Read it here at Communion Arts Journal
Read it here at Communion Arts Journal
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
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 …
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.
I know I find it hard to listen.
I read too much. I often need a drink.
It isn’t the world that makes us think,
it’s words that we can’t come up with.
Sure, I can work up fresh examples
and send them off to the committee.
But the poetry is in the bird. And in the pretty.
Bill Manhire, from ‘Polly’
International poetry traffic is so often dependent upon fortuitous connections. The degree of familiarity with poetry from elsewhere is utterly paltry compared with the degree of familiarity I have with local writing. Yes I have studied American and British poetry but I am more aware of the luminous stars in these poetry constellations than the grassroot outings.
On the other hand, we are no longer dependent upon ocean voyages and the constraints of distance, but to what degree does our poetry travel (compared say with fiction)? Or our poetry conversations extend beyond our lapping tidelines.
I am acutely aware of my impoverished relations with contemporary Australian poetry. Perhaps Joan Fleming and Amy Brown could guest edit a local journal with an Australian focus? But then again our journals are often annual and offer vital but scant opportunities for local poets.
This is not the first time an overseas journal has showcased New Zealand poetry, but it is perhaps the example I am most excited by. The editors – Stephanie Burt (USA), Paul Millar (NZ) and Chris Price (NZ) – have worked hard to present a distinctive and diverse overview of our current poetry. The selected poets cross all manner of borders: age, geographical location, style, university affiliation, gender, ethnicity. This matters if we want to move beyond the legacy of white male predomination, urban bias and privileged poetry models. I cannot name a NZ journal that has achieved such movement.
Yes the five books Daisy Fried reviewed – from the fifteen 2017 publications she was sent – were all Victoria University Press. Her selection certainly does not reflect the contours of that year, and we can all stand on the sidelines and shout (or sing) about the books we loved, but I have no issue with reviews reflecting individual taste. However I do take issue that a short intro and five VUP books can respond to her opening question: ‘How to characterise a national poetry?’ Why would you even try! It is a personal take on five excellent books.
The rest of the journal is an altogether different joy. The effect of reading is symphonic in the different hues and chords. Every single poem lifts off the page and catches both ear and eye. Such freshness, such lightness, darkness, musicality, room to breathe, surprising arcs and links and undercurrents. I keep swaying between Anna Jackson’s glorious bee poem and the flickering titles that coalesce in Nina Powles’s offering or the infectious wit of James Brown, Ashleigh Young and Tim Upperton. I am pulled into the bite of Anahera Gildea, Chris Tse and then Tayi Tibble and stop in the tracks of reading. Travelling with Janet Charman and the revelatory suite makes me weep. Switching to Anne Kennedy and the momentum coils and overlaps and poetry transforms a starting point into elasticity on the line. Bill Manhire flips me over into the second stanza, and the lacework of reading – intricate yet full of holes – offers mystery, surprise, wit, curious things.
The time of breathing into clasped hands
hovering over a lighter to make a flame
that an angry man threw his eyes into the night
the belly of his shattered father
weeping rain for separation of earth and sky
Jessie Puru from ‘Matariki’
The editors did not feel beholden to poetry that targets versions of New Zealand/ Aotearoa; our poetry might do this and then again it might not. The poems have the freedom to do and be anything whether they spring from spoken-word rhythms or talkiness or thinginess or anecdotal revelations or sumptuous Baroque-detail or story or slanted humour or cutting political edges.
The poets: Anna Jackson, Kate Camp, Michele Leggott, Therese Lloyd, Jessie Puru, Essa Ranapiri, Tayi Tibble, Robert Sullivan, Kerrin P. Sharpe, Hera Lindsay Bird, Dylan Horrocks, James Brown, Murray Edmond, Jenny Bornholdt, Anne Kennedy, Bill Manhire, Nina Powles, Janet Charman, Anahera Gildea, Bernadette Hall, Vincent O’Sullivan, Courtney Sina Meredith, C.K. Stead, Chris Tse, Tim Upperton, Gregory O’Brien and John Pule, Faith Wilson, Ashleigh Young, Albert Wendt, Steven Toussaint, Erik Kennedy
This issue is a cause for celebration – I absolutely love it – and my celebration will take the form of a subscription. New Zealand poetry has been well served – congratulations!
