Aspiring Daybook: The diary of Elsie Winslow by Annabel Wilson (Submarine/Mākaro, 2018) 128 pp., $25; Are Friends Electric? by Helen Heath (Victoria University Press, 2018), 90 pp., $25; Winter Eyes by Harry Ricketts (Victoria University Press, 2018), 80 pp., $25; Work & Play by Owen Bullock (Canberra: Recent Work Press, 2017), 76 pp., AUD$12.95; Semi by Owen Bullock (Glebe: Puncher and Wattmann), 124 pp., AUD$25
Annabel Wilson’s Aspiring Daybook is a very good read. The narrative is a year in the life of (fictional) Elsie Winslow, brought back from Europe to Wānaka to take care of her dying brother. Wilson uses poems, emails, photos and one-liners to record this year: it plays out in the turn of the seasons in surrounding mountains and lakes as well as in human lives, not just of her brother but also of a glaciologist who ‘had no time to get his ice axe in when he slipped’ (p122). The book’s excellent layout helps move the plot along, using a variety of formats to reflect different topics as they develop.
Death and dying are the focus, amidst all the beautiful scenery and recollections of the past. We read emails back and forth from the oncology doctor, we overhear late-night phone conversations calling us back to the hospital, we stagger through technical reports on gene mutations in lung cancer. The Winslow family aren’t passive: they reach out to understand, to find answers and, perhaps, a cure. The diary page ending March (p48) has two entries: a handwritten line that reads ‘The lake today: the grey of grief’ and, below it, a poem called ‘The end of the road’:
How to look at these mountains without feeling hemmed in?
Head for the coast. Drive till you can see the horizon.
Everybody knows there is no science to goodbye.
Helen Heath’s Are Friends Electric? begins with the finality of death. In the first section, objects of desire have already been reduced to things, the inanimate: inflatable dolls – Sechan, Louise, Virginia, Ginger and Kelly; the Eiffel Tower; the Fox girls; Strandbeests; Kismet. When the light is right they appear human for a moment or two, but that’s all.
In the second section the narrator looks further for relief. Things start out well: she conceives and bears her lover’s child thanks to miraculous advances in medical science. So why not, she thinks, take a step further and re-visit her lover himself through his DNA, his words, all the artefacts left behind when he died? With the intuitive hacker Meihui – lab technician cum spirit guide – she enters ‘In the lineage temple’ (p73):
The spirit tablet begins with an empty template. First we input as much data as possible, otherwise the end result will be disappointing. Compressed files are compatible – jpg, mp3, mp4 files are accepted. Archived text messages and storified Twitter feeds contribute to building realistic conversational dialogue. This is more than a multimedia chatbot; this is your husband. The more you talk to him, the smarter he’ll get.
But then, the dead end: ‘I didn’t say goodbye / but Meihui says there’s / no need – he’s not gone, he’s everywhere’ (p86). Heath’s hope for science to create life is an understandable leap of faith, just as is Wilson’s hope for science to postpone death. Both narrators bind themselves to the unknown, hoping that just this once … just this once …
In Winter Eyes, Harry Ricketts is bound to the past, feet firmly in place and guyropes attached. Some poems are dedicated to friends and events shared an indeterminate time ago. More noticeably, the text of many (most?) of the poems incorporates the weight of the past by dropping names: Wordsworth, Kipling, Venice 72, Dorian Gray, The Duchess of Malfi, Fitz-Greene Halleck, Ross MacDonald, not-meeting-Auden, Graham Greene.
The poems that are prepared to live entirely in the present are ones in which the poet is visiting his ailing, failing mother, for whom the past has dimmed:
My mother folds, refolds
the paper napkins she hoards
from the Home. Her smile is polite, …
… ‘Yesterday,’ she begins,
‘it was whurr-whurr-whurr.’ Stops.
