Working the Tang by Nicola Easthope (The Cuba Press, 2018), 86pp, $25; How I Get Ready by Ashleigh Young (Victoria University Press, 2019), 96pp, $25
Nicola Easthope’s poetry collection Working the Tang comes seven years after her first collection, leaving my arms free to fly around you (Steele Roberts, 2011). The first impression of the book is that it is an object of beauty. The cover image by Kimbra Taylor shows two women harvesting seaweed, or ‘wirkin the tang’. The women stand on dark broody seaweed green and behind them is a pea-green sea. Wind blows the seaweed and one woman’s dress. The book is printed on a matt cream paper that is soft to the touch and the design and typeface are pleasing.
The title draws the reader’s attention to the dramatic and passionate poem ‘Working the Tang, Birsay’ which takes us to Orkney, one of Easthope’s places of origin. ‘Tang’ is many things. It is a spit of land in Old Norse, it is a serpent’s tongue in Middle English and in Orcadian, tang is the seaweed that grows on the rocks above the low-tide line.
The poem tells something of the life of men and women who worked the tang, which, after it had been gathered up and burned, became part of the manufacture of soap and glass, which made the laird wealthy but not the workers.
These women are wrapped for the weather.
The fleece of long-nosed black sheep
so knitted into their skin, when their men
undress them there is often a little blood.
Tang has another meaning too. Easthope, the poet, lives in Kāpiti, on the west coast of the North Island, where the prevailing salt-laden wind definitely has its own flavour.
The past, the place where Easthope’s ‘great greats’ lived and where the ‘ghost-kin rise’ is definitely of interest to her. In fact, she begins the book with the poem ‘Salt Blood Song’, a sort of mihi, in which the poet introduces herself:
I’m six parts loch ’n’ whiskey
I’m two parts iron ’n’ rose
I’m four parts gorse ’n’ heather
I’m four parts broch ’n’ stone …
… I’m quill of ink ’n’ parchment
I’m wool ’n’ Viking ale
I’m lurch of port ’n’ starboard
The booming in your sails.
It’s a beautiful introduction, just enough literal information to give a sense of the person, and plenty of poetic imagery to add magic.
The collection is divided into four parts, each named for one of the meanings of ‘tang’. Given that the poems range over wide territory, geographically, in time and in focus and form, this structure provides a skeleton that holds everything together, or at least gathers it all under the same roof.
The week that I’m writing this review coincides with the Tuia 250 commemorations of the first contact between Captain Cook and Māori. In this context, Easthope’s poem ‘Terra Australis Incognita, after Captain James Cook’, in which the ‘you’ being addressed shifts from being people to being the land itself, seems particularly powerful.
I order a musket to be fired over your head.
You do not deserve a bullet through the heart.
You do not deserve to be unhappily
killed, but you trust your paddles rather
than our promises. The cliffs are crumbling, the Indian lies
dead upon the ground. Terra Australis Incognita –
The subject of much eager conversation …
The marines march, carrying
a Jack before them.
I want you in my possession.
Given the range of Easthope’s interests, her skill with language and her use of varied poetic forms, there will be poems here to appeal to any reader. Easthope has a long-standing commitment to preservation of the earth, the sea and all the world’s creatures. Appreciation of the beauty of the world and anger and sadness at its depredation is one significant strand of this book. But a reader could equally be drawn by the tone of poems about everyday life, like ‘Saturday in the Food Court’:
The child across the table from you
is already grinning. Pitch it in
view of the water.
Tighten the guy lines.
Answer his how do ducks mate?
Like the fly of a tent in a squall.
Another pleasure in Easthope’s poems is their physicality. This from ‘Boogie’ is an example:
My mid-life golden soul –
come liquesce in a voice ’n’ bass heaven –
neck snake to finger hip curve down shimmy
gyrating pits ’n’ pelvis bone-wet shimmy
flash iris whip sweat curl fling shimmy
full drum belly peak bootie shake shimmy …
I had favourite poems in the collection, and there were poems that interested me less, but every reader is a different reader so it doesn’t make sense to appoint some poems to the position of better or lesser work. Working the Tang is a poetry collection by a person who is prepared to share a full mind, body and spirit and who loves the depths and effervescence of language.
Ashleigh Young has published one previous poetry collection, Magnificent Moon (VUP, 2012), and is the author of a collection of essays entitled Can You Tolerate This? (VUP, 2016), for which she won Yale University’s Windham-Campbell Prize, worth US$165,000. How I Get Ready is her first book since winning that prize. Young works as a poetry editor and says, in an interview with Kirsten McDougall on the VUP blog, that there is some tension in working as a poetry editor and as a poet:
Maybe it has made me slightly steelier about revising my own poems, and more realistic about how many people are interested in them. But it’s made me a bit self-conscious, because if my poems are bad, then should I really be editing other people’s? No! At the same time, I feel a kind of recklessness. Because there is so much poetry, I think, ‘Well, this must be legitimate after all,’ and I keep on writing it.
(20 June 2019)
It’s a good thing that she arrives at this conclusion, because these are poems whose feeling I will remember and poems whose craft I admired and will learn from.
How I Get Ready is divided into four sections. The first section is one poem, titled ‘The Spring’, written from the perspective of a young man who suffers from what would now be called obsessions and compulsions. In the Notes section Young tells us this is a found poem whose source is an early twentieth-century scholarly article. Again, from her interview with Kirsten McDougall:
I wondered how the young man might be treated today. I was very taken by his expression of his torment and by the bigger question of how people reconcile themselves to uncertainty, and what happens if they can’t. I started to piece together this poem.