everything I never asked my grandmother
I can understand but I can’t speak
no one has played that piano since
New Zealand is so far away from here
let me translate for you the poem on the wall
Nina Powles from ‘Some titles for my childhood memoir’
a trek through bush
arriving at the party breathless
climb onto the verandah
one each side of the open door
with the music
pumping from the lit living room
down the empty hall
then who should step up?
out of the dark
as if with this starry fingering
the sinews of the self
©Janet Charman 2017 (March 19th)
‘door tender’ is one of the etymological origins of clitoris.
That said this poem is set at a borderspace of self-fragilization, so the door is open.
Janet Charman’s essay ‘A piece of why’ appears in the current issue of The Poetry New Zealand Yearbook (Jack Ross Ed., 2017, PNZ, Massey University Press). In it some of the patriarchal implications of Allen Curnow’s three post-war Caxton and Penguin poetry anthologies are discussed. Drawing in this, on the Matrixial theories of Bracha Ettinger, in terms of the affects and effects of transmissive trauma.
Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2017
edited by Dr Jack Ross
Massey University Press, $35
Wellington poet Louis Johnson established the Poetry New Zealand Yearbook in 1951. It has just received a well-deserved makeover by Massey University Press. The new design is eye-catching, the writing has room to breathe and the content is eclectic. With Victoria and Otago University Presses publishing Sport and Landfall, it is good to see a literary magazine finding a home in Auckland. It is the only magazine that devotes sole attention to poetry and poetics, with an abundant measure of poems, reviews and essays.
Editor Dr Jack Ross aims to spotlight emerging and established poets and include “sound, well-considered reviews”. There are just under 100 poets in the issue, including Nick Ascroft, Riemke Ensing, Elizabeth Smither, Anna Jackson, Michele Leggott and Kiri Piahana-Wong. When I pick up a poetry journal, I am after the surprise of a fresh voice, the taste of new work by a well-loved poet, the revelatory contours of poetry that both behaves and misbehaves when it comes to questionable rule books. The annual delivers such treats.
A welcome find for me is the featured poet: Elizabeth Morton. Morton’s debut collection will be out this year with Makaro Press, so this sampler is perfect with its lush detail, lilting lines and surreal edges. My favourite poem, Celestial Bodies is by Rata Gordon (‘When you put Saturn in the bath/ it floats./ It’s true.’). Fingers-crossed we get to see a debut collection soon.
Mohamed Hassan’s breath-catching poem, the cyst, is another favourite: “In the small of my back/ at the edge of where my fingertips reach/ when I stretch them over my shoulder/ it is a dream of one day going home for good.”
You also get the sweet economy of Alice Hooton and Richard Jordan; the shifted hues of Jackson and Leggott (‘She is my rebel soul, my other self, the one who draws me out and folds me away’); the humour of Smither.
To have three essays – provocative and fascinating in equal degrees – by Janet Charman, Lisa Samuels and Bryan Walpert is a bonus.
Ross makes great claims for the generous review section suggesting “shouting from the rooftops doesn’t really work in the long-term”. A good poetry review opens a book for the reader as opposed to snapping it shut through the critic’s prejudices. However on several occasions I felt irritated by the male reviewers filtering poetry by women through conservative and reductive notions of what the poems are doing.
Ross’ review of Cilla McQueen’s memoir In a Slant Light highlighted a book that puzzled him to the point he did not not know exactly what she wanted “to share”. In contrast I found a poignant book, ripe with possibility and the portrait of a woman poet emerging from the shadows of men.
Poetry New Zealand Yearbook, in its revitalised form, and as a hub for poetry conversations, is now an essential destination for poetry fans. Not all the poems held my attention, but the delights are myriad.
Poets Jenny Bornholdt, Janet Charman, Owen Connors, Andrew Johnston, Bill Manhire and Chris Price contribute dazzling audio recordings of recent work and comment on their Six Pack selections. They join a gallery of recorded performances by poets working in Aotearoa New Zealand and the Pacific region. Click, listen and browse Six Pack Sound’s growing sampler of remarkable poetic voices.