New York Pocket Book by Paula Green (Seraph Press, 2016), 80 pp., $25; Maukatere: Floating mountain by Bernadette Hall (Seraph Press, 2016), 32 pp., $25
Paula Green and Bernadette Hall are household names for poetry-loving New Zealanders. Both poets have been published, lauded and anthologised more times than I have room to elaborate on here, and both have, I suspect, a loyal and steadfast fan-base. And these two new books will both please regular readers and encourage new followers.
Green’s New York Pocket Book takes the reader on a journey: from Manhattan’s Lower East Side to a Brooklyn diner; from the New York School to the New York Public Library; from the Statue of Liberty to Ellis Island. And to travel to and from these reference-rich sites, Green uses poetry as her guide, both geographically and metaphorically.
For the most part, we follow ‘Josephine’, the maybe-alter ego of Green, as she traverses the great city. At first, Josephine ‘finds it hard to read a new city’, but before long she’s dropping ‘into the shoes of John Ashbery’, wearing the ‘cardigan of Alice Notley’. Josephine listens to Frank O’Hara, Robert Hass (on abstraction), Allen Ginsberg (on breathing); she waits in queues, eats pizza, goes to see Billy Elliot, encounters a street protest and, at times overwhelmed by it all, she ‘goes back to her hotel room and sleeps’:
Josephine stretches out into the heat on the hard
foldout bed with the air-conditioning unit
fraying the New York horns and above her
on the white wall five women tip grain
into baskets from aloft …
(from ‘Josephine goes back to her hotel room and sleeps’)
This poem would be uninteresting if it weren’t for the third dimension it gives our Josephine. Among all the nostalgia and strange familiarity of the places that she encounters, there lies a fully-fledged persona who struggles with the bewildering nature of this living, breathing city. Poems like ‘Josephine doesn’t always find refuge in what she reads’, ‘Statue of Liberty’, and ‘Josephine visits Ellis Island and is moved to tears’ are all excellent examples of the humanity present in the collection. From ‘Statue of Liberty’:
She pauses and lets her imagination go
because she is standing under the Statue of Liberty
next to a leaf that flutters.
There, the little leaf is on the boy’s shoe.
He doesn’t move an inch, even when his
mother calls and calls. ‘Dance little leaf
dance,’ he whispers.
There is both eeriness and airiness to this and some of the other poems in the book. Green seems to relish in the minutiae, like the leaf on the boy’s shoe. And yet the poet is just as comfortable gazing down at the leaf as she is in panning back and looking up. From ‘The Manhattan sky’:
She looks up at the Manhattan sky because everybody
else looks up from the street corner and falls
into a brainteaser, not into the spindly
blue and the drifting clouds …
It’s hard to read that and not be flung back to 2001. The next part of the poem mentions a plane ‘writing LOST’ across the sky. But the political is not overt here, and Green instead harnesses a pastoral and singular perspective that is refreshing, but probably only really available to us with fifteen years of hindsight (although somewhat soured by news of the new President-elect).
Form is varied throughout the book. Green uses the lyric generously, but there is also a villanelle (‘Josephine disappears into the crowd’), a pantoum (‘New York autumn’) – neither of which fully utilise the form – and some striking typographical experiments. Of the latter, one that stands out is ‘Josephine meets a wave of protest’, which is both graphically and thematically interesting. Here, Green uses some techniques of sound poetry to emphasise the auditory experience of the protest:
before a revOlution can start in the street it has tO happen in the mind
with drummers pOunding nOnstOp beats and the pipers piping the
ghOstly flower children pOwer to the village of protest …
Sadly, the technique isn’t consistent throughout the poem (a handful of ‘O’s are missed) but the effect is successful as it is.
There is an element of cultural cringe that slightly jarred with me on first reading this book – the innocent Kiwi lass on her big cultural and metropolitan excursion – but that probably says more about the reviewer than it does about the book. Overall, Green has done a fine job of pushing her reader to encounter a world through poetry, and this book captures the poet’s curiosity and delight in both world and word.