While the words may have been found, the poem itself has been artfully constructed. Leaving its words to the side, the shape of the poem offers another version of the man’s situation. Sometimes the poem is left-justified, at others right-justified; sometimes there are white spaces and at others there are spaces in the lines which would be pauses if someone was speaking; sometimes the man’s words are fluent and other times they are fragmented. The man tells his story with an openness that lays out his vulnerability for us all to see. He teeters on the edge of catastrophe, or at least that was what I took from the last few lines of the poem:
I looked into the water and saw the bottom of the spring.
It tempted me to reach down with my hand
and I did it. I reached into the spring and touched the bottom.
I think I did touch it, because I was satisfied;
if I had not touched the bottom of the spring I don’t know what I would do.
I sometimes wonder how the bottom of the ocean looks.
I get scared thinking how I can find out.
With this as the opening poem, certain terms of engagement have been set for the collection. The language is simple and the poem is accessible, but the access is to a strange place. The reader knows to expect explorations of the psychological, of distress, and has been introduced to the idea that the poems may be written from inside an experience, and by an ‘I’, but not necessarily an ‘I’ that is close to the poet. The reader has also been shown that form is significant as a carrier of meaning. This poem is a feeling, too – something for which there is no single word, but it is like the sound of a cello.
In some ways this whole collection seemed to me a rebellion against the idea that you are supposed to make peace with uncertainty in your life so that you can function well. As Young says in relation to the young man in ‘The Spring’, what happens if you can’t? Maybe you try to bargain your way towards acceptance? The poem ‘Turn Out to Be Something’ has a repeated pattern of bargains the speaker is prepared to make and elaborations of what that waiting will contain and where the limits of acceptance are:
I can wait for the unkind person to turn out to be unhappy
wait for them to ask forgiveness and then
punch someone new in the throat and ask forgiveness again.
I can wait, as long as forgiveness is withheld.
The poem finishes with the ultimate existential problem on the table.
I can wait as long as I live, only to die
as long as this turns out to be something.
There are no let-offs in these poems. There are moments of absurdity and ironic humour, there is a down to earth-ness about the little things that happen in a day, and there is an interest in other creatures – but there is no drift towards ease or comfort, or at least none that I saw.
The poems are often, or perhaps always, personal but the content does not always focus on the life of the person who speaks as ‘I’. In the poem ‘Ghost Bear’, for example, the uncertainty or strangeness or despair belongs mostly to other people:
a boy in my class climbed up on an overhead bridge
and was electrocuted
but he lived, and a few months later
scored a try on the rugby field
and a boy standing beside me said ‘He’s just showing off
because he got electrocuted’
This poem is made up of eight small anecdotes, like the one I have quoted, separated by an asterisk. The image of the ghost bear is introduced as a test, first of the strength of a couple’s love and then as a test for the speaker, although we are not told exactly what is being tested. A merciless wind blows on these people and no-one is saved.
The poems are clearly in conversation with other poems. Charles Simic is present, and Rae Armantrout, along with a reference to Andrew Johnston. There is also a poem called ‘Lifted’ which owes something to Bill Manhire’s poem ‘The Ladder’ from his book Lifted (VUP, 2005). This dimension of the poems takes them into the large world of poets talking with other poets. The poems also explore corners of history. ‘Contents’, for example, comes from the table of contents in The Book of Margery Kempe, first published in 1501. Kempe’s emotional suffering, which puts her at odds with other people, seems to be the link to ‘The Spring’ and other poems.
These are sophisticated poems. I really appreciated their craft. Often there are repeated sounds, or ways that one word references another. The punctuation was a pleasurable experience, especially the use of commas in the middle of a line to provide a different sort of torsion from the pause at the end of a line. Sometimes when you read a book of poems you miss the essence if you do not hear the poet reading the work out loud. The poems in How I Get Ready offer a great deal as works on the page, because that allows the reader to read a section again and again and allows the imagery to grow in your mind and the craft to work its magic. These poems are personal but I think it would be a mistake to see a straight line from the poems to the poet as a person. The language is apparently simple in the sense that the words are mostly from every day, but what is being described is far from simple. This aspect of the poems reminded me of Kafka.
There are many rooms in the house of poetry and in each one a poet is at work, reporting on what they notice as they go about their life, what they think about on good days and not so good days, what they are interested in and what they think readers might be interested in. It is somewhat of an over-simplification, but you could say that Easthope’s poems are more outward-looking and Young’s more inward-looking. You could say that Young’s poems have a stylistic unity and Easthope’s make use of a wider range of forms. You could say that both poets engage somewhat with historical material. You could say that Young sometimes writes as another person. But all of these specifics miss the point that Easthope and Young have made poetry according to their own sensibilities and their own aesthetic. The next step is up to readers.
LYNN JENNER lives in Raumati on the Kāpiti coast of the North Island. She writes memoir, literary essays and poetry. Lost and Gone Away was a non-fiction finalist in the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards in 2016. Her first book, Dear Sweet Harry, won the New Zealand Society of Authors Best First Book of Poetry prize in 2011. Jenner’s most recent book is Peat (Otago University Press). For more about her work see her author website pinklight.nz