I’ve been writing a long poem for some months now. One of the major features of this process has been the constant struggle between the disjunctive possibilities of poetic form, and the narrative, which I want to be continuous, unfolding forward. How does a poet successfully balance these two approaches, to achieve something that unravels over pages, but also has the capacity to shift gear suddenly, which surprises and moves around within itself? The two forces seem diametrically opposed at times. I’ve been casting about, trying to figure out how this is managed in long poems I love – Jenny Bornholdt’s Rocky Shore, Anne Carson’s Glass Essay, and now, Louise Glück’s Faithful and Virtuous Night.
By no means do the poems in Faithful and Virtuous Night (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014) constitute a straight-forward narrative. The main thread through the book is the voice of a male painter in his later years, confronting “a crisis of vision,” revisiting painful events in his childhood. However, his poems are interspersed with others that seem to be written in the voice of the poet herself, and in amongst both of these voices there are poems that come from neither of these speakers, poems that are allegorical and sometimes surreal. I read it through the first time, mostly aloud, propelled on by nothing more than the pleasure of Glück’s breath-taking word-steps. The first poem “Parable” begins by looking back at the cusp of a journey, during which
the stars had shone, the sun rose over the tree line
so that we had shadows again; many times this happened.
This seems to be what follows: poems that shift between time, place and speakers as they tell a story, losing me sometimes, putting me on the cliff-edge of something vast and unspoken, pulling me back, coming full circle. But always the sun rises again. The same motifs recur, pressing into the same territory: night, endings, shadows, voicelessness, death, silence. Yes, it’s rather terrifying. It is also a very beautiful piece of work. Every poem I’ve looked at again since that first read-through can, I think, stand on its own, even though each feels very definitely part of this book-long narrative.
Given the questions I started with, I find it intriguing that towards the end of the collection, Glück voices the tension with which I’ve been grappling. The poet is caught in a “dry season,” while time moves relentlessly forward. Pausing before the door to her home:
I closed my eyes.
I was torn between a structure of oppositions
and a narrative structure―
The room was as I left it.
There was a bed in the corner.
There was the table under the window.
There was the light battering itself against the window
until I raised the blinds
at which point it was redistributed
as flickering among the shade trees.
[in “The Story of a Day”]
Poet, Angela Andrews, is currently working on her Doctorate in Creative Writing at Wellington’s International Institute of Modern Letters.
Jane Arthur: I’ve not been entirely faithful to any one poet or book lately. I’ve been exploring with the attention-span of a sugared toddler: pulling books off my shelves, jumping down rabbit holes (or wormholes, or foxholes) on the Poetry Foundation website, obsessively clicking on surely every poem in the wonderful Sport archive, buying new releases and not opening them for months, leaving piles of thin volumes around my house – by my bed, next to the fruitbowl – and in others’ houses.
But one collection I’ve been returning to – savouring – over the past couple of months is Sharon Olds’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Stag’s Leap (Knopf, 2013), which was recommended to me by Wellington poet Sarah Jane Barnett. It’s tricky to describe Stag’s Leap without making it sound insufferable and self-indulgent: its poems are entirely about the breakdown of the poet’s 30-year marriage. But truly, truly, it’s wonderful. It’s kind, generous and brutally honest. Though it’s specifically “about” the aftermath of the poet being left (for another woman), it also explores thoroughly – epically – what it means to love another person. The sex, desire, willing sacrifices, and impossibility of intimacy. I can see that all still sounds insufferable, so here’s a gory excerpt I loved from a poem about a mouse as dead as the poet’s marriage, called “Sleekit Cowrin’”:
The mouse has become a furry barrow
burrowed into by a beetle striped
in stripes of hot and stripes of cold
coal—headfirst, it eats its way into
the stomach smoother than dirt
And bugs little as seeds are seething
all over the hair, as if the rodent
were food rejoicing.
To say that poem aloud makes you become a bug eating the words, each vowel a bite or a chew. I enjoy Olds’ careful rhythms and sound-patterns as much as I enjoy her excruciating emotional honesty:
[…] O satin, O
sateen, O velvet, O fucking velveeta—
the day of the doctors’ dress-up dance,
the annual folderal, the lace,
the net, he said it would be hard for her
to see me there, dancing with him,
would I mind not going. And since I’d been
for thirty years enarming him,
I enarmed him further—Arma, Virumque,
sackcloth, ashen embroidery!
(from “Material Ode”)
Jane Arthur is production manager at Wellington children’s book publisher, Gecko Press. She was most recently published in the inaugural issue of the new NZ literary journal, Sweet Mammalian (sweetmammalian.com).
“Between the Kindling and the Blaze – Reflections on the concept of mana” by Ben Brown, Anahera Press 2013
A poetry collection I’ve recently enjoyed is Ben Brown’s Between the Kindling and the Blaze – reflections on the concept of mana. Mana’s a term that’s understood and used by New Zealanders in many different ways, so it was interesting to consider Ben’s reflections and to listen to the accompanying CD. The poems and prose poems shuttle us between Te Ao and Te Pō, the Worlds of Light and Dark. Elemental fire is a motif, a unifying thread that anchors our senses in the familiar whilst we hikoi between deftly portrayed worlds and personalities. The collection opens with ‘Mana’, a homage to Ben’s grandfather:
Mana is my grandfather in his retirement from the darkness and depths
and ingrained dust of the coal mine to mow the marae lawn that extends to
the front door of his twice-built house with two coal ovens eternally warm
beneath the simmering pots of the boil up behind unlocked doors where
footwear for a centipede aligns beneath his broad veranda….
and takes us to the Mongrel Mob in ‘The Dog my brother’:
The dog my brother he walks crookedly
Too many kicks when he was a pup
Dances to his own tune now ……
The street was good to me he say
I made my love
I burned my bridges happily….
We also visit women of mana, a Maori Jesus who eats fish ‘n’ chips with tomato sauce and wears wrap-around sunnies, a rangatira in conversation with a slave on the Wellington Harbour in the early 1840s, various pubs and parties and a hui at the doorway to heaven.
Tihei mauri ora.
Serie Barford is an Auckland-based poet. Her most recent collection is, Tapa Talk.
A House on Fire Tim Upperton
Steele Roberts Publishers, 2009. ISBN 9781877448683
The poems in Tim Upperton’s book, A House on Fire, appeal because of his use of inventive imagery, his direct observational style, and the painterly quality of his scene setting. His poetry is spare, concise and technically proficient.
Decaying corn, in a poem about a vegetable garden, keeps “its thin hands in its sleeves.” In a poem about the tradition of the Kiwi Sunday roast, the mutton “heaves” in the pan.
Upperton’s relaxed, confident poems are often drawn from nature. In his poem, “The Starlings,” a house once “thrummed” to the sound of nesting birds, whilst in “The Caterpillar” he is moved to see a “damp umbrella, hanging.”
Upperton’s evocative, well-crafted, warm poems pare life back to its bare essentials – family, food, love and nature. Read Upperton’s poems – you’ll discover magic in the ordinary.
Stephanie Mayne is an Auckland librarian and poet.