Lynn Davidson Islander Victoria University Press 2019
Time goes slower in the sea
and faster in the mountains.
Physics has taken over
where poetry left off.
Lynn Davidson’s terrific new poetry collection, Islander, travels between Scotland and New Zealand, between the place she grew up (Kapiti, Wellington) and the place she now lives (Edinburgh). Divided into five parts the poems move amidst light, fire and earth. Like Dinah Hawken, Lynn pays close attention to the world about her, the physical world, the inhabited world, a world buffeted by weather, seasons, time. Her poems are layered and fluent and measured.
The opening poem, ‘My stair’, sees the speaker (the poet?) looking out, in an eerie night light, from her second-floor window onto the bus depot. She evokes a scene through pitch perfect detail and a surprising simile (‘buses lightly lumber / into the yellow depot / like bubbles back / into solution’). But the surprise for me, the point of ruffle and ripple, is the mention of the father:
My father’s heart is failing, he fills up
with fluid (like an empty bus fills up with light?)
I look for flights.
One of the pleasures of this collection is the eclectic movement. There is movement born from departure, from the sway between presence and absence, birds in flight, the ripple of water, the movement of a musing and contemplative mind. A number of poems struck me. ‘A hillside of houses leave’ is mysterious, magical and rich in movement. Like many of the poems, there is a link to birds that might be symbolic but that is always physical.
Steeped in old weather the wooden houses
remember their bird-selves and unfold
The poem holds the conundrum of life – its impermanence, its fragility and the little anchors, the necessary bones.
People curl inside
the bones that keep them
that will not keep them long.
The presence of birds is fitting in a collection that navigates islands – the birds might signal the ocean’s presence, the multiple flights, the multiple nests, the bird on the poet’s sight line, the bird carried by heart, the bird house and the bird lungs.
I began to see the collection as a poetry chain; where this poem rubs against that poem and that poem rubs against this. Here the light of this day touches the light of that day which touches the light of the day before all the way back to ancient times. Dinah has a poem dedicated to her and I am reminded of Dinah’s ability to evoke the spare and the luminous within a cluster of lines that then open out with absorbing richness. Lynn is similarly dexterous. This from Lynn’s ‘Bonfire’:
The mainland is rendered down
silvers and is gone.
My heart is green and raw – a pea not a heart –
front to the fire back to the wind.
The groan of stone on stone unsettles
me as I unsettle them.
Islands is also inhabited with daily lives, with anecdote and incident, thus rendering landscape humane as well as wild and beautiful. At times it made me laugh out loud as in ‘Lineage’:
I was nine months pregnant, and waiting, when the man in the
Taranaki airport shop snapped this isn’t a library you know,
and when I turned my great belly full of fingernails and teeth-in-bud
towards him he asked (hotly) if I was actually going to buy anything.
The baby made exclamation marks with its soft bones,
glared with its wide open eyes – two Os. No I said I won’t buy
my news from you.
Lynn traces family, the children who leave, the children who make home solid, the unnamed boy who names home hame, the children half a hemisphere away. This from ‘Leaving Wellington’:
Hours go by and elements still gather.
Each day my waking children, just by naming
assembled all the solid things of world:
the bath, stove, chair, the bed, the window,
the shoe, the dinosaur, the door, the wall.
Then in a kind of via negativa
they composed two empty rooms by leaving home.
I said it was an anchor but it’s not.
It’s a shadow roughly like a kiss.
This is a book to slow down with – just as you slow down when you walk the perimeter of an island – gazing into a shifting sky vista and towards the unreachable but alluring horizon line –letting your own thoughts cascade and catch. It is a book where the view of a poem never settles but keeps revealing new lights, new joys, new surprises. I love this considered pace, this sharp revelation, this anchored heart. I love this book.
Victoria University Press author page
Lynn Davidson is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently How to Live by the Sea (2009, VUP) and a novel, Ghost Net, along with essays and short stories. She grew up in Kāpiti, Wellington and currently lives in Edinburgh.
