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Poetry Shelf review: Reading Mary Kisler’s Finding Frances Hodgkins

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Mary Kisler Finding Frances Hodgkins Massey University Press, 2019

 

 

At First Glance

 

At first glance you are a bird in flight

wings flapping and paper flailing

feet above the cobbled bridge

ready to land on a blank page

as happy as the lark,

Dorothy behind with strings let loose.

 

At first glance you carry a pigeon on your head

a thousand pictures and a thousand words

colours to cry for and lines to settle on

the tools of art tucked tight beneath your arm

in the blackest of winters and the blackest of springs,

Dorothy behind with her feet on the ground.

 

At first glance you are a moth to the flame

wings beating and cloth shivering

feet above the water

ready to land on windmills and cabbages

the cloud effects magnificent,

 Dorothy behind with an eye on the light.

 

Paula Green

from Making Lists for Frances Hodgkins Auckland University Press, 2007

 

One summer I was invited to write something for a Frances Hodgkins exhibition – I lay on my bed surrounded by catalogues of her work and pitched deep into her paintings. It was a curious experience, because the more I looked, the more I became entangled in her artwork and the more her artwork became entangled in me: my back story, my obsessions, my predispositions, my failings. I ended up writing a poetry collection that I named Making Lists for Frances Hodgkins.

All these years later I am lounging back after finishing Wild Honey and find myself entangled in Frances’s paintings again; but this time it is a little more intricate – thicket like – because I am entering the artwork by way of Mary Kisler’s terrific new book Finding Frances Hodgkins. The book is beautifully produced by Massey University Press, with a generous serving of Frances’s paintings and drawings, and photographs from the archives and from Mary’s travels. Mary is the Senior Curator, Mackelvie Collection, International Art at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

In 2013 Mary was updating an unpublished catalogue raisonné of the works of Frances, and it proved a challenging task solving the unnamed titles and places. Keen to track the changes in style and subject matter in the work of such a nomadic artist, Mary decided to trace Frances’s travels through Italy, France, Spain, Morocco and Britain. Armed with the artist’s work on her iPad and her letters, Mary journeyed through Europe. The final result is a little treasure; a book that stitches you as reader to Mary as traveller/memoirist and to Frances as artist. It is a concertina booklet; Frances’s paintings folds onto Mary’s vivid descriptions, musings and anecdotes which fold onto Frances’s anecdotes which fold onto Mary’s photographs which fold onto your own experiences which fold back onto the paintings themselves. Unfold the whole sequence and your breathtaking absorption of a painting is rich and surprising.

Mary immerses you in the world of Frances – her daily routines, the physical scenes, the painter’s observations –  the writing culled from letters, the lexicon of paint and from standing in places where Frances once stood/painted. A particular painting, Hill Landscape (1936), with its juxtaposed motifs and borrowed elements, is described as ‘a memoir, so pleasing and much richer than a postcard or a photograph that captures only a single place in a single moment’.  Herein lies the joy of the book – the way Mary’s engaging travels have produced a book that offers postcards and photographs yet is so much more. It is travel guide, art guide and twinned memoir that draws you close to place, both past and present. As much as it illuminates the workings of an artist does it illuminate the workings and preoccupations of a scholar. Everything seems to bound off and rebound against each other. I love that.

Take Frances on truth and how she is perceived:

I wish the papers wouldn’t make me out a sort of freak artist. I am really a very sober minded thoughtful sort of person with nothing slapdash or offhand about my work. Every stroke I put down comes from real conviction & is a sincere aspect of truth – if not the whole truth. If I can only live long enough the world will have to acknowledge me – I am horribly stubborn & I haven’t lived these long years of privation & hard work for nothing.’

By 1929 Frances is pleased to be in the news and exhibiting alongside Len Lyre and emerging modernists Henry Moore, Ben and Winifred Nicholson and Paul Nash. In a letter to her brother Bert she writes:

It is about time they realise I exist and am doing something a little more significant than the usual ruck of artists who come to Europe – even it is unpopular now people will in time grow used to the strangeness of my technique, a “handwriting” unfamiliar to them and therefore ‘eave a brick at its ‘ead!