‘It was,’ I say. ‘But today
it’s calm and bright.’ ‘Yes,’ she agrees,
whurr, whurr, whurr.’ (‘Picnic’, p26)
However, in ‘Song’ – which introduces the collection – we have a different look:
… the past is not soft at all;
it’s rough to the touch
sharp as broken glass. (p12)
Perhaps we can best survive the present if we blur – or whurr – the past? Or is feeling the rough edges a necessary part of being alive and alert?
All the poets here are playing with the boundaries of poetic form or language. Bullock, in both Semi and Work & Play, happily acknowledges his debt to semiotics (the subject of his doctoral thesis) and to the 2014 Codex Conference in Melbourne; this puts him streets ahead in the experimental structure stakes. He presents a tidy, blocked comment on his mother in Work & Play (p21):
You visited, as no-one else in the family had; played with the children, knitted toys and folded hankies into mice; let them into the caravan with the password ‘cup of tea’; … took me to relatives; knitted jerseys; washed me when I wet myself, yes, screamed, and gave birth to me.
He divides poetry sequences in Work & Play with a haibun, as well as providing an afterword with more detailed comment about his poetic intention. And in Semi, he gives us a 14-page series: ‘Redex’, ‘Redux’, ‘On the first arrangement of “Redex”’, ‘on the final arragement of “Redex”’. We fly in on the Spectre of the Brocken:
the plane shadowed
in a rainbow circle
in the cloud
coming into Melbourne … (p61)
We fly out with a wealth of variations in line and space:
blocking howlwards (p75)
In her collection, Wilson also plays with line edges and white space in ‘The darkest night’ (p103):
shaped crystals compromise
form a rupture layer
in hope of justifying [sic] chaos, but ends: ‘I dreamed it snowed and when I woke up it was true.’ She uses various forms: triolet, pantoum and haiku, for starters, and they add to the interest of the book. She acknowledges Baxter’s Jerusalem Daybook (1971) as an early inspiration, but her daybook is more three-dimensional, less of an administrative polemic.
All the authors looked at here make forays into different forms. Helen Heath writes wonderful found poems; one of the reasons she is so successful is her roaming back in time to pick up source material. The opening poem includes text from Plato’s Phaedrus (c. 370BC):
You. Poet. You’re hungry to be read
but your words just create forgetfulness.
This trust in the written strips memory
and selves. (p13)
Other found poems reference 1970, 1871, 1848, 1818, 1790 – all of these encourage the reader to picture an extra dimension. There is one poem identified as a remix, and (my favourite) ‘Greg and the bird’ was constructed using a randomiser: ‘The large electric that is you / is like the help that is you and / the mouth and the associated / kiss …’ I am guessing here that a randomiser – like any well-designed flow system – succeeds in proportion to the quality of the material fed into it; the words Heath uses are well chosen, resonant, and they get an unusually coherent result.
And there are limericks. Over the last few years, published limericks have been reclaiming their space in respectable (i.e. non-filthy) contexts; both Bullock and Ricketts include them. Ricketts, who has acknowledged poet Nick Ascroft’s earlier versions of the form, presents a page of ‘grief limericks’ about his former stepson: he repeats first and last lines, as Edward Lear did, which works well in closing them off and in side-stepping any expectation of a punch line. Bullock presents an even dozen: all scan well and we are left with the gift of a rhyme for ‘Galapagos’.
Like Wilson, Ricketts experiments with triolets. He also uses the tritina – a twentieth-century form like half a sestina (invented by American poet Marie Ponsot). In Ricketts’ version there is more variation in line length than in Ponsot’s, but both are equally fluent. Though Ricketts is the more conventional of the poets reviewed here, all make a point of going beyond everyday boundaries in their use of form and language. Each of them is well worth reading and re-reading to appreciate her/his unique way of speaking to us.
MARY CRESSWELL is a poet and reviewer who came to New Zealand in 1970 from Los Angeles. She is a retired natural history editor/copyeditor and lives on the Kāpiti Coast. Field Notes, a satiric miscellany, is her fifth book, and is published by Mākaro Press (Submarine Books). For further information, see www.bookcouncil.org.nz/Writers/Profiles/Cresswell,%20Mary