Monday, May 02, 2016

Elizabeth Morton reviews recent NZ Poetry Collections

This Change in the Light – Fiona Kidman
The old adage, don’t judge a book by its cover, is tricky to abide by when confronted with such an aesthetically charming book. A sunny, kaleidoscopic front cover, with coloured inserts interspersed with black and whites. The poetry itself is divided four ways.

It commences on a festive note – a Summer Christmas, with plum trees and gum trees, wild honeysuckle and ‘the roar of the midday sun’. It is sentimental and (can one say it, in this day?) has a feminine sensibility. It is part celebration, part elegy for a lost father. It is poetry that grabs the nose as much as it does the eyes and the ears. Verbal potpourri – atmospheric and sensual.
The other poems in this section are often botanical and lush. There are haiku for flowers, there is a poem called ‘Eclipse’ wherein the colour red has almost a synesthetic quality:
‘A red hibiscus in a window frame,
a fisherman’s red cap back to front
beside the sea, a red truck stuck
in a tree trunk, the sun’s red shadow
tilting, remembering black dahlias…’
There is a tribute to the young and brave Malala Yousafzai with her name ‘that runs along the tongue, honey/ in those syllables’. This is, Kidman says, ‘a salute/ from another age’. It feels real, and the poetic voice is strong.
In other poems, Kidman reframes for us the ordinary and the domestic. She talks of fallen trees and kitchen benches, but there is something enchanted about her everyday observations.
To follow is a section titled ’10 sonnets for my mother’. This is a history and a character sketch, in 14 line segments, with lush imagery:
‘... In my mother’s
house there were curtains of silence.  Around
the cottage, the hills rattled and sang, mound
and hummock of gorse seed popping in their ears…’
Appended are black and white photographs of Kidman’s mother.

Then there are poems about travels - taking us from Moroccan hotels, Autumn in Provence through to Singapore. Not such a fan of hearing the travelogues of more intrepid others, I initially skimmed over this section. On a second read, however, I came to reluctantly enjoy those more exotic images.
Kidman’s collection concludes with a couple of poems, less floral, more a kind of brutalism. These concern a daughter’s journey with cancer. Their starkness demonstrates that Kidman has a range of voices, and can shift between lights and darks. There is indeed a ‘Change in the Light’; there is chiaroscuro here, shadows amongst the flowers.

Fits and Starts – Andrew Johnston

‘’Tis better to have loved and lost’ quoth that inimitable bard, Alfred Lord Tennyson. It feels like Andrew Johnston is not so sure.

Fits and Starts is a triptych which deals in losses. It peels, for us, forbidden fruit – then snatches them away. The collection kicks off with a poem where omniscience is granted (by an otorhinolaryngologist – who better to have omniscience at his discretion), and then extinguished. The all-knowing patient says ‘suddenly I understood/ history, weather, time’ but is left ‘hankering, perplexed, / abandoned again’. It is like Plato’s Cave, backwards. And was the ephemeral revelation worth the while? Johnston leaves us wondering.

There are other losses too. Lost family, lost counties, stories that recede into myth. ‘Afghanistan’ is an elegy to a nation in tatters:

‘Someone will come for Afghanistan
and find Afghanistan:
gate blown through a gate,
shards that have been shards for years,
shards that were only yesterday.’
Imagery, in this first section, is beguiling. There are evocative passages, such as:
‘little by little I saw the light
turn into a blizzard. My head

filled with rain.
I hunched my way down the mountain’
Fits and Starts then moves to Old Testament musings, in a section of poetry titled ‘Echo in Limbo’. Each poem has an Old Testament book as title. In the Catholic canon there are 46 books in total, but Johnston offers up 26 poems, excluding the ‘minor prophets’. ‘Echo’, that Oread from Greek mythology, knits herself into these short poems. She is less a guide, more a player and compatriot – who rages, and remembers, and dances.
The final section, ‘Do you read me?’, takes us through the Radio Alphabet – from ‘Alpha’ to ‘Zulu’. Echo is still here, appearing not only in her titular poem (in the radio alphabet, ‘Echo’ is used as ‘E’), but skipping through the sequence, intermittently raising her head.
Johnston’s poetry is consistently strong within the collection. It is an odd trio of parts – at times I wondered how each section overlays the next. There seems to be some greater riddle I’m not quite in on. But there is undoubtedly an echo of brilliance that resounds across the full work. This is gorgeous, pithy poetry. I have some of Johnston’s lines plastered on my wall:
‘There was so much meaning in her life.
She didn’t know what any of it meant’.

No comments: