Poetry Shelf feature: Janet Charman launches Michele Leggott’s Face to the Sky

Face to the Sky, Michele Leggott, Auckland University Press, 2023

Launch talk Devonport Library for Michele Leggott’s Face to the Sky, AUP, 2023                                                                                                                                                          


Reading Face to the Sky is like finding oneself
present at a freshly excavated site of human
habitation –not in Pompeii,
but in volcanic Taranaki. These poems address
matters we would have believed permanently
faded, or choked into silence, but here they
are, the tones and colour of past lives,
revealed anew – in ways never imagined.

Long-familiar monumental histories
woven through with intimate scenes
from daily life – the comforts, secrets,
shocks and lies of family drama. And it is
these intricately detailed personal narratives,
which have the cumulative effect, in this
collection, of making all too visible,
the shakiness of the grand colonising myths
in which Pākehā lives are embedded.

My family shifted to Taranaki when I was seven
          – Michele’s family has been resident
for several generations. But even as the poems
in Face to the Sky let the light into long ignored
ocean vistas; forest-clearings; Taranaki dwellings;
and extraordinary events – Michele’s excavations
also point insistently to those yet older stories,
which in this contested terrain, are waiting
to be recovered.

The collection, with its delectable imagery,
thematically echoes the forensic joie de vivre
of Sydney Parkinson’s botanical watercolours.
But equally, Michele stitches her own heretical
impressions into the ‘natural history’ record.
Her poems ‘give a sense of the British explorers’
utter intrusiveness – their presence made
recognisable here – even in their own words–
as evidence from an unfolding crime scene.
One in which intrepid voyagers & travellers are
paradoxically revealed as both victims and
perpetrators. Michele’s reader made vulnerable
in this to experiences formerly airbrushed out
of our histories and herstories.

A scatter of now souvenir cartridge-cases
testifies to the terror of flying bullets;
the death of a negligible newborn is allowed
to be a source of unassuageable grief;
in the name of taxonomy there are casually
merciless depredations of species;
a rat runs across the children’s blanket;
the photographic milestones of a
           beloved family are performed against the
           entropy of a long-vanished living-room wallpaper;
two tall sons, one dark one fair, are caught
in cherished meet-ups with their parents;
tearing news – devastating
to yet other families, unknown – is given to us
of the suicide bomber at Kabul Airport;
and Te Reo – yet to be ghosted – is heard,
everywhere, throughout the land.
While always, nipping at the reader’s heels,
is the sheer inexplicability of an ongoing,
near-death, health crisis.

In a series of micro-pauses centred
on the heartfelt, these poems
imaginatively reconnect a fearless traveller,
abroad in the world, with past traumatic
& jouissant events: inviting us to acknowledge,
with equal fearlessness, our own buried
and denied connections.

I now call on you, in defiance of suffering
and disaster, in celebration of this beautiful
book, to raise your voices
in a toast to a formidable collection:
to Michele Leggott and her
Face to the Sky!


Janet Charman, Avondale, 19. 4. 2023

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