Make your two wishes, he said,
and I could have confessed each one:
your name, and what I wanted, still want
to have you choose to say: but then as good admit
I wished to be like water;
able to take whatever fractures it –
floodwrack, oar-thrust, fish leap,
the birds’ swift javelin stabs
as they hurtle down and pierce the skin –
and then as smoothly mend again,
as if the mind could be its own physician.
And what could be more intimate and more real in real-time than the experience that is a poem about death as it is a poem about life: eros and thanatos in conversation in On the death of a daughter – a lyric meditation by way of reflection on loss and grieving, here making a song of the hurt heart of sorrow, and taking consoling refuge in the natural world, which is redemptively alive and light-filled? Striking images retrieve from the dark the light that is always resident there, as in: ‘… he finds himself down at the river/[with] home-made lures/that dance as colour-drenched and flamboyant/as an opera diva’s earrings/…He goes because he has to,/
Because sometimes a twig floats by,
or a bird jags past
or a dragonfly balances
on thin air
And it’s worth quoting the remainder of the poem to catch the illumination in the music of thought that is discovered out of its own realisations:
Yet in this still room
we feel the river move on and on
as if there were comfort
or something pushing forward from its source,
light gleaming on its surface instant after instant,
each sudden vision – leaf, water-beetle, seed pod –
a match that is struck against a deep-running dark.
Whatever else the subject matter that seeks voice in this composition of ‘voices’ (the same voice with different pitches and tonal colours and nuanced registers), there are a number of love poems that are quite provocative for their slant on the stuff of the heart that knows more beyond the gymnastics of intellect (cf. Proposal above). Hound, a short lyric, traces through an emotionally charged conceit where
The heart’s a bitch.
it’s caught the scent of your coat hem,
the tang of leather and metal on your wrists,
the soft skin at your neck
where the blood cursor flashes.
leaving no clear sign –
but still the heart strains and whines
wants off the leash,
snout like a cool, black magnet
as if it would track you
bring you to the ground
stunned but unbloodied
the light on your face
And then the lyric love poem Fall: so light-filled and animated by images of ‘light talking to light’ – the light of eros, and the light that makes intimate all that it touches – it is, I think, quite exemplary of how the music of thought can claim poetry as its song. And exemplary in showing Emma Neale not only as a fine composer but as also a fully realised conductor. There is a fine sensibility at play here. The poem reaches a fullness of expression, particularly since there is also the resonance of the poem-behind-the poem, that is to say the mythopoetic story of that other Fall:
When it happened
was it just that I was standing
in the place where your light fell?
Your random, animal love
for the world:
birch trees, song-lilt, star-shot,
sea-sway, eyelash, gumnut,
sunbeams aflash off roofs on the far hills
or caught and lobbed as a window-opens
as if my body, mind, speech, too were spun glass:
a vessel, each, for something found equally
in the lakes, streams, passing crowd,
music score, spinning, scarlet leaf …
Day fades, Love fades. The mirror drains,
no longer throws its fiery signals,
light talking to light,
leaping, like a heart.
This is the kind of poetry that is always going to take risks with the subjective voice. The risks attendant on the realisation that the heart knows rightly when the head is too insistently busy with all silly else. This is a fine balance and needs scrupulous attention. She gets it tonally right and image-right time and again. There are few distractions that get in the way of hearing the authenticity of the voice. We are not reading a posture of ‘style’ here, but a voice as it were unearthing various truths through poems of discovery in The Truth Garden.
MICHAEL HARLOW lives and works in Alexandra, Central Otago. He is a poet, editor and translator, and a former poetry editor of Landfall. His most recent collections include Cassandra’s Daughter (2005) and The Tram Conductor’s Blue Cap (2009), a finalist in the National Book Awards, both published by Auckland University Press.