Failed Love Poems by Joan Fleming (Victoria University Press, 2015), 78 pp., $25; Ocean and Stone by Dinah Hawken (Victoria University Press, 2015), 118 pp., $35; Cold Water Cure by Claire Orchard (Victoria University Press, 2016), 112 pp., $25
Failure makes lemonade; slams one door only to shake others open – sometimes. Failure has a knack of forcing its protagonist down substitute alleyways, leaving one to navigate unorthodox routes in pitch black. Joan Fleming’s latest collection, Failed Love Poems, is about Love, but more so, it is about a lengthy, howling procession of Loves gone kaput. There is love clinging on by tooth-strings, love in absentia, love as apology, love treading on eggshells, love cemented in verse, and love that ebbs in spite of itself.
The first poem in Fleming’s collection, ‘Traces’, is about failed love in the most disquieting sense. Ambiguity, in terms of wilfulness and consent, couples with involuntary drive to make for a deadly merger. The poem snatches at reality, leaving us with a quilt of possibilities – and a mystery to unpick:
But I was very clear. I dug my heels in and
no one knows
how quickly I went out the window. After we made love I covered
I covered his face with my hands.
The prose poem ‘Leaving’ conveys a state of romantic lethargy. The lovers ‘at the centre of this story’ deal in first-world problems: ‘they were out of tinfoil’ and ‘their television was the size of a first television’. This is a love poem that nibbles away at romantic ideals. In fact, it is a love poem that doesn’t even bother with ideals. It won’t bring you flowers or sweep you off your feet. Our floundering heroes simply ‘loved each other, and they microwaved each other’s meal’.
Fleming’s poetry is strange, with striking imagery that time and again lunges for the jugular. Love and hate buddy up, as do tenderness and brutality, embarking on a Bonnie-and-Clyde spree of offences within the collection. These couplings are captivating and prickly. These poems will burn. As Fleming’s short essay on Paula Green’s online Poetry Shelf reckons, ‘Poetry [is] a child on fire who is trying, and failing, to pronounce itself.’ In Failed Love Poems there is a sense of a painful and frenzied effort to iterate meaning – in particular, a meaning of Love in all its guises and disguises.
This is a collection that showcases Fleming’s flexibility with poetic form. There are erasure-type poems, prose poems, poems that use the solidus and poems munificently showered with white space. It is all very clever. And it works.
But there is more than intelligence at play here. There is something (and I can’t quite put my finger on it) that rattled me and something that, on occasion, caught in my throat – some kind of stifled exclamation. Whatever it was, this is poetry with the power to rake up sentiment, to clear the bats from the belfries. It’s not chicken soup for the soul. It’s more a neat gin, gulped back in the throes of neurosis. But it’s good, very good.
‘The earth has music for those who listen,’ said the philosopher and poet Santayana. Dinah Hawken’s Ocean and Stone is a record of this terrestrial music, and of its human reception. This is largely nature poetry, but not in a pejorative sense. The scenes are spectacular and populated by people who may or may not register the beauty. This is nature poetry, but it is not prim and polite. Nature revolts: the waters rise, the earth writhes, explodes, erodes. This is nature that is mythical, damaged and dangerous:
The land is like a knife, out
of its sheath and glinting in the sun
Wordsworth wrote that ‘little we see in Nature that is ours’. In the collection’s first poetic sequence, titled ‘The lake, the bloke and the bike’, Hawken shows us the people who cannot contend with nature as it is apart from us. The poet notes that ‘some are noisier than others’. These are people who need to run the engines of their hydroplaning boats, like ‘the bloke who cannot live / without noise’. This sequence is plump with images that are shifted in surprising ways, cliché transmogrified:
The willow hangs over the water
but is not weeping
The next section of the book concerns the nature of childhood. The infant’s orientation to and manipulation of the surrounding world is playfully chronicled. This section concerns the poet’s grandchild realising his autonomy, ‘the pleasure of placement’ and its limits. Even in infancy, language is a summoning to action. The speaker is a little god:
‘Push,’ he said and the word and action
Hawken sidles from maternal observations to the mindscape and sexual awakening of Ianna who, Wikipedia tells me, is the Sumerian goddess of ‘love, procreation, and of war’. Ianna is a young woman ‘rejoicing in her wondrous vulva’. What manifests is a sort of pre-Freudian rivalry with her father, who, in a fit of inebriation, bestows on his daughter a series of Clayton’s gifts.
A sequence of poems titled ‘The Uprising’ follows in the slipstream of these power narratives. Here, ecology and politics collide. Nature rallies, blindly, against humanity. ‘The ocean is an open sewer’, and ‘the Pacific is rising’. Nature is immune to our suffering, ‘cold-blooded’, and humanity is ‘asleep’. There is an exigency here, an urgent sort of hardheaded desperation. Hawken’s ‘Uprising’ is a bucket of water over the head of the slumberer.