I am excited right now about the collectivity of writing poetry; how poems draw from poems. In 2016, soon after arriving in Edinburgh, I was invited to join a collective of women writers who had come together at the request of the Cooper Gallery in Dundee to respond to their exhibition about a 70s collective art movement called the Feministo Postal Art Event. The Postal Art Event began with two artists – Sally Gollop and Kate Walker. When Sally moved away from South London where she and Kate were neighbours to another part of the UK, both women missed sharing their art so began posting small artworks to each other. Other women artists heard of and picked up this idea and in homes across cities, towns and villages in the UK women made, posted and received art and generated a community of artists. We echoed the Feministo Postal Art Event’s process in a 21st Century way, by writing and responding to each other’s work via a shared Google document.
Our collective is called 12. There are twelve of us, we are Edinburgh-based, and we have continued to write and respond to each other’s poems via a shared Google document for more than two years. We sometimes perform our work, and have been asked to respond to several art exhibitions, most recently to Emma Hart’s Banger at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. We are finding that the poems we write for 12 are a bit different to the poems we write outside of that particular circle of response. Why? I’m not sure, but there’s something about being honest about writing from community. About calling our lone selves in from the hills. The collectivity of making is front and centre; no one is pretending otherwise.
Lynn Davidson is a New Zealand writer living in Edinburgh. Her latest poetry collection Islander is published by Shearsman Books and Victoria University Press (out this month). Lynn teaches creative writing, works in Edinburgh libraries and is a member of 12, a feminist poetry collective.
There are so many books to catch up on now the PhD is done and dusted! But of the poetry I managed to read this year, these ones stayed with me. John Dennison’s Otherwise combines really fine crafting with breadth of vision and a deep interest in connectedness, including with other New Zealand writers. From ‘Lone Kauri (reprise)’: ‘So take for starters the surge-black fissure, / the waves which register the lunatic sense / it is all well beyond us.’
Lynn Jenner’s Lost and Gone Away brings us poetry in prose and the old world in the new: This from a reflection on the sculpture Rudderstone in the Wellington Botanic Gardens where amongst ‘Pacific’blue marble, there are ‘some small, irregularly shaped pieces of black…They are pieces of the Old World that came with us.’
Joan Fleming’s Failed Love Poems are energetically engaged with language and movement and the strange corners and shores of love that can hardly be articulated, but find articulation here: ‘Un-husbanded nuisance fire. Or grovel, or chisel down, chisel down’– from ‘The Invention of Enough.’
And finally the big excitement for me was a new book of poems by Kathleen Jamie, The Bonniest Company. This from ‘Arbour’:
…May is again pegged out
across the whole northern hemisphere, and today
is my birthday. Sudden hailstorms sting
this provisional asylum. We are not done yet.
Gregory O’Brien at Tjibaou Cultural Centre, Noumea, March 2015
Photo Credit: Elizabeth Thomson
Gregory O’Brien is the 2015 Stout Memorial Fellow at the Stout Research Centre, Victoria University, where he is currently working on a book about poetry, painting and the environment. His new collection of poems is Whale Years (Auckland University Press). He has published numerous books of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Since 2011 he has contributed to the ongoing Kermadec art project, works from which are on show at the Tjibaou Cultural Centre, New Caledonia, until July.
‘Ocean sound, what is it
you listen for?’
Did your childhood shape you as a poet? What did you like to read? Did you write as a child?
As far as I can recall, I drew more than I painted. And I always gravitated towards illustrated books—Tove Jansson’s ‘Moomin’ books stand out, and I remember The Lord of the Rings, as much for its illuminated maps as for the words. I went through a phase of reading comics—Whizzer & Chips rather than Batman. I date my interest in the interplay of words and visual images to those early encounters.
I doodled at every available opportunity and I remember being hauled out of class and punished for drawing, rather well, a crouching deer on the inside cover of my maths book. I usually captioned my drawings—so maybe those captions could be thought of as my first writings. Occasionally I filled in speech- or thought-balloons above various life-forms.
When you started writing poems as a young adult, were there any poets in particular that you were drawn to (poems/poets as surrogate mentors)?
