Wolf by Elizabeth Morton (Mākaro Press: Hoopla Series, 2017), 91 pp., $25; The Sky Flier by Maria McMillan (Victoria University Press, 2017), 62 pp., $25
Elizabeth Morton’s Wolf is a darting, vigourous collection of poems that shift perspective from piece to piece to create a vivid sense of the human animal, where wild instinct clashes with the given order of things. The opening poem, ‘Storyteller’, is a crackling tale of a storytelling man labouring at his yarns as though enslaved. The poem is rich and pacey, calling on loaded words to create a world of mythology: ‘he flooded the dingle / with sultans and chariots and seanymphs’ … ‘when he rattled the fig tree, / a scramble of fruits fell at their boots, / and when he clacked his tongue creekward, / carp surfaced and slipped into his hands’.
The language both reaches outside for references to pull in symbols of distant adventures, and is intensely self-referential, as though the poems in this book are creating their own reality: Take ‘Poem’, for example. It’s about a poem ‘earmarked for the shredder’ which escapes captivity like a patient in an asylum or hospital: ‘it hijacked / the tea trolley and zoomed it / down the corridor. When patients / moved to pet it, the poem spat / and hissed through the gaps / in its teeth.’ Morton’s appreciation of the possibilities of language reminds me of Gertrude Stein’s work Tender Buttons, in which words are released from their standard categorisations and abstracted to produce new meaning. At the end of ‘Poem’ Morton offers a similar sense of word freedom: ‘when they captured the poem / in a butterfly net and calmed it / down they found they had only / syntax, the mothdust on / their fingers.’
The wolf concept is used to suggest the unpredictable capture and release of language embodied in the visceral and the animalistic, and is perfectly encapsulated by the idea of a wild animal: elegant, swarthy, necessary and creative. Morton’s Wolf has a series of poems to himself, starting with ‘Wolf makes his first kill’. The initial presence of the creature is intimidating as young Wolf creates unease among the vulnerable: ‘jackrabbits stomp nervously / in their shrubby abodes’. There is a sense of regret in the word ‘wishing’ as he emerges fit for purpose from the soft innocence of babyhood:
tender words from his
mudbank roost –
brotherlust and borrowlust,
the milk and blubber
vowels of his mother.
Next our wolf ‘barks / consonants’ and counts himself into the first kill in a beautifully compact scene:
A goat-kid shakes under
Its mother’s belly.
Wolf does not meet its
gummy eye, in his skill
He counts to thirty.
The interior life of Wolf is further explored in the next series of poems. The human-encrusted environment within which this creature of language and instinct is trying to live is juxtaposed with internal nostalgia and struggle. In ‘Wolf is alone’, a string of images create a powerful effect:
A sapling drowned
In its birthmilk
Wolf saw the yellow
Nothing in utero,
In his mother’s
Frowncrest, in the
Rupture of faces
That followed him out.
I particularly loved the image of the wolf pups as a ‘squash of forms entering the universe’. These images – harsh, unloving – lead on to the even colder space inside Wolf’s own mind:
The noise in his head
Is not somebody
The world for Wolf is a severe place, dominated by the detritus left by humans and full of ‘dumpsters / and fenceposts and powerhouses’. Memory is called upon across the Wolf poems to provide both a sense of belonging but also of great loss: Wolf belonged to a mother whose image becomes one of an ‘abdomen swollen / with the melons of disease … her old-wolf vertebrae / buckling under another / year’s grief’. The poems are transitional: they describe a painful existence characterised by grief and subsistence. Wolf is always at the edges of the physical world, and often presented alone in the very stark space of an inner world. It is a relief to encounter Wolf in the final poem in the sequence, ‘Wolf finds love’, where the language pours colour and purpose into his existence.
