Body, Remember by Wes Lee (Lorgnette Series, Eyewear Publishing, 2017) 34 pp., $23.32; Anchor Stone by Tony Beyer (Cold Hub Press, 2017) 165 pp., $39.99; The Trials of Minnie Dean: A verse biography by Karen Zelas (Submarine, Mākaro Press, 2017), 210 pp., $25
In Body Remember (a pamphlet of 20 poems), Wellington-based poet and short story writer Wes Lee explores the body: what it knows but does not speak of, what it draws a veil over, what it chooses to forget. In the opening poem, ‘Body, did you know’, the body is interrogated as if witness to a crime: ‘Lung were you aware, heart did you witness, throat were you looking through the screen door …’ It’s as if the body is complicit and has failed to protect itself from abuse. Neither the abuse nor the abuser are named. In ‘The players are dead’ it becomes a little more obvious. The perp (perpetrator?) is dead but he comes back at night to the adult persona, who tells herself, ‘the players are dead, / how dead they are, / doorknob dead, /dead / dead / dead / as a doornail’. Someone is listening through the wall, hearing sounds of a struggle. Doing nothing. That someone is now dead too. But the speaker in the poem cannot form a word when the perpetrator returns. She blames the body for playing dead, for not crying out. Now adult, it doesn’t take much to set her screaming. Some lines remind me of Sylvia Plath: ‘If you were an Action Man I would have bent your legs; stared at your raised scar just beneath your plastic cheek. I would have put you back in your box.’ In comparison to Plath, Lee’s lines are less histrionic, less accusatory, and thus have the effect of drawing the reader into the world of the child whose body has betrayed her.
The speaker moves on and into other lives, house-sitting perhaps for someone who has a lot of books. She forgets sometimes that she doesn’t own things: ‘It takes money to ferry them around’ and ‘These are not my walls. I have never owned a wall.’ It’s a great reminder to be thankful for your own books, your own walls. Lesser poets might howl with bitterness, for there seems much to be bitter about, but I cannot detect any trace of self-pity in these poems: pain, understandably, but no blame. The reader can enter into the world of the child who is not able to protect herself, and feel for the adult who still wakes in terror. These poems are quiet, controlled and sparse, with an accurate ear for rhythm. It is a satisfyingly cohesive collection, each poem adding something to the previous and the next. I found them intense, strong and immensely powerful and am not surprised Wes Lee has been a frequent winner of poetry and short story contests.
‘You have to be attentive / to gather up minutes or words / and see that they work,’ says Tony Beyer in his poem ‘The yellow house’. These lines serve as summary for this entire collection, Anchor Stone, which explores small declining towns and abandoned houses, giving them due attention and dignity. The poet is never an intrusive presence in these poems; rather he is a quiet observer, running his hands over cuts and nicks made a century ago in the clockmaker’s bench. He makes no big claims for how this feels, but allows the reader to inhabit the same space, to imagine it. The present-day tūī is a descendant of the clockmaker’s companion, ‘their clucks / and chimes / swallowed by time / but in this / time called now / unaltered’. Trees grow taller, of course, but the past is not a foreign country; there is still a deep connection and blunt anger over what we have done: ‘in the creeks you can see how much / we’ve buggered the country / small waterfalls curdle the rocks / with unnatural froth’.
The generous collection (165 pages) is divided into four sections. The first revisits artists and poets, Pākehā and Māori iconic places, Baxter’s Jerusalem and Rātana, and doesn’t forget the women, such as Dallas in ‘The pine hut’. One tiny quibble: some of the poems are untitled and occasionally appear to follow on from the previous one. Some clearer signposts would have helped.
The ‘Aratoi’ section was written during the author’s tenure at New Pacific Studio near Mount Bruce in 2011. ‘Waiting and watching / for nothing to change, he says’. But this is not to say Beyer is stuck in the past. His poems express the best kind of nostalgia, looking back with clear, unsentimental eyes, and also taking note of modern-day distractions in a virtual bubble wrap app or game, ‘consolation for the passage of time’.
