Poetry Shelf review: Bernadette Hall’s Fancy Dancing: New and Selected Poems 2004 – 2020

Bernadette Hall, Fancy Dancing: New and Selected Poems 2004 -2020, Victoria University Press, 2020

Campfires flicker in the night, ice masks the harbour.

I’ve made up my mind at last. I’m going to walk across

to see the others. We can sit down then

and talk about poetry, the way ‘water’ chimes

with ‘daughter’ and is there any news of her yet.

from ‘Wai-te-ta’

2020 was a year rich in New Zealand poetry and I am still dipping into my wee stack for treasures. I have long been a fan of Bernadette Hall’s poetry with its sumptuous sound and visual effects, its wide roving subject matter, and its agile engagement with ideas, experience and feeling, it’s humour.

Interestingly, picking up Fancy Dancing set me on a slightly different response to the poetry, because I stalled on Robyn Webster’s artwork before I read the poems. Robyn’s works are enticing. They appear like a fusion of needlework, embroidery and painting with maybe a whiff of printmaking. I haven’t seen them in real life so am only connecting with them as illustrations in a book and have no idea of the media. I am struck by the allure of threads, branches and tributaries, by a colour palette that shifts between soothing harmonies and piquant contrasts. There is both simplicity and intricacy.

Here I am stalling on the artworks and I see them as shadow maps of the poetry. To think of Bernadette’s poetry as rich in tributaries, branches and threads is rewarding. One thread takes you along Irish roads into experience and ancestors, another into ice and snow and the Antarctic. Gardens and friends, weather and the sea, the mountain and the angels are stitched exquisitely along the lines. There is the close-at-hand and there is the wider world. There is the warmth in harmonies and the edge in contrasts. It was so satisfying to read my way through samples from the collections I am familiar with (The Ponies (2007), The Lustre Jug (2009), Life & Customs (2013) and Maukatere, floating mountain (2016).

The final section is devoted to new poems, including an exquisite sonnet sequence that is akin to brocade it is so rich in effect. Bernadette’s included author bio is revelatory : “And as for the wilful sonnets that explode in the final pages of this book, she wonders where on earth they came from. ‘It was such fun writing them,’ she says, ‘as if I‘d kicked down the stable doors and taken to the hills.’”

If I continue making analogies with the artwork, I see the 25 sonnets as embroidery at its most intricate and dazzling. Classical threads are stitched into a contemporary context, the personal is threaded with the fictional, the imagined with the recalled. Both Phaedra and the poet are shadowy presences, their back narratives bubbling beneath the surface. The poet speaks:

Now it’s time to expand the narrative. So come

with me into a dimly lit corridor in the Mayflower

Student Hostel beside the Mississippi River

in Iowa.  (…)

from ‘v.’

Think of brocade that glints and gleams and offers pocket narratives and pinches of the surreal. Guests make appearances: friends, family, writers, artists, goddesses. You will hear rain and footsteps, but you will also hear the sumptuous audio effects that are a trademark of Bernadette’s writing. Such an ear for the resounding line. I keep wanting to quote lines to you, whole sonnets.

In sonnet xix, the ‘crazy lady, how she strides down Cuba Mall in full combat gear’ declares the area is under control. The poem culminates in the poet/speaker imagining how she would behave kindly if it were a movie: she would approach the woman in combat gear saying, ‘Thank you, / I feel so much safer in this crazy world with you around.’

I am repeatedly drawn to sonnet xxiv, a sonnet dedicated to grandchildren, a sonnet that sways between past and present, between Italian marble and four children harbour swimming, ‘their arms / like triangle roof-lines’. The image is potent, the shiver between past and present fertile, and the ending so very moving:

(…) How long it took to see

the eating, drinking, gulping, feasting of the water

body, the spasmodic sun, the specific shade.

Beautiful children, you are forever and thereafter

swimming me to shore. I could not love you more.

The final sonnet is a form of counting blessings as it gives thanks. It becomes a rich celebratory brocade, luminous and heartfelt, a gift for ear and eye. I will pin this sonnet to my study wall as I continue to give thanks to poetry, to the things near me, to what gives me courage and furnishes each precious day.

Let us give thanks for the cranesbill geranium

and the mouse eared myositis,

for the ranunculus (little frog mouth, little friend),

for the feathered nival zone, for the bug moss

in the tarn, for all that is and all that

has been and all that is to come. It is for us

to keep our courage firm, to nurse our appointed

pain, to await ‘that which springs ablaze of itself’.

from sonnet xxv

Fancy Dancing showcases the work of one of our most treasured poets. The poems will dance in your ear and on your tongue, in your limbs and in your heart. Take a read. Pick a favourite and pin it to the wall. Take heart from this gift of poetry.

Bernadette Hall is Otago born and bred. Following a long and much enjoyed career as a high school teacher in Dunedin and Christchurch, she has for the last eighteen years lived in a renovated bach at Amberley Beach in the Hurunui, North Canterbury, where she has built up a beautiful garden. Fancy Dancing is her eleventh collection of poetry. ‘It’s as close as I’ll ever get to writing an autobiography,’ she says, laughing. And as for the wilful sonnets that explode in the final pages of this book, she wonders where on earth they came from. ‘It was such fun writing them,’ she says, ‘as if I‘d kicked down the stable doors and taken to the hills.’ In 2015 she collaborated with Robyn Webster on Matakaea, Shag Point, an art /text installation exhibited at the Ashburton Art Gallery. In the same year she was awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for literary achievement in poetry. In 2017 she was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Victoria University Press page

Poetry Shelf sonnet from Fancy Dancing

ANZL review by Lynley Eadmeades

Best NZ Poems, sonnet from Fancy Dancing

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