Bird Collector by Alison Glenny (Compound Press, 2021), 88pp, $25; The Sea Walks into a Wall by Anne Kennedy (Auckland University Press, 2021), 94pp, $24.99; Sea-light by Dinah Hawken (Victoria University Press, 2021), 59pp, $25
The sea is thought to resonate with writers from islands. These three books engage with the ebb and flow of nature, social and environmental.
Bird Collector by Alison Glenny opens with a blank page. She allows the white of the page to welcome, ‘like / opening a drawer at random and finding snow’ (11). This is followed by the words of Emma Neale and Erik Kennedy, which frame the collection: Neale reads the ‘Victorian composer’ while Kennedy hears ‘a formidable antiquarian scholar’. Bird Collector is adorned with illustrations by Carrie Tiffany.
Fragmentation is at the heart of Glenny’s lyrics. In footnote 12 on page 19 she writes,
Because the mirror was broken, they would never be able to see
themselves as whole. Likewise with the poem, which was destined to
remain in fragments.
The poems swell to odes to the tradition and form of poetry, referencing the techniques of the Beats – notably Allen Ginsberg – in ‘Notes on the nocturne tradition’: ‘The belief that the action of the wrist was a form of respiration gave rise to experiments with breathlessness.’ I haven’t used the word subject or object yet as they are both tangential, sometimes disappearing: ‘For example, the disappearance of the subject, or the composer burying himself in a large white handkerchief’. The I of the poet, poem and speaker are buried in the white of the page. The white space in Glenny’s writing so often conjures a feeling of erasure. She writes into speech marks with no identifiable speaker. This collection warrants imagination, with genres bending to peer into the minutiae. Glenny queers the glossary, eroticising the domestic with the sensation of ‘chemise’, the madness of undergarments. There exists in the reading an erotic undertone like a chaste Victorian romance. We return to form to excise the blazon tradition:
The edges of the pages
singed, as if held too close to the blazon
Tradition is not referenced to objectify but to be remade. The blazon tradition here evokes engagement beyond objectification.
The object, evoked by its absence, was compared to a room. A
vase and a vast sea
The fourteenth line is left hanging, the sonnet incomplete: ‘Thirteen lines emphasised the emptiness of the room.’ In the lines, ‘Only / the footnotes were rescued from the lake’ (31), I am reminded of Margaret Atwood’s poem, ‘This is a photograph of me’, from her collection The Circle Game:
The photograph was taken
the day after I drowned.
There is a similarity in this rescue and drowning, in the constant questioning ‘between use and exchange’. Glenny ponders the existence of the poet—‘in the end it hardly mattered whether the poet was awake or sleeping’—as the poem ‘is regarded as a symbol of the poet’s desire to be emulated’.
This collection fascinates with its absence, vastness and space. I try to read out load the open square brackets, imagining the white space in performance. Form lies inside form, a definition poem inside a footnote. I found the last poem, ‘Nights with’, the most revealing: ‘pure / wanting-to- / say’. The poem shatters the collection to an ending on a line, breaking down the page to tear the reader’s heart open:
When I realised I could ever make
us whole, I tore the catalogues into tiny
pieces and burned them.
Each consonant incandescent
Where Glenny’s collection is framed by the opening introductions of other poets, Anne Kennedy’s collection The Sea Walks into a Wall is framed by a quote from J.C. Sturm’s poem, ‘Untitled’. I read this as Kennedy positioning herself in relation to New Zealand poetry; she received the Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry in November. Reminiscent of Elizabeth Bishop, Kennedy reveals herself in between punctuation as she speaks directly to the reader: ‘In the clammy cabin—think clotheslines of blotters—’ (9). I hear Bishop again in ‘Light on in the garden’:
Will you listen
to where the notes fall on the petrol station forecourt after rain?
I have heard
the grass singing in the ebullient minds of the controlling officers.
In the conversational association with the reader I am reminded of Jenny Bornholdt. A casual tone has oft been denounced as unformulaic. What’s wrong with expressing the reality of conversation lyrically? Is poetry not allowed a casual affair? In ‘Two waters’, every moment feels instantaneous, immediate. In ‘Three scholars at the picnic one day’, Kennedy ends the poem on the lines:
I will look away, I’ll look, reader, at you
hoping you’ll interpret my pleading expression,
take off your clothes and drop then one by one
on the grass as you come over
to rescue me.
