CREATURELY: In Praise of New Poetry from Aotearoa

By | 1 October 2020

Lynley Edmeades’s second book Listening In exhibits exquisite control. There is no recklessness here, but Edmeades’ restrained and brainy playfulness gives the poems permission to interrupt their own syntax and open a gateway to the uncanny. A deceptive ease lets verbs slide into a new identity as nouns: ‘Morning is gentle nose. / Sun on sleeping-bag-red / with the lurk of grass.’ The intellect behind this collection is sure enough of its hold to stay open to wonder, with occasional moments where joy is let off like a firework: ‘The sky is so blue you can almost hear it skying.’

In many of the poems, a world observed with extreme attention tips over into strangeness.

At lunchtime
we fill the mezzanine
with a wired sound for world, 
hooked up to various elsewhere
as if our bodies don’t matter.

As if – but they do, of course they do. Edmeades sometimes takes domestic scenes, or tableaux of intellectual and psychotherapeutic conversations, and peels them free of their contexts; the poems then vibrate with the oscillation of the thing said and the imperfect way we hear it. Poems repeat, changed, in patient and wondered-at sequences of the same but different. John Cage and Gertrude Stein are guides here. New days with old rhythms. Old thoughts in new geographies. The collection is a sincere and arresting dance with the uncanny, and one of the most intellectually exuberant poetry books to come out of New Zealand in recent memory.

Amy Brown’s new book Neon Daze is a compulsive account of the first four months of motherhood. It traces an arc from the early, myopic days of the baby’s greatest vulnerability, through the dislocating underworld of exhaustively repetitious care routines, and back up to the sunlight.

In places, the book is radically candid. Brown has not redacted the experiences of parenting that are difficult to hear. Some readers have dealt with this discomfort by characterising the collection as a book-length complaint by the mother of a healthy child in a stable home. There is something systemic at play here. Art about motherhood is still met with contempt and scorn. Patriarchal power flourishes when it holds women in the impossible pose of being and doing everything at once, and not talking about it. As Helen Rickerby says brilliantly in her genre-bending prize-winning collection How to Live, ‘Women who speak have always been monstrous.’ To dismiss a book like this as a navel-gazing self-indulgence is easier than listening to what is being said. Listening to the monstrousness.

The collection an archive of tenderness and bewilderment, of the breaking and shearing and deep change that happens to a new parent. The moments when the book’s oblique philosophy crystallises are devastating. At the book’s end, the speaker quotes a veteran poet who told her, many years ago, when her life was different: ‘you think /there are choices, but really there is only one.’ I cannot stop thinking about this.

Here is an excerpt, characteristic for its unadorned language and its underplayed wisdom:

11th December 2016

We cross the Rimutakas under sheets
of rain and I remind him to be cautious 
of the corners pointing to the faint white 
of the road ahead twisting and rising 
like smoke. Just over the summit 
a motorcyclist in front of us slips off, 
the machine skidding on its side,
the rider’s left leg underneath for 
less than a minute as we stop and 
watch, will the leather limbs to 
gather themselves and stiffly wheel 
the bike to the narrow edge. The rider’s 
friend passes us and pulls over. We continue, 
wipers slicing the water from left to right
and back again and I think of how wet it must be 
on the side of the road, having the whole 
slippery range to ride down with one bad leg. 
When we are most distracted by the conditions – 
afraid of something larger than sleep or milk – 
the baby is quiet, either lulled by the rain 
or sensing his parents’ relief from himself.

There is something encompassing about what the mother sees, or believes, about her child’s psychology. It opens outwards: ‘You have to keep a baby moving, / she tells her husband, otherwise they realise / they are alive and become afraid of dying.’ Could this not be said of all of us?

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