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Poetry Shelf review: Catherine Bagnall & L. Jane Sayle’s ‘on we go’

on we go, Catherine Bagnall and L. Jane Sayles, Massey University Press, 2021

On we go

Empty suitcase made of leaves

and a stomach light as air

just to walk up in the sky

talking with you

Artist Catherine Bagnall grew up between the bush and Wellington harbour’s eastern shore. She lectures at the College of Creative Arts Toi Rauwhārangi, Massey University. L. Jane Sayle was raised on Wellington’s south coast. She has lectured in art and design history, and collected and sold curios and ephemera. This is her debut poetry collection.

Jane was living in Munich and Catherine was in Wellington when they began on we go. It is an exquisite collaboration that matches watercolours with poetry. I had no idea about their working process when I first read the book. I read the images, then read the poetry and finally I read the conjunctions that simmered away between art and text. A magical and unique reading experience. In fact Catherine and Jane exchanged emails but produced the work independently with neither art nor poetry coming first.

Enter the collection and you enter a magical place that resembles a series of open windows and doors, thresholds that lead you to a world that is rendered ethereal, fable-inducing, childlike, dreamy, mysterious. The translucent layers in both the poetry and the images transport you to shadow and light, the familiar and the achingly strange.

I read the watercolours first, finding my way through a forested world peopled with costumed figures that seem part-child part-adult part-animal (rabbits, cats, butterflies). The trees adopt other-worldly shapes, there is a strong sense of playfulness, of acting out, of visual narratives that open wide for you to go meandering. Dream reading. Sometimes the characters are caught mid-movement while at other times they are transfixed in the scene, caught in the middle of reverie. I love the image of the two cats, one larger and one small, one black and one blue, on the doorstep staring out into the ambiguous colour-washed world. I am there on the threshold as reader and am part of the world-gazing. There is a tiny teapot next to the two cats, a miniature marker of the domestic, of curios and collectibles, of rituals that shape a day. On the other side of the page, two figures awkwardly climb into their cat costumes, one tall and one small, one black and one blue, with arms bent and askew, and one reaching out fingertips to touch the threshold, the tree branch, the great big magical wide open world.

The art work is mesmerising, a watery narrative that can never be pinned down to single meanings, dead-end stories. I didn’t discover the mode of working until the endnote. Catherine makes clothes resembling ‘other-ly creatures’ with tails, ears and fur, and wears them into the forest where she archives her experience / performances. These then are translated into the watercolours. I liked reading the images before discovering this, so I hope I haven’t spoiled the pathways for you.

What bird is that?

Between winds

soft sunshine

strands of lemon lichen

across a satin-grey rock bank

and the smell of blackberry

living for the moment

inside the quiet air

on the nameless day

Armed with this fascinating biographical snippet, I then read Jane’s poems wondering if a poet can also make her her own ‘other-ly’ dress-up clothes that she wears into the forest before archiving her performances (so to speak). The elegant poetry achieves the same layering of mystery, etherealness, economy. Enter the layered poems and you draw upon the metaphysical, the ambiguous, the translucent, the metaphorical. The poems are potent, allowing tiny narratives of your own making, with everything delighting in the present tense. We are directed to the small and we are sidetracked to the large. There is vital economy and there is vital plenitude. There are ideas and there are moods. The detail is lush, the sound effects are intricate.

When the poem, ‘On we go’, offers an empty suitcase that is made of leaves, the suitcase itself becomes the point of fascination rather than the contents. And then the whole notion of emptiness pulls you back, and the collection pivots on whatever is there and whatever is not. I see this collaboration as part fable, part fairytale, part response to the knotty world but, more than anything, it is a precious contemplation prompt. A gorgeously-produced handbook to keep in your pocket for times you need that moment of dream and drift and replenishment.

Though we were long gone

all our coats were hanging

on hooks in the hall

How things wait

for us to come back

how they mutely love us

as they fade

from ‘Going back’

Massey University Press page

Sample pages