02 March 2011

February poetry reading (6-10)

My reading has been rather haphazard, but I seem to have managed to read some poetry books. I got a whole bunch out of the library, and now they are all overdue, sigh, and I'd better take them back. This is why I'm generally not a library user - due dates mean nothing to me, and then it ends up being cheaper buying books...

Vita Nova by Louise Glück (6/52)

I have conflicted feelings about this book. Louise Glück is a celebrated contemporary US poet, she's won lots of prizes, including for this book, but most of it didn't seem very good to me. That isn't to say that it isn't good, but more that it sent me in a bit of a spin because I couldn't see why it was good. Is it a problem with me? I guess this happens a lot - people raving about something that doesn't speak to me at all, which seems clumsy or lacking a point - and I guess we all just have different taste. But still...

There was some lovely stuff in Vita Nova though, even for me. The collection is telling a subtle story of the narrator's rebirth into life after something happened. There are snatches of a failed love affair and it's all mixed in with mythology. Should have been right up my alley. And some of it was. Here's my favourite quote:
I lived in a tree. The dream specified
pine, as though it thought I needed
prompting to keep mourning. I hate
when your own dreams treat you as stupid.
Vita Nova is, apparently 'written in the elected shadow of Dante', and so I thought now might be a good time to pick up that copy of Vita Nova/The New Life by Dante, which has been sitting on my shelf for some time. I'm still clawing my way through it, and perhaps it is just the translation, but it reads to me like the stalky obsessions of a very socially maladjusted young man, who could do with a bit of a slapping (except of course I abhor violence). It tells the story of how he saw Beatrice, fell in love with her, and then obsessed over her for years and years. He writes some poems. In between the poems he tells us what the poems mean and how they work (and how clever he is), and how he pretended he loved someone else, for some reason, and how he got so thin because of his love, and goodness me you really should have found some medieval Florentine psychotherapist, Dante, then perhaps you could have just asked her out and got it all over and done with.

I probably didn't come into it with the most receptive attitude - when working on My Iron Spine I wrote a poem called 'Poetry with Beatrice and Laura', where I have a poetry-writing group with Beatrice and Laura (the beloved of Petrarch). I wrote it after I was really annoyed by this epigram by Anna Akhmatova:
Could Beatrice have written like Dante
Or Laura glorified love’s pain?
I set the style for women’s speech
God help me shut them up again!
I normally like Anna Akhmatova's poetry, but this infuriated me, and I wanted to give some kind of voice to those women, who haven't gotten to have one in history.


Music Therapy by Peter Olds (7/52)

In contrast, I really enjoyed this book. It's quite simple, accessible and balanced. I reminded me of nothing as much as James K Baxter's Jerusalem poems, and I imagine it may be written in that tradition - Olds spent some time at Jerusalem in the 1970s. Similarly, many of these poems are about a time spent living differently, in solitude. In the 1980s Olds lived for a while in a hut at Seacliff, near the old psychiatric hospital. Like Baxter's poems, he will often describe things he sees around him, which will very subtly be metaphorical of what's going on for him. The rest of the book focuses on Dunedin in the 1990s, after a breakdown. I would include a quote, but that book has gone back to the library, to avoid further fines.

Soft Sift, by Mark Ford (8/52)

I picked this one up from the library cos it's published by Faber and sounded interesting. I'd never heard of Mark Ford before this, but then I have an appalling lack of knowledge of contemporary poets who don't live in NZ, which is what I'm trying to rectify this year.

I started reading this one afternoon, while I was in a grumpy-pants mood, and had wandered down to sit in the park in the sun to have some alone time. When I read some more, I was sitting on a concrete thing at Oriental Bay, with my feet being lapped by occasional waves - until I retreated because the tide was coming in and a particularly huge wave soaked my skirt, my bag, and dampened the book (don't tell the library). I finished it off sitting at my dining room table. This is basically irrelevant, except that now it's intimately connected with those locations in my head.

I found the poetry itself really dense. I described it to friends as kind of like eating dessert while drinking something also very sweet. I can totally enjoy dense, rich, even sticky poetry, and I did enjoy quite a bit of this, but I found I had to keep rereading lines - there seemed to be a lot of words without a clear meaning - not in a metaphorical sense so much, but as in a sense sense (if that makes any sense). For example, the first two lines of 'Penumbra': Beneath an angular web of scratchings-out/Vagrant motives glow like phosphorus: low, creeping' (though actually, that seems to make more sense now than it did before...).

I confess, I read a lot of the poems without really getting them - and now have forgotten them entirely. But one that has really stuck with me is 'The Long Man', about the Long Man of Wilmington, well, at least partly - you know poems, tricksy things – they're generally about stuff other than what they're about. Anyway, it begins 'The Long Man/of Wilmington winces with the dawn; he has just/endured yet another mythical, pointless, starry/vigil'. A favourite bit: 'I had/ the 'look', as some called it, meaning I floated/in an envelope of air that ducked and sheered/between invisible obstacles.' And the end:

... I kept picturing someone tracing
a figure on the turf, and wearing this outline
into a path by walking and walking around
the hollow head, immobile limbs, and cavernous torso.

Piki Ake! and Voice Carried My Family by Robert Sullivan (9–10/52)

I read these in preparation for Robert Sullivan's reading at the Poetry Society in March. Piki Ake!, his second collection, is from 1993, while Voice Carried My Family is from 2005. There's a bit of a gap in between (though, there are other books in this gap), and there does seem to me to be a development of style, as well as some similarities and similar interests and concerns. Both draw on Maori culture, stories and heritage, and both show the influence of waiata. Pike Ake! seemed more ... informal - I'm not even sure that's the right word. Perhaps looser is more what I mean. It has quite a few personal stories, including several poems telling the story of a family reunion up in Northland. There's still personal stories in Voice Carried My Family, though they seem tighter, perhaps more sophisticated.

He tells others' stories too - such as the stories of Te Weherua and Koa, young Maori boys who hopped on board the Resolution in 1777. Sullivan also knows that telling others' stories is problematic: 'But I can't. I just can't take the middle of your throat./Who would I pay for the privilege?' ('3 Mai') I felt a similar issue when working on the 'biographical' poems in My Iron Spine - I wanted these women to be remembered and celebrated, I wanted to give them voice, but I knew that it was my voice I was giving them, not their own. I couldn't really know what their voices would say. It is a slightly uncomfortable appropriation.

I think my favourite poem from either collection is the mysterious and haunting '13 ways of looking at a blackbirder'. I can't possibly tell you exactly what it's about, but I kind of feel it. You know, like a David Lynch movie.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to seeing/hearing Sullivan read - I've never heard him before, and hearing how a poet read, their rhythms, can give you a whole new way of understanding their poetry.

1 comment:

Mary McCallum said...

What a fabulous write-up, Helen. Thank you for this. I especially love the circumstances of the sea-swamped skirt while reading the poetry book. You make reading poetry feel like such an 'alive', vivid, quotidien thing.