Kennedy explores the vulnerability of nakedness even though the speaker refuses the physical act; she undresses in words. Many poems flirt with institutional degradation and institutional critique: ‘This is called destroying the community.’ Ecological grief is another dominant worry of the collection. I feel it the most in ‘What fell’, when the poet writes: ‘they call Fall. Nothing fell’.
I wonder throughout about code-switching, about the intention: ‘I will be quoting substantially / from the harakeke’. Here, too—as with Glenny—we can see the poet’s intent around form. Sentences collide to form perfect lines ‘lace on acid / everyone cool with? / silence and beauty’.
Kennedy is of the feminist canon of women’s poetry; in the collection there exists her underlying exploration of feminism. The importance of archiving intergenerational feminist knowledge is written in ‘Sea wall canticle’: ‘Who will tell the history of her voice / now it is sung? I will. I will’. In the third section of Kennedy’s collection, I gasped breathless to the end, and in my heart ‘Ever after there was a stain’ (88).
Dinah Hawken’s new collection Sea-light pursues a central purpose, and is framed by a quote from Rebecca Solnit to signal the ecological considerations at the heart of the book. Like Kennedy, Hawken sometimes addresses the reader directly. There are jolting moments of address. Prosaic conventions poke poetry: ‘I know, I thought, she’s a drama student’. Both Kennedy and Hawken are troubled by the likely difficulty of travel in the future, questioning their acceptance of place: ‘All flights are over. / You’ll have to live / closer to the bone’.
The poetry oozes New Zealand women’s literature. In Hawken’s lines I hear Rhian Gallagher (‘My sister was in pieces. / She was at our disposal); Liz Breslin (‘No guns. / There are no guns. / No missiles. / No bombs. / No drones); Alison Glenny (‘The obedient are cowered / by the open mind—of snow’); and Majella Cullinane (‘The sea is coming in like friendship’). Hawken uses internal rhyme and repetition as she investigates the inner workings of the self: ‘Self is a soft word, like loft and lift / it is best seen in a soft light’. She delves into death: ‘I believe in pass / and I believe in away’. Here, we see how Hawken puts simple language to exceptional use. She takes poetry about ageing to a higher plateau: ‘I carry my declining body and loose mind / into the snow’.
Hawken writes five poems titled ‘The sea’. I read the whole collection first in sequence, then I read these five poems in the order in which they appear in the book. In sequence, the sea ‘is coming’, ‘full’, ‘deep breathing’, ‘out of a haze’, ‘putting on a tremendous show’. The different excursions to the sea illuminate the changing landscape of a life lived on the coast and pay homage to Hawken’s home, Paekākāriki. To live on the coast is to live with the ever-present reminder of erosion, of landscape and life.
The notes and acknowledgements are impersonal; the poet seems to give nothing away. But this slight collection warrants re-reads to perhaps find the poet ‘hovering / in the eloquence of silence’. Sea-light leaves a whisper in my ear, ‘the quiet word we’ve had together’.
All three titles have been longlisted for this year’s Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry in the Ockham NZ Book Awards. Following the announcement, I thought again about the collections, and here is why I believe they were chosen: Glenny’s second collection proves a continuity of practice in poetic form—in particular, erasure and footnotes. Her Gothic aesthetic appeals to the anachronistic turn in contemporary culture, where the nostalgia market is booming. Anne Kennedy’s collection examines the institutions of New Zealand culture with a staunch feminist positioning. Kennedy is archiving feeling through examining current events. Dinah Hawken has an eye for the ordinary and approaches the subject of an ageing woman’s body with delicacy and intimacy. Her collection is quiet and short, and I mistakenly thought it may be overlooked. I adore brevity: quality over quantity. That’s why it works so well.
I was delighted to see each of these collections receiving well-earned attention on this year’s Ockham long-list.
EMER LYONS is a lesbian writer from West Cork living in New Zealand. She is the postdoctoral fellow in Irish Studies at the Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies. Most recently, her writing can be found at The Pantograph Punch, Newsroom, Queer Love: An anthology of Irish fiction, Landfall and The Stinging Fly.