To view the paint stroke as a form of handwriting is genius – with its subjective gestures and colour palette. Her autobiographical script was affected by the art of others, as Mary often points out, but Frances was always forging her own visual voice. It affects me as spectator at the level of both feelings and ideas. I am reminded of Robin Hyde’s pull to flee New Zealand and her ache to write. Frances was also pulled to Europe (and Africa) but in her ‘ache to paint’ she navigated what she felt and witnessed in front of her. She would stick to her own painting impetus but she would also wipe her canvases clean when her galleries saw ‘flaws’ and demanded new work. ( Interestingly I have lived with an artist for over 30 years and have never witnessed such gallery demands). She was both alone and not alone – alone in the moment of putting brush on canvas but often touring with friends or teaching students to earn money.

Behind any painting (or poem or movie etc) is the narrative and context of its making. Sometimes traces are glimpsed in what is disclosed or hinted at but often it is impenetrable. Frances’s life-long struggle to survive for example. This was a matter of finances, of crippling contracts with galleries and of maintaining her own ‘painting voice’ regardless of the ‘isms’ she rubbed against and the scant recognition back home. Mary highlights this independence: ‘Other English modernists were constantly battling over the right “ism” to follow, but Hodgkins kept her head down and followed her own path, sometimes weaving certain surrealist elements into a partially abstracted tapestry of motifs.’

I am drawn to the way Frances produced a strong bond between place and objects. Sometimes place took the form of an armchair, at other times a Mediterranean vista. The objects were often dreamlike and mnemonic, often a potent symbol. In this sense her paintings become poems – rich in visual chords that activate multiple engagements. This is what attracted me when I was lying on my bed with her catalogues. Mary comments on ‘Self Portrait: Still Life’:

(..) we know what she physically looked like, but encompassed in her self-portrait are aspects of everything that was important to her: objects she loved and which held particular symbolism for her, her favourite scarves reflecting her love of pattern and design, and her ability to construct a work rather than simply paint what was in front of her. It states clearly: judge me by what I do and what I believe, not by how I look.

Finding Frances Hodgkins is a book to linger over, savouring sumptuous detail, along with joyful discoveries and sidetracks. It is kaleidoscopic in its reach, it enhances viewings of Frances’s paintings and the real/imagined woman painting. I love this book because it resists straitjacketing the artist within specific theories in order to explicate her work. The way we write about art, the way we ‘find’ art cannot fit into a single reductive box. We can critique within the critical climate of our time but we can also choose independent paths (whilst brushing up and absorbing traces of contemporary thinking, styles, tastes).  Mary has followed in the path of Frances but she has made that path her own.

Of course no one really ‘finds’ Frances Hodgkins, because she will never fit comfortably into a single box. But what I hope to have done on this journey is cast some light on how important place became in her search for modernity, and her individuality as an artist, respecting the work of others but always taking her own path. (Mary Kisler)

This is a book I will treasure for a long time.

 

 

Massey University Press author page

Mary Kisler in conversation with Kim Hill on RNZ Saturday morning

 

 

Evening

 

Between the skeletal tree and the blue grape, my ears ring.

Between the black roof and the soft drape, my skin yellows.

Between the support of the loggia and the altar table, my voice holds back.

From the pink hill to the fallen leaf, and upon black sand, my limbs burn.

From the little windows to the muddy goblet, I make out the women dying.

From the white wall to the sensual fruit, my hands seek slim comforts.

Between the streamy clouds and the blue jar, I rest upon crisp sheets.

Between the blood shadows and the chalky highlights, my stomach empties.

Between the eye of the house and your eye, I am in limbo.

