Fracking and Hawk by Pat White (Frontiers Press, 2015), 80 pp., $25; Work by Sarah Jane Barnett (Hue and Cry Press, 2015), 80 pp., $25; The Blue Voyage and Other Poems by Anne French (Auckland University Press, 2015), 60 pp., $24.99
The concept of place and how it relates to our sense of identity was one of the leading themes at a recent colloqium about the personal essay. It was held at Massey University, Wellington. At the same time, in nearby Newtown Community Hall, Green Party MP Julie Ann Genter was giving a talk about climate change and the possibility of human extinction. All the reflections about identity could be swept away if the gloomier predictions about species collapse, sea-level rise and global pollution come to be fulfilled.
Apocalypse is not an attractive subject for poetry. It is somehow more final than death. The title of Pat White’s most recent collection of poetry, Fracking and Hawk, hints that he is about to tackle this subject. Several of the poems include intimations of loss, such as ‘Sonnet for endangered species’ and the Cavafy-like opening poem, ‘Barbarians have crossed at the border’, though the latter is largely about cultural loss and the ‘civil ways’ of barbarians who will cause ‘… heroes / to appear on televison’, and who will ‘… window shop in your neighbourhood’.
In a memoir published in 2010, How the Land Lies, White recalled the restless life he had spent in many places, concluding with his time on a small-holding at Gladstone in the Wairarapa. There he built two houses, planted olives and trees for shelter and firewood, survived the droughts that are common in the district (and which are predicted to be more severe in future), got to know his neighbours and their stories, and worked as an artist together with his partner Catherine. In a profound reflection on the hands-on activities of living and working in a place, he observed that this time of settling in and accepting where he lived had changed how he saw himself. Part of that change was a new and perhaps surprising sense of the enduring links between himself and family and ancestors. One of these forebears, Jack Dunn, had lived on a farm nearby. White’s work on Dunn’s war service, court-martial, and death at Gallipoli, which has been presented in an exhibition seen recently in Nelson, includes paintings of the Tararua Range that evoke the slopes of the Dardanelles.
A similar merging of landscapes and times pervades these poems. The hawk in the poem ‘Fracking and hawk’, although a predator, follows the updraft of the winds; should it fall out of the air it is part of an earth that ‘both gives and gathers’. Fracking, by contrast, is a one-way process that risks everything. White’s understanding of the daily rhythms of the natural world allows a place for brutality and sudden death, as in the poem ‘After reading the darkness of a different poet’, in which a swan attacks a dog, but he also celebrates the continuity at the heart of things. In the poem ‘The river flows through my father’, the sound of a helicopter keeps him awake. He is conscious of the unchanging things around him – ‘the dog’s bark, the frogs’ croak, bud burst’. He wonders whether there can be a just war, then drifts to memories of fishing with his father:
hooked on the tease
of contentment and the long walk home
sound of the river letting go as our boots tracked
the path shadow, wet grass, fences and unseen
in dark, a cow breathing as if night was good.
This is the spirit of most of the poems: the acceptance of natural patterns and the need for patience and an awareness of ‘a multitude of whispers never delivered’. In his own assessment of the poetry of place, in a short poem of that title, White pushes aside any grand conclusion in favour of the image of a mallard duck that is returning to a familiar nesting spot by a dam: ‘If this is what you know,’ he observes, ‘what use is that.’
This laconic reluctance to indulge in big statements was sometimes overdone in White’s earlier collections of Wairarapa poems, Drought and Other Intimacies (1999), and Planting the Olives and Other Essential Acts (2004). Fracking and Hawk is more completely satisfying, the strongest of this series of poems with a rural setting. They deserve to stand alongside the better-known Central Otago poems of Brian Turner.
In Work, Sarah Jane Barnett is equally adept at evoking the flavour of different places, but is far more daring technically. This is partly because of the way she adopts various personae for long sections in this volume, and also because she moves from poetry to prose to shorter pieces that could best be described as prose poems. The opening sequence, for example, grew from an amalgam of her own responses to the Christchurch earthquake and thoughts about civil war in Ethiopia. The themes of cultural dislocation and alienation from the environment are approached through the person of a Ethiopian woman from Addis Ababa who has resettled in Wellingon.
This piece is a narrative of arrival and loss, welcome and rejection, including a poem about an old man in the New World supermarket who tells her to ‘Go back home’. Translation becomes a metaphor for the difficulty of adjustment. This is more than the business of learning unfamiliar names for places and the difficulty of paraphrase. It includes the vanishing of a former identity as words are forgotten. The final prose poem in this sequence ends:
He will forget the names of certain birds and the word for his local drink, he will forget the green strip where those birds once roosted. He has already forgotten the amber flash of their wings.