Bernadette Hall’s limited edition chapbook is a different beast to Green’s altogether. Deeply elusive, poetically challenging and structurally beguiling, Maukatere is essentially an act of poetic collage. The single long poem sequence marks a big shift for the otherwise lyric poet, and with the inclusion of Rachel O’Neill’s mysterious drawings, it is both original and disorientating.
It begins with an epigram by Wordsworth from his 1807 ‘Intimations of immortality from recollections of early childhood’: ‘the rainbow comes and goes / and lovely is the rose’. We learn the name of the Romantic poem from the endnotes, so – as is usual with work of this conceptual caliber – a second, third and fourth reading (with Wordworth’s title in mind) is infinitely rewarding. The long poem, it seems, has less to do with the lovely rose than it has with immortality and recollections:
I remember the photo well – almost as though it was yesterday. That was a strange time for me. We had a new house and I think I may have wished for new beginnings but the system and all of us locked into it was too difficult to manage – hindsight of course. (p. 14)
The ‘I’ here is, presumably (but not necessarily), a character called ‘The Tangler’. This is one of the few sections that has a title; they read simply ‘The Tangler (1)’ through to ‘The Tangler (5)’. Hall tells us in the endnotes that The Tangler is ‘a loner, a trickster, acting as broker between sellers and buyers’ at traditional Irish horse fairs. While there may be some Irish connection (Hall has Irish ancestry; there is also a mention of a town called Strabane in Northern Ireland), Hall’s Tangler seems to be more illustrative of the outsider figure, aka the artist.
Hall uses this outsider figure to interrogate ideas of belonging and migration, memory and disorientation. At the same time, these short prose pieces are juxtaposed with dreamy, italicised imagery – ‘let’s think about that snap of Eva cuddling in the waves,’ or ‘who’s the someone turning somersaults in the dark pool?’ – and cerebral lyrics:
I have decided to get glasses – apart from that I have no more current
Teresa said he swallowed a glass of cyanide and left all to a male friend
A day of patchy rain – another chink in things (p. 13)
But you’re just as likely to find something like this kooky little moment:
The bare-necked Patagonian chicken and the Brown Shaver are engaged in a competition. They’re squawking from one street to another, ‘My eggs are better than your eggs, so there, dear.’ The guy next door has a weak stomach and thirty Giant Flemish rabbits in hutches. Their flesh is the only meat that he can eat. At the whine of his bandsaw, our floppy lop-eared hearts tremble and clench. (p. 14)
At a stretch, this too is about immortality. But the fact that it is the rabbits’ immortality is part of the play that Hall is engaged in here. She experiments with conceptual collage, deliberately juxtaposing scenes against each other to invite a more open and varied interpretation of the whole in a way that is reminiscent of early Soviet film montage. As the filmmakers did, Hall cuts and pastes select lyrics and sketches, and reconfigures them in unexpected ways. The effect of this is that the reader is never really sure where she is placed in relation to the poet or maker – one minute we are privy to private confiding, the next we are being told about a scene in a brush factory:
Sometimes my hand wobbled or my foot was too slow and the nylon strands
slipped a bit and the little brush would come out all wonky. Then I’d have to
chuck it in the bin. (p. 15)
I love this. But, as with most of the long poem, I’ve got no idea what’s going on. All I know is that whatever Hall seems to be doing, it is the seeming she relishes in. To try and make sense of this bewildering and prismatic poetic collage is beside the point. It doesn’t point to anything. And that, dear reader, is precisely the point. Hall’s Maukatere stretches, delights and rewards the curious eye and ear.
Helen Rickerby, editor of Seraph Press, knows a good thing when she sees/reads it. These two new offerings from the boutique Wellington publishing house extends Rickerby’s list in fresh poetic directions. Both books are refreshingly original, linguistically and lyrically varied, and – thanks to Rickerby’s excellent eye for detail – beautifully packaged.
LYNLEY EDMEADES is a postgraduate student at the University of Otago. Her first collection of poems, As the Verb Tenses, from Otago University Press, has been long-listed for the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards for Poetry.