Whisper of a Crow’s Wing by Majella Cullinane (Otago University Press, 2018), 80 pp., $27.50; Threading Between by Dorothy Howie (Steele Roberts, 2017), 61 pp., $20; Pasture and Flock: New and selected poems by Anna Jackson (Auckland University Press, 2018), 140 pp., $35
‘You can find poetry in your everyday life,’ writes Carol Ann Duffy, ‘your memory, in what people say on the bus, in the news … or just what’s in your heart.’1
For too long, what was conceived as ‘the everyday’ (e.g. the domestic and personal) was socially sanctioned as the preserve of women writers. To them were left the perceived crumbs of literature – the domesticated spaces, internal lives and constraints of social mores; those subjects permitted in fiction, for instance. Poetry, meanwhile, focused upon the important stuff: public discourse, big ideas, history, philosophy. In the process, female writers, their voices and concerns were marginalised. In the 1960s, Second Wave Feminist Criticism solidified the consciousness- raising of its First Wave predecessor and began to readdress the gender sidelining that had disregarded important female poetic voices like Felicia Hemans and Letitia Elizabeth Landon.
A peculiarly English literature issue? Far from it. In New Zealand in the late 1930s the rise of new women poets with their intermural, personal concerns – Robin Hyde, Eileen Duggan, Ursula Bethell – was viewed as a cataclysm by some male counterparts:
The Menstrual School of Poetry is in the ascendant, and a mere male is treated with scant respect. I see we shall all have to turn hermaphrodites in order to do ourselves any good.2
Where, thankfully, this phobic irrationality regarding women poets has – for the most part – disappeared, the exploration of the everyday has contrastingly proliferated. So that today, the personal, domestic and ‘inner’ have become regular topics for poets, irrespective of gender – or, indeed, ethnicity and/or sexuality.
The new collection by migrant author Majella Cullinane, Whisper of a Crow’s Wing, illustrates just how deeply mined the discursive and emblematic examinations of the everyday have become. Cullinane’s first collection, Guarding the Flame (Salmon Poetry, 2011), offered a series of poems which, buoyed by the poet’s arresting language and imagery, transformed the simple into the redolent. In the new book, the everyday is once again mediated by amazing imagery into the powerful. This evocative technique is seen in the early poem ‘Displaced’, which begins:
Hear the ghosts panning gold at sunset,
their calls and laughter snagging the earth …
Here the ghost represents the collective cultural concept of the deceased ancestors who we carry with us in the present, but also the unknown symbolic rotation of existence. Historic gold-mining is counterpointed, at the poem’s conclusion, by gilded moments of contemporary society such as the much deified game of rugby and the hedonistic street racer.
The authorial use of symbol – not as an addendum to poetic craft but as primary means, along with form and cadence, to tune into and bring fresh meaning to practical topics – is widely deployed elsewhere in the book. In early poems like ‘Op shop, 1985’ and ‘All that September’, the bygone and memory are refrains evoked by imagery and association, which the author returns to again and again.
Where the practical as subject matter supported by deft authorial use of imagery is manifest in the book, so too inquisitiveness and prodding. In the titular poem, for example, Cullinane expands on the passing of a grandparent, explored through the symbol of the crow, so that it becomes a self-reflective questioning of life:
When you look in on her a last time
do you see a face like your own gathering there?
Such deeper authorial questioning is also found at the close of ‘Displaced’, when the poet prompts us to consider how, divorced from understanding where we come from (ancestrally and/or geographically), we might find belonging:
If the stars could burn into our smallness,
our breathing, slide under the fractures
of our loss, our belonging,
what would they answer her?
It’s there too in the later spiritual and spirited ‘The hours’ sequence, where a meditation on religious rites, practices and experiences engages the reader in the mysteries of belief, belonging and symbol. Here, poems like ‘Matins’, ‘Lauds’, Vespers’ and ‘Nocturne’ explore, contrast and intersect issues of worship, iconography and purpose into an arrangement of deeply profound and enquiring works.
Domesticity, motherhood and personal trauma are also explored and enriched through the filter of this clever use of curiosity and symbol. In poems like ‘The little boy that got away’ and ‘Isla’, the result is a sense of cathartic release from suffering.
With its shrewd use of craft, imagery and musical language, Whisper of a Crow’s Wing is a stunning book about curiosity, conscience and the revelation of the profound discovered in the seemingly commonplace.