I can trace this pretty exactly, I think. Aged 14: Bob Dylan’s ‘Writings & Drawings’. Aged 15: Dylan Thomas. Aged 16: James K. Baxter and Flann O’Brien (I liked to pretend Flann was an actual relative. I even screen-printed his book-title AT SWIM-TWO-BIRDS on a singlet—an item I still have in my wee box of treasures.) Aged 17: John Cage (Silence, and A Year from Monday). By the age of 18, I was living in Dargaville, and it was as if everybody suddenly jumped on board the NZ Road Services bus or bandwagon—I was reading Kenneth Patchen, William Blake, Edith Sitwell, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, e e cummings; also Allen Curnow, Janet Frame, Sam Hunt… I had known about Eileen Duggan for some years, because she was a relative, on my mother’s side. More than anything else, however, it was discovering Robin Dudding’s journal ISLANDS that turned my world around, that brought the whole business home…. Therein I discovered Ian Wedde, Bill Manhire, Elizabeth Smither, CK Stead…
Did university life transform your poetry writing? Theoretical impulses, research discoveries, peers?
I was six years out of school by the time I finished my BA, so my university life was mixed in, very much, with everything else that was going on: with 15 months in Dargaville, a year or so in Sydney… At university, I certainly wasn’t drawn to theory except in so far as I thought it was a grand imaginative game that might, periodically, yield unpredictable and outlandish results. I enjoyed the pottiness of Ezra Pound’s literary (rather than his political) theorising… An ABC of Reading is a great book. Probably the Zen-inclined John Cage and the Trappist Thomas Merton were the two non-fiction writers I held closest to me.
Reading your poetry makes me want to write. I love the way your poems delve deep into the world, surprisingly, thoughtfully yet never let go of the music of the line. Words overlap and loop and echo. There is an infectious joy of language at work. What are key things for you when you write a poem?
I listen to a lot of music. I want the poems to have something of the music that I love. I spend a lot of my time looking at art. And I want my poems to have something of the art that I love. There are aspects of composition, tone, rhythm and character which span all these different creative modes. Those are the key factors for me when I write… At a certain point, an appropriate form makes itself known…. The poem has to dive down into and surface from some essential state of being… There is certainly a joy in doing the things that you love; so there’s joy in the making and, preceding that, in the state of being that leads to the making….
Do you see yourself as a philosophical poet? Almost Zen-like at times?
My concept of philosophy is broad and shambolic enough to accommodate what I do as a writer. I’ve never read extensively in the field of Zen (apart from the books of John Cage and the writing of my friend Richard von Sturmer). I’ve read a little, and somewhat randomly, in the field of non-conformist Catholic thought: Simone Weill, Meister Eckhart, Merton, Baxter… These peregrinations may have affected me more than I realise or am prepared to say.
Do you think your writing has changed over time?
I guess writing has to evolve – otherwise it will become predictable and a total drag. I’m as entranced as I ever was with the process, the business, the labour of it. At the same time, I remain devoted to the finished form of it: The printed book, with its covers and half-title and title-page; and the shapes of words on the page and maybe illustrations. Poetry is an art that, if it’s working, is constantly reinventing itself.
I look back at my early poems and find fault. I find myself blaming an over-voracious intake of French Surrealism; too much Kenneth Patchen one year, too much Stevie Smith the next… Too much John Berryman! And, next year, not enough John Berryman! But the ship sails on, and finds new oceans to ply.
You write in a variety of genres (poetry, non-fiction, critical writing). Do they seep into each other? Your critical writing offers the reader a freshness of vision and appraisal – not just at the level of ideas but the way you present those ideas, lucidly, almost poetically. Does one genre have a particular grip on you as a writer?
I’m only starting to realise the inter-relatedness of these different genres. A few years back I started to explore poetry’s potential to carry information, also to elaborate upon a thought in a more detailed kind of way, ie. to have an almost essayistic function. So quite a few of my longer poems (some of the odes and, particularly, ‘Memory of a fish’ in my new book) are laden with facts, figures and reasonably clearly articulated information.
Needless to say poetry infuses the writing I produce in relation to the visual arts. I find looking at art exciting; it appeals to my poetic self. I don’t really have a critical self. I hope my non-fiction writing has a cadence, a music and a subconscious (rather than a conscious) purposefulness. Pondering my recent writings on artists such as Pat Hanly, Barry Brickell and Michael Hight, I remember in each case hearing a note—a song, almost—in my ear, and I was beholden to it.
