Born to a Red-Headed Woman, by Kay McKenzie Cooke (Otago University Press, 2014), 72 pp., $25
Born to a Red-headed Woman is Southland-Otago poet Kay McKenzie Cooke’s third collection of poetry. The book’s initial launch postponed due to the death of her mother the title has a special poignancy, embodying what Cooke calls the ‘urgency of now’, revelations of poetic life that surface in the occasions informing her poems. Life with her farmer father before his premature death is one such recalled revelation of poetic life in the collection; others are less obvious, life as corridor kids at school, Sunday in Hedgehope, UFO sightings, the poet wetting herself in the back of the priest’s car. Cooke’s vividly conjured poetic memories are variously profound, comic, tragic, everyday, one-off; they are the minutes of her life, arranged in an evocative generational narrative from early life in Orepuki, to Gore, and now Dunedin as a grandmother.
Whether writing of ‘a pouting kettle/ gently rocking/ on a coal range leaking tears of soot’, or ‘a plain sky, not yet written on by weather’, Cooke is ever at work to draw out subtleties of her context in her language. Essentially a poet of the southern rural idyll, she studies a landscape and life that, for all the transformations, distinctly anchors her to her theme of the enduringly local. Consider for instance the opening poem in ‘Born to a Red-Headed Woman’, the first of five substantive sections into which the book is divided:
I was born in winter
to a red-headed woman
who shivered on a hard bed
under one thin blanket
in a hospital by the Waiau River
making heavy work
of its final punch through
to the coast,
the thrum of its waters
underscoring our breathing,
the beating of my heart
the size of a walnut.
This intrication of the Waiau’s ‘heavy work’ on its passage to the sea and the labour of birth encapsulates a preoccupation of the poet in bringing background forces into the foreground. In the above poem, it is land and river embodied in the newborn’s circulatory system; more obliquely, it underscores the poet’s pleasure in cracking open colloquial language or comic, superficially mundane phenomena to reveal an underlying meaning. As ‘can’t you see’, a light poem about marital love, illustrates, a theme of the enduringly local is implicit even in self-dispraising portraiture:
I fell for him thirty
-something years ago
because he looked
like Cat Stevens,
or Jesus. He fell for me
because of my powder-blue
raincoat and yellow shoes.
Our garden is scruffy,
our tastes low-key. We prefer
to spend nights in;
rent a dvd, light the fire,
Husband and wife love each other for what they are, Cat Stevens and the yellow shoes. They have a scruffy garden. The references are subtle markers of autochthony: Cooke asks, What truer truth – what better question – than that I am what I am, here and now?
Paradoxically, a recurrent theme in this collection is that of the adrift ‘I’. Of Ngāti Māmoe and Cockney-Northern Irish descent, Dunedin-based Kay McKenzie Cooke was born and raised on the shores of sweeping Te Waewae Bay in Western Southland, before moving at the start of adolescence to the Otama Valley outside Gore. Her theme, learnt in such landscapes, at school and through religion, also features in the rediscovery of her adopted-out daughter Rohina after two decades of separation:
a current of familiarity,
family likenesses, mannerisms;
the twenty-two years without each other, sometimes
meaning nothing, sometimes everything.
We marked out new ground.
Reunion is ‘not a story, it’s our life/ still unwinding’. Of course, it is a story; the poem is evidence of that. The rediscovery of Rohina continues a poetic – and post-religious – narrative of self adrift and the need to find footing in the world. ‘The sound of a snip./ And it is done.’ The adult Rohina is an incarnation of the intimate unknown, returning to meet the poet in later years.
While many poems in this collection end with darkness, Born to a Red-Headed Woman also features much playful, loving or comic writing, whether about family and ancestry, friends or bicycles. Poems bear the rhythms of performed speech; Cooke favours hovering between the attractions of poetic conceit (narrative, imagery, metaphor and simile, stanza and line breaks, alliteration) and natural speech patterns. The short poem ‘good good good good’ – the title taken from the Beach Boys chorus – is a case in point:
A warm transistor held like a parrot
on my shoulder, ‘Good Vibrations’
as I dip below the ridge
to follow the crack of an old creek-bed
and all around nothing but green, green.
Green. A sea of green.
A balancing act of naturalism with poetic conceit, the language has a conversational rhythm, and the event of the poem is syntactically in transit. Where, indeed, is the coordinate clause, the subject and verb to which this subordinate clause belongs? The subordinate clause has absconded; it is motivated by the immediacy of the senses: ‘green, green./ Green. A sea of green.’
As with her previous collections, of special appeal is the idiosyncratic poetic voice with its blend of literary influences and personal experience. While most works are either first-person narratives or depictions of domestic phenomena, this is not naïve poetry but a craft learnt from Heaney, Boland, McGuckian, Muldoon and Adcock as well as locals like Baxter, Tuwhare, Lauris Edmond, Dallas, Turner, Eggleton, McQueen and Ascroft. In a fashion reminiscent of Heaney, despite being a first-person ‘talking’ poet Cooke relishes packing her work with vivid imagery, evocations of texture, revelations of the senses, reflecting a behind-the-scenes philosophical view of the function of the poem. A further influence is twentieth-century music; the names of, or lines from, songs both form the titles to poems and are motifs of emotional association.
Cooke’s third collection with Otago University Press, Born to a Red-Headed Woman very much continues the work and themes of Feeding the Dogs (OUP 2003) and Made for Weather (OUP 2007). Like those previous collections, the poems in this book can be read either as independent works or as segments of a longer autobiographical poem. The latter approach seems intended in this collection from the use of lower-case italics to recognise titles, as well as page run-on between titles. The line spacing, at 1.15 cm, faintly suggests the typography of imagism and language poetry. Whether or not these design features work is for the reader to decide; they didn’t work for this reviewer. Overall, however, this is a satisfying addition to the oeuvre.
RICHARD REEVE is a Warrington poet and writer. He has published four volumes of poetry: Dialectic of Mud (AUP 2001), The Life and the Dark (AUP 2004), In Continents (AUP 2008) and The Among (Maungatua Press 2008). A new collection, Generation Kitchen, is forthcoming in 2015.