 

Paula Green from Making Lists for Frances Hodgkins

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Writing Life: Twelve New Zealand Authors – a reading by Albert Wendt and a review

 

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The Writing Life: Twelve New Zealand Authors edited by Deborah Shephard

Massey University Press, 2018

 

 

 

Albert Wendt reads ‘Used-by Date’

 

 

Twelve authors talk to biographer and historian, Deborah Shephard, about writing and living. It is a captivating new book. Deborah has done an excellent job drawing out stories and raising issues; from what it means to write alongside domestic and money-earning demands to coping with both success and failure. She is familiar with the authors’ books and the context of the times in which they were written. The interviews often feel like a warm and stimulating conversation rather than a pre-prepared interview. John McDermott took stunning photographs to accompany the text.

Joy Cowley’s interview is essential reading. I didn’t realise how tough things were for her in her first marriage and how writing became increasingly important. The depth and range of her revelations moved me. I have been a big fan of Joy’s writing for decades. Along with Margaret Mahy she has also shown me that writers can be generous beyond the writing desk – in the way they listen and back younger or emerging writers (from the child to the adult). Joy was motivated to write New Zealand children’s books because it was really hard to find local examples.

Writing was something I just did. Wanting to be a writer, well, that’s like wanting to be a breather. I just lived stories.

Joy said she used to think people were like apples that fell from trees when they withered and dried but that she now thinks of people as onions – beautifully layered. This is an apt description for the interviews, for the writing life.

Deborah undertakes the interviews on the author’s turf, often over several days, and that makes a difference. We discover that Fiona Kidman has images of her writing mentors on the wall: Robyn Hyde, Katherine Mansfield, Margurite Duras. When they talk about Fiona’s mother and her knowledge of china, there is some Royal Doulton with pansies on the wall . That this is the china that featured as decorative end pieces in Fiona’s poetry collection This Change in the Light adds layers for me. I feel present in Fiona’s kitchen and I am reminded of her terrific poems about her mother.

 

My way of communicating with the world from when I was a very solitary child was through the written word.

 

Fiona’s interview covers family, friendship and feuds, love and terrible loss, along with the origins of her novels, the way she brings them to life and the way her writing process has changed over time. Her novels catch me immeasurably with their humaneness, their warmth and empathy; and the meticulous attention paid to details (think dialogue, setting, signs of the time). I have just read her latest, This Mortal Boy, and I recommend it highly.

In her interview Fiona returns to the 1970s, a time when women were reassessing their roles, finding their voice, standing together and speaking out. I was fascinated to read the back story to her debut novel, A Breed of Women – the way an early unpublished novel, ‘Club Litany’, was shelved because ‘it wasn’t a book I was quite ready to live with’. That novel formed the basis of A Breed of Women – the novel that affected so many women at the time. Fiona talks about entering ‘some new hall of knowledge’ and the women who gave her both the confidence to write and the tools to explore feminist issues.

I was particularly drawn to Fiona’s struggle to find a way to put Māori in her novels  – Fiona grew up close to Māori communities and married a man with both Māori and Pākehā ancestry and has a daughter with Māori and Pākehā ancestry.

Again I am riveted by the conversation; the way it takes me back to Fiona’s writing and the way I reconsider what it was like to write in a particular time in a particular place.

 

Owen Marshall’s interview begins with Deborah reading his poem, ‘Missing person file – Jane Ella’, aloud. The poem features his mother and his slender memories of her; she had died when he was young. She is also there because Marshall had adopted her maiden name as his writing surname. His father remarried and had six more children to add to the initial three. Owen wanted to stay at secondary school beyond 5th form so was allowed to if he paid for it and contributed a small sum towards the household. Fascinating – the commitment to learn when many of his friends were reluctant. Like his father he savoured books and academic learning along with outdoor activities.

I loved the way Owen described the relationship between experience and invention in a novel or short story:

Much of that is my own experience, but burnished and reformed by the process that is fiction writing.