Do you think we have a history of thinking and writing about the process of poetry? Any examples that sparked you?
James K. Baxter wrote wonderfully about writing poetry. Bill Manhire’s Doubtful Sounds is an immensely useful and energising book. 99 Ways Into New Zealand Poetry is terrific too. I refer back to my set of the journal ISLANDS and, yes, it seems to me we New Zealanders have been writing about the process as well as the product. Janet Frame’s oeuvre might be our greatest, most enduring instance of writing about writing, thinking about writing, writing about thinking, and thinking about thinking.
Your poetry discussions with Kim Hill are terrific. The entries points into a book are paramount; the way you delight in what a poem can do. What is important for you when you review a book?
I think a book has to become part of your life to really make an impression. It’s the same with music or visual arts. It can’t be a purely intellectual thing, it has to take you over, to some degree. It has to be disarming. Accordingly I tend not to discuss books that don’t ‘do it’ for me. Life’s too short. Fortunately, I have catholic tastes. There are things I enjoy very much in Kevin Ireland, as there are things I enjoy in Michele Leggott. I guess this makes me a lucky guy.
I agree wholeheartedly. I am not interesting in reviewing books on Poetry Shelf unless they have caught me, stalled me (for good reasons!).
What poets have mattered to you over the past year? Some may have mattered as a reader and others may have been crucial in your development as a writer?
Two years ago I went to Paris and met up with one of my all-time heroes, the French poet and art-writer Yves Bonnefoy. He turned 90 last year (Joyeux anniversaire, Yves!) During my recent travels around the Pacific (from New Caledonia to Chile), I’ve taken bilingual editions of Yves with me everywhere. I am interested in the way he has turned the creative conundrum of being an Art Writer and a Poet into something unified and compelling (channelling earlier French poet-art-writers from Baudelaire to Apollinaire, with a nod to Yves’s near-contemporaries, that wondrous group of wanna-be French-art-poets, John Ashbery and the New Yorkers). I also took the poems of Neruda and Borges with me everywhere I went.
What New Zealand poets are you drawn to now?
New Zealand poetry is interesting at the moment. It’s all over the place. As it should be. There are plenty of people I read voraciously. As well as the poets mentioned already: Anna Jackson, Vince O’Sullivan, you Paula, Lynn Davidson, Kate Camp, Geoff Cochrane… Last year I edited a weekly column for the Best American Poets website—that was a good chance to ‘play favourites’, as Kim Hill would say. (All those posts are archived here: http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/new-zealand/) There are some great first books appearing at the moment: Leilani Tamu’s The Art of Excavation; John Dennison’s Otherwise. This bodes very well indeed.
Name three NZ poetry books that you have loved recently.
I was rereading Riemke Ensing’s Topographies (with Nigel Brown’s illustrations) the other day; I found that book very inspiring when it appeared way back in 1984. Lately I’ve also been reading Bob Orr’s crystalline Odysseus in Woolloomooloo and Peter Bland’s Collected Poems… I could go on.
Your new collection, Whale Years, satisfies on so many levels. These new poems offer a glorious tribute to the sea; to the South Pacific routes you have travelled. What discoveries did you make about poetry as you wrote? The world? Interior or external?
The Kermadec voyage, and subsequent travels—most recently to New Caledonia—opened up a huge areas of subjective experience as well as of human and natural history. How do you write about that kind of space, that energy, that life-force? Wherever you travel, the air is different; the ‘night’ has a different character; the smells and textures of the vast Pacific vary from place to place. And people move differently wherever you go – they claim a different kind of space within the environment. My recent travels have been like a door opened on a new world. The last three years of my poetry-writing have been the most intense since I was in my early twenties.
That shows in this book Greg. I am looking forward to reviewing it because it touched a chord in so many ways. I love the idea that poems become little acts of homage. What difficulties did you have as traveller transforming ‘elsewhere’ into poetry? To what degree do you navigate poetry/other place as trespasser, tourist, interloper?
The artist Robin White likes to point out that there is only one ocean on earth. All our oceans are joined together—it’s the same body of water. So, if you take the sea to be your home (which, as Oceanians, believe it or not, we should do), then as long as you’re at sea you’re still, to some degree, in your home environment.
