CREATURELY: In Praise of New Poetry from Aotearoa

By | 1 October 2020

The opening sequence of Sugar Magnolia Wilson’s collection Because a Woman’s Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean is called Dear Sister, and it is what John Berryman’s Dream Songs would have looked like if he’d been a female elder millennial from Fern Flat with excellent eyebrows. ‘Life can be so boring,’ says the speaker. ‘Tell me something interesting, sweet sister! Fuel me with otherness, strangeness, filth. Tell me about a time when you were down on your knees, acting outside of your nature.’ We might take this as the collection’s guiding mantra. The speaker, restless as a horse, wants to cover the world in her own grime and be plunged into the heart of its darkness. She confides to her sister that, out among the corncrakes and the nightjars, the demon-breeders and the trickster forest, ‘The night is a strange tune….It’s a secret work we do.’ Welcome to the spell.

I am seduced by Wilson’s accounts of history (‘Anne Boleyn had reptilian creatures / dwelling in her ovaries eating / all her eggs’) and literature:

If [Frankenstein’s monster] had been able to
touch something gently
he might have kissed the 
soft curve of someone’s mouth but 

with one hand a virgin’s
couth paw, the other
an executioner’s ironic fist
and with a cock made from the 
thick and greening arm of a 
19th-century wrestler

what hope had he of
even a simple embrace?

Given my own preoccupation with the choice of whether or not to experience motherhood, I am grateful to Wilson for bringing us reports of mothers and how they function:

Mothers contain fertile silence. They emerge from shapeless gentleness into textured gentleness, and often mate with portions of this abstract materiality.

Mothers are therianthropic and have a lifespan of 100 days after which they dig their bodies down into wet soil or beds of algae and emerge hours later in familiar but untouchable forms.

How prayerful are these accounts of the everyday fantastical. Wilson’s dreamscapes are places I want to visit every night, in order to wash off the world and come back to it, altered.

Rebecca Hawkes is the ultimate poet of AUP New Poets 5, selected this time by the unflaggingly ardent Anna Jackson. Hawkes’ poems are accurately blurbed as betraying a ‘glorious excess’, and they come after the shivery poise of Carolyn DeCarlo and the youthful form-making of Sophie van Waardenberg. Hawkes has fantastic titles like ‘Any machine can be a smoke machine if you use it wrong enough’, ‘Death by nectar’, and ‘Barbeque mirage’, in which a pav is tipped onto the speaker’s lap in the sexiest manner possible. In ‘Grooming’, which imagines a Werewolf as a daughter, the mother fixes a lunchbox of rare steak and stuffs a black rubbish bag full of hair from the shower drain. It’s a poem about shame, obviously:

Somehow all her classmates know 
that when someone says ‘bad girl’
with calm admonition, Werewolf cowers. Begins to fold
inside herself like a rubber glove unrolled from a vet’s hand 
she knows she is supposed to shake.

To want to luxuriate in the questionable and uncomely smells of the world is a dangerous business for a female, and the answer is for Werewolf to clutch her muzzle and ‘[grind] her teeth to blunting.’ Hawkes’ poems are lush and unrestrained, with touches of decorative horror and a healthy dose of the feminine grotesque. In an unrequited love poem set in a milking shed, the speaker lusts after a hot milker with an unfortunate set of bleach-blonde dreadlocks. The mood is charged and sour:

the splatter of digested turnip this morning has a smell so strong I can hear it
as though my teeth are thirty crystal glasses and somebody
is tracing a finger along them
with skill and ease            maybe                        dear colleague	             this could be you
                                                 oh when will you snap off your latex gloves and            oblige me

Clearly, rubber gloves are one of the images Hawkes owns by right of obsession, but they will do nothing to protect you from the clinging smell of these poems, an irreverent blend of cow shit and red meat and mangroves and pomegranate and raw talent.

This entry was posted in ESSAYS and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work:

Comments are closed.