May 29, 2006

Entitlements and Subject Positions

Filed under: Archive,Books


Dante’s Heaven by Jan Kemp, Puriri Press, $30.00, ISBN 090894330X

Beauty Sleep by Kate Camp, Victoria University Press, $24.95, ISBN 0864735111

The Gas Leak by Anna Jackson, Auckland University Press, $21.99, ISBN 1869403568

In the fragile world of poetry publishing it is always interesting to see what’s in a name. The title of any art work is important but in the verbal economy of poetry it is doubly so. The title has to intrigue and, literally, divert us. It gives a glimpse, a flavour, a nudge or a wink. It encapsulates and highlights, and when it selects a single poem, like a favoured child or a special stone, it tells us that not all pearls on the string are equal, not all gauds similarly beckoning.

For her eighth volume, and her first since coming back to New Zealand after an extended sojourn in Europe, Jan Kemp has invoked Dante Alighieri –and used, as a cover design (from Arthur Mee’s Encyclopedia !) a navigational diagram placing his purgatorial Antipodes at the top of the world, thus turning his cosmos on its head. Kemp celebrates her New Zealand return with new eyes and welcoming exultation : “This place you name Purgatorio –/which though not paradise /we call heaven.”

The Dante theme governs the first section of the collection while the fourth channels the voice of Beatrice. Those which most take the paradisal motif for granted work best. In “Sailing Boats”, for instance – “Watch from the deck /the origami Ps and optimist Qs /slip off / the tide tongue”. Or the humorous lyricism of “A Pukeko’s Trip South” describing a “northern swamp hen /with sticky red beak.” There is a sense of immersion in “Swimming” – “Nothing reduces you to your skin like the sea” – that is less convincing elsewhere. In the self-conscious historical compression of “We are all Newcomers”, perhaps, which in summoning both Curnow and Tuwhare, and bestowing a multicultural gloss on successions of arrivals, oversimplifies the vexations of territorial entitlement. Better to remember it was something different, after all, something nobody counted on.

Kemp is keenest when she is close and personal, as in the sections named “Tributes” and “Requiems”. There is the solidity of friendship in these poems, and the weight of sadness. Old friends are cherished –Ian Wedde in “Eloquence” and Michael Smither in “Ming-blue fish” – but it is the whisk of lyric in “Glance” that captures so much in its tiny entirety:

“By the time we are old

we shall know one another

with a glance

as the gods would

had they cared

for friendship”

The elegies, on the deaths of Allen Curnow, Alan Brunton and Stewart Whaitiri, are circumscribed by the tides of men and the things of nature, but there is a nervy and more memorable directness in “Staunch”, her tribute to Michael King and Maria Jungowska :

“I’d have wished you a gentler death

in keeping with your generosity & deft, liquid speech

yours of right, Michael, not this bizarre

fireballing out, though your friend said,

with your wit, you might have appreciated it.”

“Love is a babe” is the title of the Beatrice set and there is a sense of undue artifice, of five finger exercise about some. But not those anchored in particulars, like  “Jousting” where the poet describes her Hermes – “blonde, sandals streaming– /he’s the one held her till kingdom come… /– how she still favours him”.  Dante’s Heaven is a strong collection – dense, varied, occasionally arch, more often perceptive and affecting. And less in need of the literary apparatus of Paradiso and Purgatorio than the poet, perhaps, imagines.

Kate Camp has called her fourth collection Beauty Sleep and it is full of reveries, dream diaries, insomniac confession and languid whimsy. Camp has a sure touch and a welcoming ease. Whether describing a Waikato homecoming – “At the end of my street you could almost cry to see the trees/ that reached across and touched in the middle/ and the tiny lawn the size of a pair of sheets.” – or “the man walking through Country Road/ with his X-Rays”, or listening to Billie Holliday through walkman headphones dangled in a plastic champagne flute (“Russian Caravan Tea”) – she creates wry and vivid vignettes.

There is an unstudied freshness in her observations, finding quirky detail in a luxury hotel “where there was also a phone/ by the toilet/ a la Elvis.” or noting – in “At the restaurant” – “The masts of tied-up boats move just a little/ like shy men at concerts dancing on the spot.” These are innocent details infused with warmth at the human comedy of it all. She brings a similar generosity to “Lawns” with its snapshot of the neighbour Harry and her own Flymo expertise. An eye injury in “Demolition of the hospital” celebrates a return to familiar seeing, even the more edgy “Insomniac” series is effortlessly weighted, as in “The insomniac reads about the Aztecs” :

“the insomniac can see

That the sacrifice of a human heart

Is the most natural thing in the world

It is a small thing, and warm, and shaped like a football.”

Beauty Sleep is witty without being merely clever, ironic without the collateral indifference. Kate Camp writes poetry for people who think they don’t like poetry, and those who think they might not understand it. This is not to say that it isn’t complex or asks nothing – it just means she hears cadence in the babble of everyday language and sees signs even in the listing laundry – “and that shirt on the line waved its arms and sang, /come into my life like a pirate.”

The Gas Leak is a more esoteric venture but, in its coolly managed structure, full of implication and intrigue. Anna Jackson appends notes to her collection alerting us to the fact that the third section, “The gas-fitter’s wife” is a response to the sonnet sequence “Ballade van de gasfitter” by Gerrit Achterberg. Jackson is further provoked by a commentary on the poems  by J.M. Coetzee, noting the triangular link  between the poet, a “You” figure and the leaking pipes that may be gaseous expressions of God Himself. Despite these intertextual possibilities, The Gas Leak fortunately requires no significant transfusions of information – beginning, as it does, with the fourteen, fourteen-line poems collectively entitled “The gas-fitter’s marriage”  In “Silence, it means something” we are drolly informed – “The celebrant had laryngitis, / they were never pronounced / man and wife in so many words.”

The gas-fitter moves about empty apartments, “entering like a burglar”, helping himself to coffee he would refuse if there were something there to offer it. There is an almost cinematic oddness here – the images are plain but the montage is cryptic, and the ambivalent mood reminiscent of Robert Lowell in “To Speak of the Woe that is in Marriage”. There is a strangeness between this gas-fitter and his wife, and also a deep familiarity – “though/ it doesn’t answer the question/ of her sister.”

The gas-fitter’s daughter is a much livelier case. A rebellious adolescent, she is exasperated by her carping mother (“’no texting / when I’m talking’”) who does not see the girl is in her own erotic thrall –

“- she wants

me three dimensional

but you have to be thin as a needle

to enter life’s vein

and I’m out of here

in a rush –  “

In the final section, the wife herself speaks and, while Anna Jackson describes her use of the  poems as “an interesting extension of the more usual feminist project of reversing the terms ‘desired’ and ‘desiring’ “, these last poems have a purposeful sense of girl’s own breakout – “When I spill all, /don’t expect me to leave/ a stain/ no need for salt/ on your shagpile streets, “  Or, concluding “An explanatory wave of the hand “ – “I am much too hot/  to fall / I am rising far above you, / on the boil.”

The poet is intrigued to find a third hand in her work when the final poem literally won’t print – “ – the words come out like little corpses/ squashed into the margins / by an Almighty / thumb.” But these published idiosyncrasies of her Lexmark are not the last word. Instead, the bubble jets of yearning, in both the gas-fitter and his elusive wife, are the real subject – and object, of Anna Jackson’s shrewdly lyrical, and most accomplished, sequence of poems.

Murray Bramwell

Murray Bramwell teaches Drama at Flinders University of South Australia. He is a regular theatre and music reviewer for The Australian and The Adelaide Review.

New Zealand Books, Autumn, 2006

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