As a poet entering a new environment, I bring with me my responses, my eye, my mind and various kinds of baggage. I’m a curious person by nature so I always want to find new things—things I don’t know anything about. I like it when my preconceptions fall apart. I love being wrong about things; I enjoy the subsidence of the known world. I quote the great post-colonialist writer Wilson Harris in Whale Years: ‘If you can tilt the field then you will dislodge certain objects in the field and your own prepossessions may be dislodged as well.’
I feel that, as a poet, I am most in my element when I am sitting on the ground and learning new things. When the field of the known has been tilted. And filling my notebooks with various tracings of that new knowledge or sensation.
This is a good way to look poetry that takes hold of you; it ‘tilts’ you. I also loved the elasticity of your language – the way a single word ripples throughout a poem gleaning new connections and possibilities. Or the way words backtrack and loop. At times I felt a whiff of Bill Manhire, at others Gertrude Stein. Yet a poem by Gregory O’Brien is idiosyncratic. Are there poets you feel in debt to in terms of the use of language?
Strangely, I can’t read Gertrude Stein anymore. She is one of a very few writers I have been in love with and then the relationship has waned. Maybe, early on, she loosened up my use of language, the extent to which the rational mind is left to run things. There was a music I found in Stein, for sure. But this was something—increasingly—I found in more conventional writers like Wallace Stevens, Robert Creeley and, most recently, in Herman Melville. Moby Dick is a piece of great, symphonic, oceanic music. The novel (for want of a better term) is an incredible noise, a racket of spoken and sung sounds. Melville’s style reminds me of all the depth-finders, radars, monitors and gauges on the bridge of HMNZ Otago as we sailed north to Raoul Island in May 2011. All that information pinging and popping…
Is there a single poem or two in the collection that particularly resonates with you?
The long poem, ‘Memory of a fish’, is the piece that connects various experiences from the three year period in which the book was written, and brings them together—in an essayistic fashion, almost. I enjoy the ebb and flow of the triplets, and the world’s details tripping along them, like things washing ashore on Oneraki Beach… When I was writing that poem I felt I was living inside it, totally. And I haven’t quite climbed out of it yet, to be honest.
The book also demonstrates that eclectic field you plunge into as a reader with its preface quotes. What areas are you drawn into at the moment? Any astonishing finds?
The quotations at the beginning of the three sections of the book are constellations in the night sky above the poetry-ground. They mark points of reference, further co-ordinates, which have guided the writing: W. S. Graham’s ‘The stones roll out to shelter in the sea.’ The Flemish proverb: ‘Don’t let the herring swim over your head.’ Those are verbal artefacts I have carried around with me, much as you would pick up a shell or a colourful leaf. They were/are talismans. So I have stored them inside the book as well. Cherished things.
‘Constellation’ is perfect. I was thinking underground roots that nourish. Or one of any number of maps you can lay over the poems (the map of domestic intrusion, the map of childhood, the map of objects, the map of reading). But yes the process of writing has its constellation-guides as you venture into and from both dark and light.
Poetry finds its way into a number of your paintings (as it does with John Pule). There are a number of drawings included in the book that add a delicious visual layer. How do you negotiate the relationship between painting and poetry? Does one matter more? Do they feed off each other?
My notebooks contain a thick broth of visual and verbal ingredients. These materials arrive in my journal simultaneously. When writing or painting, I separate the words from the visual images and work on them more-or-less separately. When it comes to putting together a book, like Whale Years, these two disparate activities are reunited again. I’ve always loved illustrated books. (I think immediately of Bill Manhire’s The Elaboration, with pictures by Ralph Hotere; Blaise Cendrars’ long Trans-Siberian poem, illustrated by Sonia Delaunay; William Blake illustrating himself, and so on)
NOTES ON THE RAISING OF THE BONES OF PABLO NERUDA AT ISLA NEGRA by John Reynolds & Gregory O’Brien, etching, 2014
You have collaborated with a number of other artists and writers. What have been the joys and pitfalls of collaboration?