The central sequence, ‘page . stone . leaf’, portrays nature as a less labile or volatile player. Illustrated with sculptor John Edgar’s wonderful, primordial images, this sequence is lumbering, meditative and non-didactic. As with the hand game, rock–paper–scissors, each element is a force with a quiet potency.
The last section concerns the quantitative and the temporal. ‘The flood’ is based on a Sumerian myth, wherein the world’s population is larger than its capacity:
The people have become too numerous.
Let sickness and disease break out.
Let headache blow into them like a storm.
Then there are poems about old age and its adjunct, mental and physical decline. These are more intimate poems, wherein people are vulnerable and, in moments, recognise who they have ‘helplessly become’. Characters are obscured by the caducity of age, but there’s also a tenderness elicited by such frailty:
Each time, the trust between us
seemed to grow until I could almost
swear we shared a moment of love.
Cold Water Cure, Claire Orchard’s first collection, is a poetic time machine. There are temporal shifts within the human lifespan and across lifespans – from the present, backwards 200 years, to the world of Darwin.
The first section of the collection focuses on the human psyche. Here, children play at adulthood while adults reclaim childhood, by way of memory and story. In the poem ‘We’re all five’, children are experimenting with notions of constraint and agency. The five-year-old voice tells: ‘we’ve worked out where our allocated spaces are’. There is a sense that the will is free, though, and that there is power in narrative. The child has a ‘zillion super powers’ and manifests possibilities by ‘writing ourselves / right down the page’. Some poems describe a certitude that exists in childhood, while others paint naïve animality.
Timing, modality and the ‘split-second decisions’ that can alter the trajectory of a story are considered in the poem ‘Egg’; while the limitations of communication are explored in ‘Don’t let me be misunderstood’. ‘I’d hate to be misconstrued,’ the narrator admits. The gulf between intention and action, between the gesture and its reception, are lit up: ‘I’d offer him a hand, but he might misunderstand.’
There is a seriocomic video-gaming poem, ‘You played 2 hours to die like this’, built of a collage of quotes from assorted games. With phrases like ‘This is your fault / and all the cake is gone’, and ‘What is man? / A miserable little pile of secrets’, existential anxiety is coupled with bathos to produce an intriguing composite.
The second section – and focal chapter – of the collection breaks away from these more intimate and existential musings. I found this sequence less convincing. Here Charles Darwin is star of the show. But this is not a one-man play. Orchard works herself into and around Darwin’s observations. In the first poem she is ‘in the library with Darwin’s red notebook’. This poem acts as a bridge between worlds; the notebook is a portal of sorts. In the short-poem sequence ‘Voyages’, Orchard and Darwin’s lives run in parallel, with Darwin’s view left-aligned on the page and Orchard’s right-aligned. There are contrasts of immediacy and technology, as in ‘12’:
There is much bloodshed,
the habit of constantly
wearing a knife
being the chief cause.
At dinnertime there’s
blurred, jerky footage of men wearing
masks and machine guns,
of bodies being dragged off the backs of utes.
The routines and clipped observations of both parties are documented. In Orchard’s world: such happenings as school science classes, Toyota road-kills, readings of Tennyson, and the observed toilings of council workers. In Darwin’s world: the securing of tortoises, the sighting of a fox, the eating of an exotic animal.
The Darwin chapter serves as an interruption to the more vulnerable and, in my mind, more successful poetry which bookends the collection. I should make a disclaimer: speculative historical biographies in poetry are not usually my thing. I am generally left with a hankering to read a detailed, rather more prosey account of a subject. But Orchard’s insertion of her self within this sequence works as a form of consolation for folk like me.
It took Darwin 21 years from first theorising the notion of evolution to publishing On the Origin of Species. Orchard’s poems study this time lapse, the work looming large while he juggled marriage, family matters and his own ill health. There are humorous points, such as his early vacillations regarding the prospect of finding a wife. Will he be a ‘happy slave’ or attain a wife who ‘will be a vast help in organising notes’? The most compelling of the Darwin section concerns the sickness and death of Annie, his eldest daughter. Zoological observations merge with the intimate:
A greater number
perish in the egg then are
able to get out …
The final section of poetry departs from Darwin’s story and returns to the personal. This time, however, Orchard’s world is embedded in globalised trauma. The poem ‘This way for gas’ has us navel-gazing our own savageness, while ‘First time on the assembly line’ is a de-personalised take on human creation.
Orchard’s debut collection is funny and grave in turns. It swerves from one mood to the next, but leaves us merrily clinging on for the ride. Orchard shows us a variety of techniques, and a breadth of content, that is fitting for a first exposure.
ELIZABETH MORTON’s poetry has been published in Poetry NZ, Takahe, JAAM, Blackmail Press, Meniscus, PRISM: International and Cordite, among other places. Her prose fiction is included in the Best Small Fictions 2016 anthology, published by Queen’s Ferry Press. In 2013 she was winner of the New Voices: Emerging Poets competition. She was shortlisted for the 2015 Kathleen Grattan Award, and was awarded second place in the 2015 Sunday Star–Times Short Story Awards.