Elizabeth Welsh, Over There a Mountain, HoopLa Series, Mākaro Press, 2018
Elizabeth Welsh’s debut poetry collection, Over There a Mountain, is an exquisite read: surprising, absorbing, complex. She is an academic editor working for international university presses, she founded the online journal The Typewriter, and co-edited Flash Frontier. Her poetry has appeared in local and overseas journals and in 2012 she won the Auckland University Divine Muses Emerging Poets Award. She lives in Auckland with her family.
The collection brought Anne Kennedy’s marvelous Time of the Giants to mind as Elizabeth has also produced a long narrative poem made of glistening pieces and fluent lines. There is a sense of magic at work, a myth-like underlay, seams of real experience, and a satisfying blend of true and invented settings. This is the story of a daughter whose parents are mountains – who puzzles and struggles and faces what it is to be a mountain daughter, to be with a mountain mother and a mountain father. This is fable but this is also satisfyingly human as the mountain daughter navigates how she is formed ‘by’ and ‘outside’ relationships.
Over There a Mountain was one of my favourite poetry reads of 2018.
It’s hard to know how to be with a mother who is
a mountain. It’s hard to feel how to be with a father
who is a mountain. It’s hard to understand how to be.
It’s hard to explain that luminous bond, that bewilderingly
Paula: Narrative and character mattered so much as I read Over There a Mountain. What poetic effects were you drawn to as you wrote?
They were slow-moving, glistening tail-lights
in the guttering of a kasrt dawn.
Elizabeth: Yes, both narrative and character are central to Over There a Mountain, given its form as a narrative poem. It was actually near to completion when the poem evolved and settled into a book-length narrative (albeit split into three distinct parts – the mountain-daughter’s childhood, adulthood and last years), tracing the arc of the mountain-daughter’s life and eventual transformation. As it is involved in, or at least plays with, contemporary myth-making, the oral quality and auditory effects were particularly important to me. When I was unable to find a specific sound or rhythm, I took liberties with words, much to the confusion of my publisher at times. I remember ‘alpinic’ and ‘huffly’ both resulting in interesting discussions.
Paula: I love the liberties with words, the sonic playfulness, because that added to the mysteriousness, the strangeness. You hear mystery. Poetry is all the better for made up words.
I was totally captivated by the protagonist daughter – the underlying daughterness – and her electric movements. What discoveries, joys and struggles unfolded as you wrote your way into the daughter?
Her mountain-father found it easy, catching sight of her
in a bottle-green jersey scaling a vertiginous cliff, shoulder
blades painted with a dipped sphere of wet Cheshire moon;
she became all manner of oceans.
Elizabeth: Thank you – I’m really pleased you felt that way about the mountain-daughter. It was an interesting exercise, as I fell pregnant and gave birth to my daughter around roughly the same time (tracing my notes back, it appears the mountain-daughter began to emerge about a year before I fell pregnant when I was living far from home in south London). Whether it was timing or synchronicity or chance, I became increasingly fascinated by familial bonds and ways to refigure, disrupt, defamiliarise them. The domestic is traditionally wrought as such a safe, sanitised space, but is so expansive in its reach; it maintains such a hold on us, even as we age. And the mountain-daughter is both us and not-us, she struggles in ways we don’t and struggles in ways we do; at times, it was quite liberating to construct her character. The particular challenge for me was tracing her ‘daughterness’ – I love that word(!) – throughout her later years as a chronicle of growth, with grafts and accretions, trying to do justice to the shape her inheritance would take. I’m sure we never lose our sense of being the child of our parent(s), whatever form that relationship takes.
They told her the mountain stories as love stories, taking
her each dusk to pick bear’s garlic together. Not touching,
they bobbed like pendulums as she murmured: we just keep
hardening and hardening and hardening until all we are
is unfolded, thrown wide.
Paula: I love the way I build a setting for the narrative in my head that draws upon my own mountain experiences. Did you have real places that loomed large in your imagination?
Sleeping afterwards in the southern heat of a midday sun,
she dreamed of Tākaha Hill, Pancake Rocks, both faint
and singing outlines.
Elizabeth: The collection is deeply rooted in the New Zealand landscape, so there are quite a number of real places that surface throughout the poem. But while parts of the poem are specifically geographically located – including Mount Saint Bathans, Punakaiki, Mount Peel, Tākaka Hill, Mount Aspiring, Dolomite Point, Miranda and Picton – a significant portion of the narrative is deliberately hazy as to its precise location. The Southern Alps, around the Mackenzie country, particularly Lake Tekapo and Mount John, as well as Arthur’s Pass, heavily influenced ‘the mountain-daughter’s childhood’. And the edge where the Waitākere Ranges meets the Tasman Sea provided inspiration for the final section – that wild, untamed, rugged topography ‘what is this line of sea she came to? […] Bucking the empty trug to the picketed boundary of sopping, wolfing dunes’.
Also, venturing globally, a very fortunate and well-timed encounter with the ancient Montserrat (and the Benedictine Abbey there, complete with Holy Grotto), a multi-peaked mountain range that is part of the Catalan Pre-Coastal Range in Spain, spurred on the narrative and general ‘mountain thoughts’.
Paula: Ah maybe that is one part of the strong connections I feel with the book – like a channel for subconscious attachment- because I see the tail end of the ranges and smell the Tasman Sea from our place and I drive around the Mackenzie country and Central Otago with my partner artist.
Do you have a cluster of poetry books with which you have strong goosebump connections? Whatever they might be?
Elizabeth: Oh yes, I know what you mean – that feeling of simultaneous exhilaration and unease/disquietude. Poetry collections that I have felt an extremely strong kinship with over the years and which, without doubt, have hugely informed my creative practice include Maggie Nelson’s Bluets – these fragments/propositions change me, confront me every time I read them with their candour, urgency and meditative illumination – Anne Kennedy’s Sing-Song, Mary Oliver’s Swan, Alice Oswald’s Dart – the primal, polyvocal, experimental quality of this poem still haunts me – as well as Woods etc., Fleur Adcock’s Tigers, William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, Anna Livesey’s Ordinary Time – this collection is a true gift; it lived within arm’s reach when my daughter was very young – Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Mary Stanley’s Starveling Year, H.D.’s Helen in Egypt and for its shimmering poetic sensibility, Jessie Greengrass’ Sight.
Paula: I love this list! I haven’t read Jessie Greengrass. I have been musing on activities that augment poetry writing. For me: running, walking, gardening, cooking and of course reading. Listening to music. What activities enhance writing for you or keep it in balance?
Elizabeth: So much of my life is filled with motherhood at the moment, which enriches and enhances my writing and thinking and being in every way (although actually getting words to paper can be somewhat challenging). In particular, baking bread with my daughter each week is such a therapeutic act for us both and always leaves me poetically inspired. Tending to our garden and wild span of bush also slows me down and reminds me to be patient, to be present.
Two mountains encase a flushed fire,
two mountains eat hot soda damper with their daughter.
Elizabeth reads from Over There a Mountain
Mākaro Press page
Extract at Turbine / Kapohau