Academic and poet Dorothy Howie’s second collection Threading Between is a lyrical, philosophical enquiry into the substance of life. Being; knowing; identity; time; space: these broad things that govern us are touchstones that Howie returns to repeatedly. They are there, for instance, in the synergies between birds, aviators, people and purpose, which the author explores in the book’s mid-section ‘Birds In Between’, in flight-themed poems like ‘Frigate birds’, ‘Migratory birds’ and ‘Heron in loved places’. The poem ‘Seagulls, Scarborough’ exemplifies this heady mix of deep thinking, reflection and cadence:
The cries of the gulls are calls
In the darkest winds
they glide golden
in the lights below,
trust to an upsurge of air,
accept the effort required
to gain lost ground,
and come to rest on whatever
lends its strength.
Empty, severed, mind calls to you
a world away.
You glide, serene, sure,
somehow, through thought, certain.
The thinking soothes, consoles.
As this example also illustrates, the poems throughout Threading Between frame their well-pondered, carefully examined and correlated topics within tightly structured forms.
Such measurement of form, contemplation and music is replicated in the two sections ‘In the Between’ and ‘Being Between’, where simple topics spin into metaphysical ruminations regarding belonging and being. ‘In the gaps’, ‘Blackberrying in high places’, ‘Remnants’, ‘Walking’ and the sequence ‘In the between’: these and more make us see deeper purposes everywhere.
In its three thoroughly considered sections, Threading Between is a constant search to make sense of life and self, and to process and frame the world. The result is a redolent, finely tuned poetic study in how and why we live.
Anna Jackson’s seventh collection, Pasture and Flock, opens with the section ‘I Had a Dream I Was a Ghost’, which collects the familiar, strong sequences that marked the beginning of her career. Here the deeply mulled, Dantean ‘The long road to teatime’ befriends the likes of ‘Catullus for children’ and ‘My friendship with Mayakovsky’, in ways that create delightful and unexpected correlations and contrasts. Authorship, parenthood, feminism and nature, their wonders and travails: all these and more criss-cross and are juxtaposed in ways that prepare the path well for poems to come.
The second section of the book, ‘Time to Hold onto the Leash’, is a meaty feast of more selected works. As in the previous section, the work provides the comfort of familiarity, like meeting old friends, but also provides fresh connection in form, meaning and authorial slant. Recognisable poems like ‘Badminton’, ‘Ishmael in the bedroom’ and Sylvia in the supermarket’ simultaneously become rediscoveries and fresh discoveries. The everyday – slanted by Jackson’s sly, witty filter – is seen again and anew.
In the final section of the book, ‘From Just Behind Her Eyes’, relationships, motherhood and parenthood, writing, internal quandaries, hens, the simple pleasure of swimming – all provide subjects for an array of poems that remain fresh yet somehow, thanks to rekindling of our relationship with previously published work in the first two sections, also appear closely connected to Jackson’s long-recognised poetic slant and wry, witty revelation. Standouts among this new flock of verses include meditations on writers and writing like ‘Reading Horace and thinking about Susan Sontag’, and the fresh pastoral poem ‘Bees, so many bees’. The latter is a sharp examination of monogamous relationships through the deft, light use of language and apiarian imagery:
After twenty years
of marriage what is surprising isn’t really
so much the person you are with
but to find yourself so
out of place in this scene, cold
but not able to get out without stepping
over bees, so many bees.
‘Office pastoral’, ‘On my way elsewhere’, ‘Late swim’ and ‘Poets know words, know routes, know ghosts’: here are other newly published poems that show just how inventive and magical Jackson’s poetic exploration of the seemingly unremarkable is.
Cullinane and Howie’s second collections are deftly layered works that find deep meaning in ordinary affairs. They also intimate the startling future collections that might arise from these authors; while the fresh and selected verses in Jackson’s latest impress with their ambition, and the seemingly unremarkable and commonplace turned into the epic and important. These books individually and collectively display the craft and depth of New Zealand poetry, and in particular the way that three contemporary women use their imagination and inventiveness to revitalise our awareness of everyday existence.
- Lauris Edmond (ed), The Letters of ARD Fairburn, Oxford University Press, 1981: http://researcharchive.vuw.ac.nz/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10063/2873/thesis.pdf?sequence=2
SIOBHAN HARVEY is the author of five books, including the 2013 Kathleen Grattan Award-winning Cloudboy (OUP, 2014), and, as co-editor, the bestselling Essential New Zealand Poems (Godwit, 2014). She is winner of the 2016 Write Well Award (Fiction, US). She is a lecturer in creative writing at the Centre for Creative Writing, AUT, and president of the New Zealand Society of Authors.