Monday, May 27, 2013

Poetry Reviews by Siobhan Harvey

Glass Wings
Fleur Adcock
Victoria University Press
Even though Fleur Adcock moved to the UK 50 years ago, she still calls New Zealand home, and we still call her our own. On this and that side of the Equator, she has received numerous awards and honours, including Jessie Mackay Prize in 1968 and 1972, 1984 New Zealand National Book Award, 2006 Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, an OBE in 1986 and a CNZM in 2008. In short, in New Zealand and England, she is an esteemed poet. Her new collection, Glass Wings (published by VUP in New Zealand, and Bloodaxe in the UK) shows that, at nearly 80 years of age, she has lost none of her poetic illustriousness and pizzazz.
The collection’s title, Glass Wings references the opaque, shiny wings of numerous (what my editor, Nicola Legat once evocatively called) creepers and crawlers lauded and lamented in the book. Always, these animals are characters in a rich, domestic storyline, so that even when the poems themselves are concisions of language and compressions of meanings they offer, tantalizingly so, an entire back-story of authorial discourse and experience; as ‘To the Mosquitoes of Auckland’ evidences:

To the Mosquitoes of Auckland
(on discovering that I am not allergic to them)

Come, then, mosquitoes of my youth:
feel free to munch me with impunity.
Your forebears, nibbling at my infant flesh,
blessed me with permanent immunity.

            Adcock has a stunning ear, pulling off rhyme- and rhythm-schemes which appear, deceptively so, easy and which, in a less talented poet would fall easily into doggerel. Even when the poems are longer, as in ‘Ella’s Crane-flies’, she enables the language to retain – what Billy Collins’ call – its “sonic resonance” so that one is perpetually reminded of the musicality of the word, the historic lineage poet and songstress share:

Ella’s Crane-flies

Dear Ella, this is a gentle plea
for the daddy-longlegs population
that haunts your room. Don’t hoover them up:
let me convert you to conservation.

A dozen years ago I might
have told you they were fairies in disguise,
but now that you’re of age, I’ll say
Try seeing them as skinny butterflies.

No? It was never going to work;
phobias aren’t susceptible to words.
You’ll never love the leggy wisps.
But think of the planet; think of the birds.

Insects are edible, even these
fragile flitters in their gossamer dance.
Let them be hunted; shoo them out
through the open windows to take their chance.

            Here and elsewhere, in poems such as ‘Dung Beetle’, ‘Caterpillars’ and ‘Praying Mantis’, it’s not just the animal and the animalistic which are celebrated and mourned, it’s the human and the humane. Our memories, our appetites, our foibles, our passions: these, as much as the beasts are the heart of authorial focus and discussion.  In this, the section in which the creepers and crawlers appear, ‘My Life with Arthropods’ makes connections across the work to other poems in other sections of the book, especially ‘Testators’ in which Adcock gives voices to ancestral pasts.
            Glass Wings is, without doubt, a significant poetic accomplishment by a significant poetic figure. As such, this reviewer wouldn’t be surprised to see the book  make the Best Books of 2013 lists come December and, thereafter, short-listings for major book awards in this country and in England.

The Baker’s Thumbprint
Paula Green
Seraph Press
            Paula Green’s early books of poetry, such as Cookhouse (AUP, 1997) and Crosswinds (AUP, 2004) were celebrations of the familial and the artistic – of relationships, gathering points, shared food, artistic connections and so forth. In this respect, The Baker’s Thumbprint, her sixth collection, is a return to the familiar authorial terrain, even though much else about the book offers a departure, such as this being her first book published by exciting boutique Wellington publisher, Seraph Press. The latter have garnered a well-deserved reputation for the beautiful production values, not to mention stunning content of their output, including Vana Manasiadis’ Ithaca Island Bay Leaves and Vivienne Plumb’s Crumple. Green’s The Baker’s Thumbprint, with its rich, textured cover by the author’s partner Michael Hight doesn’t disappoint on the aesthetic front either. Nor the poems therein, as the first poem, ‘Bethells Beach’ in the first section of the book illustrates:

Bethells Beach

Einstein is eating sandwiches with me
at the lookout point

He likes the combination of
cos lettuce, pecorino shavings and

anchovy dressing, and the way
the Tasman Sea lifts the imagination

like an old-fashioned washing machine
willing to take any load.

That reference to “lifts the imagination” could easily be The Baker’s Thumbprint’s bi-line, the above poem’s medley of historically significant people, victuals and landscape, particularly topography recognizable to the author, the thematic principles of the whole book. A later poem in the first section, ‘The Garden’ underpins this point:

The Garden    

Simone de Beauvoir is mowing the lawns;
never straightforward at my place with
those knobbled slopes and cul de sacs.

I want to tell her the world is on the blink

            despots drunks abusers stick figures
            short cuts easy cuts waste and want
            toxic food and toxic rivers greed
            the seeds of hate the need to star
            virtual love and virtual hunger
            the tight frames and the blood stains

but Simone is in the orchard by the lime tree
the mower drowning out the birdsong

I chilled the wine
so we can share the view
with a glass in hand
and smoked fish salad with asparagus
dill sauce and crusty bread.....

            Einstein, de Beauvoir, Copernicus, Pythagoras, Plato. Turkish bread, asparagus, beetroot, feijoas, figs, spinach, pumpkin, cress, aubergine, pomegranate molasses. Like charting a landscape, such things become the reader’s signposts in this collection, de Beauvoir and Copernicus, for instance, making reappearances in such later poems as ‘Early’ where they’re joined by Jane Austen and Sylvia Plath.
            There’s something literary here, of course – all this name dropping. But rather than highbrow exclusiveness, the famous and infamous who people The Baker’s Thumbprint become identifiable characters in a vast, yet personal narrative, one which astutely manages to straddle geographical points here and overseas. The power, personality and personal nature of this deeply engaging collection shines through poems like the final section’s ‘New York’, ‘Te Reo’ and ‘Beam’.
            Full of globetrotting, feasting and amity, yet always remaining distinctly New Zealand in perspective and reasoning, Paula Green’s The Baker’s Thumbprint showcases an author who has carved out a distinct set of literary tenets for herself, and offers them – as  table laid for a Sunday get-together – for our entertainment and delight.

About the reviewer
Siobhan Harvey is the author of the poetry collection, Lost Relatives (Steele Roberts NZ, 2011), the book of literary interviews Words Chosen Carefully: New Zealand Writers in Discussion (Cape Catley, 2010) and the poetry anthology Our Own Kind: 100 New Zealand Poems about Animals (Random House, 2009). Recently, her poetry has been published in Evergreen Review (Grove Press, US),Meanjin (Aus), Penduline Press – The New Zealand Issue (US), Snorkel (Aus) and Structo (UK). She’s Poetry Editor of Takahe and coordinates New Zealand's National Poetry Day. She was runner up in 2012 Dorothy Porter Prize for Poetry (Aus), 2012 Kevin Ireland Poetry Prize, 2011 Landfall Essay Prize and 2011 Kathleen Grattan Award for a Sequence of Poems, and shortlisted for the 2012 Jane Frame Memorial Award for Literature. A Poet’s Page containing a selection of her recorded work and texts can be found on The Poetry Archive (U.K.), directed by Sir Andrew Motion.
Siobhan Harvey is a regular poetry reviewer on this blog.

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