As with that of Morton, Maria McMillan’s collection The Ski Flier creates a world where a rich inner life is contrasted with the external weight of things. The opening poems of The Ski Flier are a series of eleven, eleven-lined verses. They start: ‘We think in metaphors Joe proposes, / pouring the tea’. What follows is the unravelling of that statement, as objects and elements are only themselves until they shape-shift within the force-field of the narrator’s language. This willed language articulates subtly interconnected episodes, where memory, family and fluctuating yearnings are mirrored in the landscapes and activity of the natural world:
I, myself, have always wanted to be a
Monster. For a small exertion of, say, my
Finger to cause a catastrophe for which
I cannot be blamed.
The idea of swelling up, of scaling up in size and thereby having an upsized impact is a thread throughout The Ski Flier. In ‘Demo party’ and ‘Acts of God’, there are images of a ‘city changing’ as houses come down and go up almost organically, while the money that enables the action is made to seem as if it has its own agency, ‘as if it breathed’. Organic destruction is described in the concise and beautiful poem ‘The eruption’, where the first speaking voice is ancient, telling us, ‘Whoever knows my name / knows the sky was dark.’ Perspective shifts to the image of a girl floating in the resulting crater lake, as the ‘sky / buckles above her’, before the voice asserts that, ‘It was bigger than Jesus / but unholy. Even in China they / recorded it, wrote it down.’
Again as in Morton’s Wolf, human acts and emotions are reflected as well as enclosed within the actions of the natural world. The title poem ‘The Ski Flier’ places the mountain, snow and skier at the centre of a conversation between human acts and ambitions and the environment that provokes them. The final lines capture this beautifully:
There is a moment when they pass,
the snow and the ski flier,
each taking on the character of the other.
The image of a human disappearing into and becoming one with nature is at once a signal of a thrilling freedom, and evocative of the smallness of human activity when it is up against the immensity of the environment. People disappear in other ways in the collection, too, as the narrative eye zooms in on the monumental changes that happen to our minds.
‘Morning song’ seems to be after Sylvia Plath’s own poem of the same title (the one that starts ‘love set you going like a fat gold watch’), and is about McMillan being with her new baby. McMillan inverts Plath’s poem by describing caring for a baby as like caring for an elderly person. This interaction is also jarring and noisy: ‘Every room is painted the spectacular colour of your yelling.’ McMillan’s baby is also transformed through metaphor: ‘I try to think of you as a puzzle / whose fat wooden pieces are every morning changed and you must build again the irreproachable sun, / the sky, the glittering route of your day.’
The poem ‘The avalanche’ explores what might be desireable after death. The poem uses the physical strength of the earth as a way to offer glimpses of an afterlife, a wished-for transformation. In six short lines it unravels the idea of ‘enormous’ by first looking to ‘[t]he mountain. The sky’ before expressing the desire ‘to fall into the crevices, / I want to be buried, only to be found.’ The final line is both a questioning and a redefinition of self: ‘Is this tomorrow? Are these, paws?’ A change has occurred, implying reincarnation. It is as though the narrator wishes to be absorbed by the planet and spat back out in a form more in sympathy with living nature: as an animal that can ‘walk as if alive’.
The concept of survival makes for a nail-biter of a poem in ‘The Dyatlov Pass incident’. The poem is set out as a number of options as the writer speculates on what happens to a group of climbers who get lost and ‘deviate West / towards the top of Kholat Syakhl / which in Mansi means Dead Mountain’. In one scenario the mountain, the snow and the wind abuse and confuse them like demonic forces; in another scenario the menstrual blood of one of the climber’s attracts the creature ‘known in these parts as Darling Dmitry, / as Foghorn, as The Wind Climber or / His Imperviousness’. The speculation is playful as much as it is brutal, and echoes the central motif of nature personified as the living, breathing monsters around us.
Wolf by Elizabeth Morton and The Ski Flier by Maria McMillan are both highly recommended. While Morton and McMillan are very different poets in their use of language, their poetics speak to each other through their explorations of the natural world at the utmost extremes, those outermost – and innermost – territories where, in areas of wilderness, human acts both enact with and encroach on nature.
CLAIRE MABEY is co-director of LitCrawl Wellington. Previous jobs include publishing in Europe, selling second-hand books, and various roles on many arts festivals.