And that Owen prefers the novel to autobiography when he is asked about his short memoir:

The memoir is based on two short pieces I did for Sport magazine and takes my life only to the beginning of the nineties when I left full-time teaching and became a professional writer. I did enjoy revisiting an earlier time and earlier self, but the experience hasn’t given me a desire to write my autobiography. I prefer to be seen through the prism of my work.

 

Albert Wendt, like Joy Cowley, has gifted us literature across diverse genres and has offered  extraordinary  support towards other writers, both emerging and established. In the interview he keeps some things private out of respect to the living but he draws us close to his lineage, to parents and grandparents, to the way writing both takes flight and becomes grounded. In a talk to students at his old school, New Plymouth Boys’ High he said:

 

Our lives are made up of great joy and love and also great pain and suffering and change. At times we feel like giving up. But this is the only life we have so we have to try and survive it, and enjoy it. Live it with integrity and honesty and to the best of your gifts.

 

I want to pin this to my wall. Like many of the authors I have read so far, the writing life is a life of both challenge and joy. It is also a life of reading, and in most cases from an early age. Albert is no exception. He read the Bible and then the School Journal before hiding himself away in the secondary -school library. Then his sixth-form English teacher gave handouts of The Waste Land.

 

I’d never heard of The Waste Land but when he began reading, shit, it was like listening to music and the way my grandmother chanted. We studied the whole poem for the next two weeks and my attention was held right from the beginning.

 

Albert talks about the way he has always been political; and of his willingness to write about and challenge racism. He talks about the way politics infused Sons for the Return Home. I remember reading this book the year after I had left school – and thinking, as it settled inside me, this is what writing can do. Albert said:

 

When I write it’s mainly for myself. I’m writing a book that I would like to read. It has to mean something to me and if it has some impact on the public then good, but that is not my aim.  At the time I wrote Sons for the Return Home I had become politicised, and I still am, but I was interested in exploring colonisation, what it does to people, both the colonised and the coloniser.

 

I am also fascinated by the process of  writing and the way it differs from writer to writer. Albert speaks of writing poems:

 

I deliberately set out to make them feel effortless, but to achieve that sometimes I had to rewrite and rewrite, or leave it for a few days and then go back to it. With my new collection From Mānoa to a Ponsonby Garden I decided to write a set of poems fourteen lines long each, and centre each one on this garden and this house and Reina, our cat, me, and any other creature that entered the garden, and see what happened. I was doing what I do with my paintings, deliberately limiting the colours, and the bloody poems began to take off. And instead of having short lines I decided to have fourteen fairly lengthy lines and make them appear just casual, and closer to prose.

 

I love this book. I love the way it returns me to writing I am familiar  with and lives that I am not. It reminds me that the writing process is addictive, sustaining and for many a necessary joy. It is not a criticism – because I found the interviews I have read immensely satisfying – but at the end of each one I wanted to enter the room and carry on the conversation myself.

I shall read the other interviewed authors over summer: Marilyn Duckworth, Tessa Duder, Marilyn Duckworth, Chris Else, Patricia Grace, David Hill, Witi Ihimaera, Vincent O’Sullivan and Philip Temple.

 

Massey University Press page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Update on my book on New Zealand women’s poetry

 

 

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Wild Honey: Reading New Zealand women’s poetry

 

Many of you have been asking when my big book will be out.

I can now share my good news: Massey University Press will publish the book in 2019.

It is so exciting to be moving into the next stages.

Heartfelt thanks to everyone who has invested time and insight in my book to date.

Now I can’t wait to share the book with you! I especially can’t wait to share the cover!

 

 

 

 

 

 

My SST review of the refreshed Poetry NZ Yearbook

Book review: Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2017 edited by Dr Jack Ross

Dr Jack Ross.

Supplied

Dr Jack Ross.

Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2017

edited by Dr Jack Ross

Massey University Press, $35

Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2017 
edited by  Dr Jack Ross

Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2017 edited by Dr Jack Ross

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.

 – Stuff