Poetry Review: Heather McPherson’s This Joyous, Chaotic Place

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This Joyous, Chaotic Place, Heather McPherson, Spiral, 2018

(cover image by Joanna Margaret Paul with a portrait of Heather on the back by Allie Eagle)

 

 

Heather McPherson (1942 – 2017) published 4 poetry collections in her lifetime, with her first, A Figurehead: A Face, paving the way for future poets. It was the first poetry book by an out lesbian in Aotearoa/ New Zealand.  In 1974 she founded both the Christchurch Women Artists group and Spiral, a women’s literary and arts journal.

Before her death, Heather asked poet Janet Charman to edit her garden poems while Lynne Ciochetto and Marian Evans formed a Spiral collective to publish the volume.

When I think of garden poems, I think of Ursula Bethell and the decade she devoted to writing and gardening when she lived with her beloved companion, Effie Pollen. I have thought about these intensities a lot, and write about them in my forthcoming book.

To enter the glades of Heather’s final collection, lovingly tended by Janet, is to enter a garden rich in aroma, with diverse plantings and seasonal changes. As with Ursula, to view Heather’s writing through a garden lens is extremely productive.

 

This graveyard’s a bit like the one

where we buried my mum and dad. Oldish,

a small town Anglian acreage

 

from ‘At Rangiora’s Ashley Street Cemetery’

 

We begin at Ursula’s grave, and while the poem draws us in close, it also generates little waves that connect admired poet – mentor almost – to Heather’s parents: one grave seeking pilgrimage as much as the next. And herein lies the delight of the poetry, the way the visual piquancy (‘the bird droppings// and twigs’) interweaves with the many selves: daughter, poet, companion, political attendee.

Attendance is vital because this is a poet who paid attention to things, small and large, the one nestled in the other, crafted within the reflective surface of poems. At times it is the joy of the thing itself that matters:

 

but this shape-shifter tree blossoms

tight thick-skinned buds like thrusting rose-hips

 

from ‘fragment’

 

On other occasions the poem is a vehicle for story or anecdote, and a way of tending vital bonds, personal experience, inner movement. Age is a preoccupation as is the necessity of companionship.

 

No. No. See, it’s like old age, he says, eyeing my face.

Goes slack and perishes. Soon as I touched it, it gave way.

Dangerous. Gone holey. I’ll get you a tow.

 

from ‘Waiting for the breakdown truck’

 

I spend time in Heather’s poetic glades, because the senses are on alert, the description compounding, and it imbues my own contemplative state. I like that. I like the way my mind wanders through my open window to the kereru plundering the cabbage tree, and then I am back within an intensity of poppies:

 

Poppies poppies poppies … red-headed

black-bellied upright masses on light green

sea-milk stalks – surely such riotously

frilly leaves can’t be edible – can’t be

blanched – baked – boiled – toast …

 

from ‘Poppies’

 

In a poem for Fran, Heather responds to her friend’s paintings, and it seems to me, the astute observation might also be applied to the poems.

 

But I don’t have lots of things in

my work – like Anna does, you said;

ah, I said, but your painting traps

amazing movement in it – it moves,

it moves – whether or not your

subject does  – it moves internally

& moving, spills (…)

 

from ‘Things shift’

 

As much as stillness gifts Heather’s poetry a translucent layering, the internal movement – the links and arcs, the revelations, the richnesses and the reserve – offer an uplift along with countless movements. By paying attention to the garden in which she lived, and the people close to her, her poetry establishes contrasting intensities – from the joyful to the chaotic. It is a pleasure to read.

 

 

Until April 14th

‘This Joyous, Chaotic Place: He Waiata Tangi-ā-Tahu’ is a multi-media project to celebrate poet and lesbian activist Heather McPherson (1942-2017) and her peers in the Aotearoa New Zealand’s women’s art and literature movement of the 1970s and 1980s. It is a #suffrage125 project, funded by Creative New Zealand and includes an exhibition, a collection of Heather’s ‘garden poems’ and a shopfront cinema showing 70s and 80s short films and raw footage.

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