There are no pitfalls, as far as I can see. Somehow, I’ve found my way into a few collaborative circumstances and very much enjoyed the results. In the past year I’ve made etchings with my two painter-friends John Reynolds and John Pule. Like Charles Baudelaire and Frank O’Hara before me, I seem to have been lucky enough to fall in with a good crowd of painters (and also photographers—but that’s another story).
SAILING TO RAOUL by John Pule & Gregory O’Brien, etching, 2012 (John titled this work, riffing off Yeats’s ‘Sailing to Byzantium’)
The constant mantra to be a better writer is to write, write, write and read read read. You also need to live! What activities enrich your writing life?
Certainly my recent travels around the Pacific have been hugely enriching. I’m not a proper swimmer, but since I was a child I have had a great passion for floating in, or being upon salt water. (My book News of the Swimmer Reaches Shore grew out of that propensity.) The everydayness of existence is the most enriching thing—as the poems of Horace and Neruda and Wedde keep reminding me. What a great and pleasant swarm of information and sensation we find ourselves amidst, every day of our lives.
Finally if you were to be trapped for hours (in a waiting room, on a mountain, inside on a rainy day) what poetry book would you read?
I keep coming back to the Collected Poems of James K. Baxter. Not because it’s the best book ever written but because of the simple fact that it occupies a huge and resonant place in my life.
Auckland University Press page
New Zealand Book Council page
Arts Foundation page
The Kermadecs page
National Radio page (discussing poetry highlights of 2014 with Kim Hill)
Therese Lloyd Other Animals Victoria University Press, 2013
Therese Lloyd’s debut collection, Other Animals, invites you into little moments, anecdotes and scenes, from which you surf the poetic ripples. Her understated drama (‘the pamphlet from the hospital/ face down on the pillow’) adds an edge. Poems enquire beyond the hum of everyday detail while her endings offer subtle surprises (‘This is the rib to arrive at/ the thin white bone where it all began/ The word on the door reads ‘home’). Her tropes are miniature bursts on the line that add flavour and zest (‘Thin gravy rain and sick-puppy trees’). I also liked her titles: Farmyards of the Mind, Split a Dream Of, Winter Scene with a Candy Floor. Lloyd is a fresh and welcome arrival.
Harry Ricketts Just Then Victoria University Press 2012
Harry Rickett’s new poetry collection, Just Then, is a conversation with the world filtered through the contours of experience rather than the ping and zing of youth. His assured tone draws you to musical lines and miniature exposures of life and love that surprise and delight (‘The words seem to come from/ so far inside they don’t/ seem coloured by you at all’).
The collection is arranged with different notes sounding out — from the wit and sideways steps in Praying to St Anthony to the gentle resistance of a father’s facts-of-life speech in Talking in Cars.
I also loved the physical whiffs of times past that added a nostalgic layer (on my part!) to a collection that is intimate, harmonious, moving.
Lynn Davidson Common Land Victoria University Press 2012
Lynn Davidson mixes essays and poems in Common Land, and for me, the essays shine out. Each perfectly crafted piece glistens with physical detail that heightens the emotional impact.
There is a degree of stream-of-conscious movement in these pieces, but at the core of them lie serious issues such as a mother with Alzheimer’s, the death of an ex-husband and the ability of a word (selah) to cause you to pause, to reflect and absorb. The end result is memorable.
The cluster of Along the River Road poems also stands out. Davidson draws you in and you definitely want to stay. In homage to Ruth Dallas, these poems acknowledge the loveliness of nature but that nature is also ‘strange and relentless,’ and the poet longs for ‘the settled grain of the page’. Personally, I see the grain of the page as never still, but this is a terrific collection.
Michael Hulse and Simon Rae (eds), The 20th Century in Poetry Random House 2011
Edited by Michael Hulse and Simon Rae, The 20th Century in Poetry is a must have for your poetry shelf. With over four hundred poems from the English-speaking world it is a substantial and riveting read.
About eight New Zealand poets make an appearance (including Manhire, Baxter, Curnow and Mason). It’s a tough and subjective job narrowing a century to 400 poems, but I would have included more women and some Pacific and Maori poets (where is Tuwhare?).
The introduction is spot on and highly quotable. I have always said poetry has no rules — or if it does, any rule may be broken in order to get creating.