Bernadette Hall, Life & Customs, Victoria University Press, 2013
Bernadette Hall is an award-winning poet, mentor and anthologist living on the coast north of Christchurch. She has published numerous collections of poetry including the terrific The Lustre Jug (2009). She edited Like Love Poems: Selected Poems of Joanna Margaret Paul and The Judas Tree: Poems by Lorna Staveley Anker (see my review of the latter here). She has held a residency in County Cork, Ireland and has visited Antarctica courtesy of Antarctica New Zealand. Both those experiences have found their way into her poetry. You can read my interview with Bernadette here.
Bernadette’s latest book, Life & Customs, is a substantial collection that draws upon the layers of the world with such poetic finesse it is impossible not to fall in love with it. The book is in two parts with a ballet interlude. Bernadette opens with a quote by Wallace Stevens (this bit stood out for me: ‘Life’s nonsense pierces us with strange revelation’). It seems the perfect epigraph for the collection, as the poems enact moments of ‘life’s nonsense’ (you could say — strangeness, surprise) along with those ‘revelations’ (also unexpected, nourishing).
This is a book of home, of shifting geographies and roots laid down, of memory flashes and of loving attachments (‘this is all part of the long slow plunge into memory’). So it is no surprise the first poem, ‘how lovely to see you,’ is like a welcome mat. More than any other book I have read in an age, Bernadette welcomes you into a nook of poetic warmth. This book exudes warmth, there is no extravagant game playing or showing off – instead you get led into the heart of living and life. Such readerly movement is like a breath of fresh air.
The first joy of this collection is the simplicity. I am not going to use the word plainness but opt instead for a word that registers beauty, stillness, contemplation, attentiveness and a zen-like deportment. Take these lines for example: ‘the sea comes in and kisses my feet/ then it goes back out again.’ This line appears after a small list of strange and not so strange things (like kinks in the day): ‘the little boy has swallowed/ a sadness bean.’
The second joy is the music, something that I have written of before in my appreciation of Bernadette’s poetry. Take any poem in this book and you will discover its musical contours – the way each line is pitch perfect in its undulating sounds and tones (‘We don’t need the pucker and slip of a tablecloth’). There is delicious assonance (tick clicky kids drift); there is heavenly rhyme (father/ harbour); there are words that coo on the ends of lines (plunge Mamaku); there are sharp words that sound off key (fatal); there is silence breaking into a line; there are sounds scattered like aural glitter or glue (‘m’ sounds in ‘The view from the lookout’).
The third joy is the humour. There is chuckle and body mirth in many of these poems. In ‘The day Death turned up on the beach’ the narrator invites Death over for scones with jam and cream. There is the book you can borrow but you can’t open to read. ‘In Search of Happiness’ humour mixes together with the surreal in a fablesque poem. There are two islands – one goes up in smoke and one drowns.
The fourth joy is the use of memory that takes you to and fro in nostalgic movements. ‘The Grinder’ takes you back to ‘way back when’ and there you are winding wool and making mince out of cold roast meat. There are things we take for granted that suddenly pulse on the page.
As I read the ballet interlude, I wondered who could turn this into ballet, but as I read, I choreographed the lines into a visual feast in my mind.
Bernadette writes with the poetic poise and insight of Dinah Hawken. To read these earthy and heavenly attachments is to fill with joy at what poetry can do. This is a marvellous collection.
Thanks to VUP, I have a copy of the book to give to someone who likes or comments on this post.
Victoria University Press page
New Zealand Book Council page
New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre page
Canterbury University Press page
Best NZ Poems edited by Bernadette Hall here
My review of The Lustre Jug in The NZ Herald