Barnett uses transformations of various kinds to express the movement of relationships. They can be magical, as in the sequence ‘The woman who married a bear’, but the most successful, ‘Glaciers’, uses the natural phenomena of freezing and thawing, the movement of tectonic plates, and the findings from core samples and hydro-chemical analysis, to express the bonds between a couple and the birth and growth of a son. Like Seamus Heaney’s Bog Queen, the woman seems to have been incorporated into the earth itself, setting off a sequence of stunning and unexpected images, sometimes erotic, sometimes reversing the usual direction of comparison so that it is the landscape that contains human data and a feature like old ice can contain a darker band, ‘like a pregnancy test’. Pregnancy itself recalls the expanse of glaciers:
opening silver crevasses over her hips
vast sheets of skin her swollen polar regions
her mountains her mouth a reservoir
Even in an apparently more superficially conventional poem such as ‘Running with my father’, Barnett continues to innovate. Her progress through a city on a morning run generates not only thoughts of her family and her father, but is described in terms of biomechanics, physiology, and the identity of human and animal movement. The passages of self-reflection seem like a form of mental vivisection:
At the crest of the hill my tongue
whips the dry membrane of my lips.
Momentum and work, Words my joint move through,
data points in a dialogue of impact and velocity.
The scientific images, rather than distancing a reader from this startlingly tender poem, are a paradoxical part of its intimacy.
Much of this collection is the outcome of Barnett’s study for a doctoral degree at Massey University. Its publication by Hue and Cry Press should add to the growing presence of this publisher and its reputation as a promoter of powerful and original work.
It is more than a decade since the appearance of Wild, Anne French’s last collection of poetry. It fits that the sailor/poet’s new book is called The Blue Voyage, as there is a familiarity about her nautical images, the shift from location to location, and the time that sailing gives to reflect on things. Just as this occupation requires skill, there are delicate adjustments in French’s poetry of the kind seen in ‘Time and distance’, a sonnet in Wild. This poem was deceptively simple in the manner in which it traversed a number of emotions, all experienced within the pause that followed intense days on the water.
The Blue Voyage is mellower, less confrontational than some of French’s earlier work. Her poems in this collection are so good that this might seem a quibble, but that may be because they seem so effortlessly put together, so finished. I hope that she is not beginning to identify with her yacht, the vessel described in ‘Catullus IV’, which is resting while waiting for a fair breeze and flat water. Her capacity to merge emotional responses with seemingly bland moments of voyaging is best seen in the long sequence ‘The blue voyage’. It starts like a diary of places visited and the exotic strangers seen there, such as ‘The waiter in Bozburun, with his peaked cap / and his tan; his hair curly as a Greek statue’. There is the sirocco, a glassy sea, the tumble of wildflowers on the coast of Turkey. The voyage, however, has other destinations, expressing the thoughts of a writer who is exiled from his homeland and the protests in Taksim Square. The timeless contrasts beween beauty and its sudden destruction by fate are echoed in the lines towards the end of the poem, when:
On the last day the sun has never shone more sweetly.
The afternoon light falling
like orange-scented honey.
Across the Gulf, mountains;
one flag snapping scarlet in the wind.
One of the pleasures of this collection is the sense of joy and exhilaration, of things going well, that is often conveyed by images of time on the water. Yet many of the poems are elegies, honourings of friends, relatives, and others such as Billy Collins and the great Lithuanian/Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. The conservationist Geoff Park is given the best send-off, surely one of the finest poems of remembrance ever written. Park, French says, is still here, ‘kindling … bright trails through my brain’.
The poems in this collection offer many such bright trails, moments like the memory of Bradshaw Cove, ‘a place where I was happy’. Despite this, French is no nostalgic Pollyanna and her travels also take her to places such as Gwangju, where there was a massacre of students in 1980. Her excursions through different times finish, fittingly, with translations of love poems by Han Yong-un, a Korean Buddhist monk and social reformer. He doubts that people will read his poems: ‘it will be like trying to catch the scent of autumn’s crysanthemum / when you are sitting in the garden in full spring’. As the dawn lightens he waits ‘for the ringing of the bells announcing daybreak’, then puts down his brush.
JOHN HORROCKS is a Wellington-based essayist, writer and reviewer.