am that I am …
The final, alchemical couplet of the book is a perfect ending:
I have someone else’s dreams
sometimes we are painting our insides golden
This is a profound and difficult first collection from Miriam Barr, perfectly formed, containing maturity and redemption. The language is always concise and at times, lovely. This brutally honest work is devoid of self-pity: this is poetry of the healing of body, heart and spirit.
Jess Holly Bates’ book Real Fake White Dirt has a lot of performance poetry elements: the incantatory rhythm and the syncopated, hip-hop beat. It could be described as spoken word, written down. The style of the work is tangential. Allusions abound and one thought or sound leads associatively to the next, in the manner of automatic writing. Effective poetry often contains these leaps that we experience as if by magic. On page 18, the polar-bear grandfather leads to the Anzac biscuits, the learning of intervals, the television, SKY, the screen saver; one thing leads to another then an original one pops back up, as in a classical music composition. This work is musical, in that way.
My poppa is one such polar bear
stuck on an ice floe
melted from the mainland
and white and weird
he doesn’t wave
he’s busy being confused
but I’m busy learning intervals
me and don’t
feed biscuits to the Anzacs
I take in this holiday
like a biscuit
picking out oats from between my teeth …
Then there are the sonic leaps as opposed to the thought leaps, for example the riff in ‘The K sound’ (p. 12):
Karanga mai to Karanga-
all you need is the K
phrase to road kill
stories run flat by the speeding kiwi
Young readers may like this work for its iconoclastic nature, its feistiness; more mature readers may not, for the same reasons. Māori readers may be offended by the mangling of te reo. It could be argued that the key line in the work is this:
we were not invited (p. 32)
The poet expresses her anger, her internalised white colonising guilt. She questions everything in her multi-cultural world and attempts to define a new one. There is an underlying grief for the lack of a culture for white Kiwis to call their own. One feels the sense of loss for a culture to claim and stick to, which manifests itself as the ridiculing of all other cultures.
There is a long tradition in English-language poetry of satirical writing of the Pope and Swift variety, wherein societal mores and types are pilloried and skewered. The poet’s section about Miranda, Geoff, Tim and Jennifer is of this variety. Jess Holly Bates uses a heavy hand here with the comical end-rhymes, which some may enjoy:
miranda von stooth
who works with underprivileged youth
growing organic potatoes
Real Fake White Dirt is slam poetry, written down: amusing, sing-song, syllabic, end-rhyming and angry. There will be people who will enjoy it. It reads as real and genuine, and speaks to a generation of people not traditionally included in the canon and world of the contemporary English-language written works of Aotearoa.
NATASHA DENNERSTEIN, originally from Melbourne, is a creative writing Masters graduate from Victoria University of Wellington, and is currently an MFA candidate in poetry at San Francisco State University. Her collection of poetry Anatomize is forthcoming from Norfolk Press in San Francisco this year.
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