In ‘Paths’, a long poem of mainly couplets (a hundred-poem poem) he gives due thanks: ‘you took me in … to what would enable / the making I have / made it my life to be for’. This neatly summarises this collection, a lifetime’s attention to craft and what it means to live in this land as a Pākehā who has learnt from Māori. There is never a word out of place, a line too long or too short. The last poem, ‘One-lane bridge’, perhaps expresses regret that the Marokopa Falls the poet visits are not enough ‘to rinse this isolation from the blood / the national temperament’. The irony is that in expressing this deep-felt isolation, the poet is also reaching out, making connections. ‘To make poetry / easy as breathing / is that difficult’, Beyer writes. That fact that he leaves out the question mark shows a micro attention to detail. He’s both asking and asserting, sending a message to readers to take him as seriously as he takes the crafting of poems. Anchor Stone is short-listed for the 2018 Ockham Books Awards, recognition long overdue for a body of work as easy and rewarding to read as breathing.
Karen Zelas uses Lynley Hood’s biography Minnie Dean: Her life and crimes as the primary source for her verse biography on the baby farmer, the first and only woman to be hanged in New Zealand. What fresh insights and understanding can a verse biography add to what we already know?
Minnie Dean was used as a cautionary tale, particularly in Southland. Unruly children were threatened with being sent to Minnie Dean, even though she was long dead and everyone knew no flowers grew on her grave. The Trials of Minnie Dean begins with a first page of rumours and threats scattered across the page like a concrete poem, and then Minnie gives her defence: ‘I care / for bairns.’ She sees herself as the cherisher of children unwanted by their mothers, and relishes the respectability the children bring her. She is, we are told, a woman of contradictions from a secretive background, known to lie when threatened and with a penchant for travelling on first-class trains despite her poverty. But a baby murderer? With a bankrupt husband and deep in debt, Minnie turns to adopting children for money, but when some children die (as was common at the time), she is besieged by police and the press.
Zelas chooses to tell Minnie’s story with a wide variety of voices: Minnie, the defence lawyer, the policeman, witnesses, even the infamous hat box where Minnie hid the baby who died on a train from a laudanum overdose. (Hatboxes became known as ‘Minnie Deans’ and subsequently went out of fashion.) These imaginative voices bring the story to life, and give a contemporary perspective to a time when being an unmarried mother brought shame and ruin to many. One letter to the paper says, ‘it would be far better / for the country if there was state punishment / for the crime of illegitimacy of such a nature / that both sexes would remember it with fear / to the end of their lives.’ Missing from the story are the voices of the babies who died. That imaginative rendering of what we cannot know would have taken the story to a deeper level.
It is no small feat to condense a historical story like this, from the origins of Minnie’s life in Greenock, Scotland, a town beset with disease where infant mortality was familiar, to a Virtual Intertemporal Appeal Tribune in the 21st century where Zelas (retired psychiatrist and psychotherapist) interviews witnesses and takes the facts into account. The trickier part is to render the story in poetry. Some found poems – for instance the letter above, and a reduction of an editorial in the Southland Times from 24 June 1985 – don’t quite work. The lines are clunky: ‘for years this woman has been receiving / the offspring of moral guilt & when / all money that could be obtained / on their account was secured …’ However, they do record the sentiments of the time.
Verse biography or memoir has to negotiate between historical facts and imagination, between prose and poetry. It is not uncommon for reviewers to critique amalgams for being too prosy. In The Trials of Minnie Dean the story appears to be privileged over the language: that is, few lines are lyrical or quotable. But if one takes this book as a whole, it is easy to admire the economy and compression with which Zelas reveals Minnie Dean and her times. Mākaro Press is to be congratulated for the beautiful book design and the terrific typesetting, which add a further perspective.
DIANE BROWN runs Creative Writing Dunedin. She is the author of Before The Divorce We Go to Disneyland, Learning to Lie Together, If the Tongue Fits, Eight Stages of Grace, Liars and Lovers, Here Comes Another Vital Moment and Taking My Mother to the Opera.