Kelly Malone Reviews Chris Price and Hera Lindsay Bird

By | 24 October 2016

Using the shorthand of well-known names in many of the poems might seem an Achilles’ heel, but Price also omits names. For example, Keith Jarrett is implied by the title of the poem (also Jarrett’s album) ‘The Vienna Concert’. The poem’s phrase, ‘the work of many hands’ echoes not just the masterfully described applause of a concert, but also suggests the assistance that makes any kind of performance. Such omission shows that when Price does use names, it is to advance the poem, nodding to her world of writers and how, as a reader and writer, she inhabits and reproduces texts. For instance, reference to Borges in ‘Three Readers in the Jardin du Palais Luxembourg’ highlights the magic realism of another poem, ‘The Book of Churl’.

‘The Book of Churl’ takes on alter ego, Churl, and subverts the various tropes of the hero’s journey. Churl’s emblem is a donkey and he is surrounded by horse imagery, having ‘slipped out like a foal’ to adventure into an anti-hero quest: ‘If he were a hero, something / would happen now. Instead, he lives / a long unhappening.’ A Happening is a performance, aside from the movement formed during the early Dadaists. (Dada is referenced by the translation of ‘hobbyhorse’ in the opening poem, ‘After Plato’.) In another part of the poem, ‘Black Monday VIII’, Price uses the language-play of repetition and iteration when Churl performs a list of all the phrases associated with the adjective ‘black’, only inverted twice for ‘Bone black’ and ending with ‘Pitch black’. Thus, where Price positions herself as a poet is curious. On the one hand, she is a performer, a player of language; yet on the other, she is very conscious of the traditions from which she writes. Churl’s desire is to be a wordsmith – ‘you’ll be the painless master of / a fertile grammar’ – but also to adventure (and get away from the blacksmith’s wife), as ‘he’s never been that far north’. On the way, his muse is caught for a moment – ‘And then one day / she’s there –’ yet remains elusive; the trope of finding love with a damsel in distress is subverted to become some kind of a quickie, bird-in-hand exploitation. This 23-sectioned work is an exposé of craftsmanship, a play on conventions, and a serve of implosive imagery. Along with the sensory smorgasbord, comes the impotence of Churl’s fulfilment.

In the third section of Beside Herself we turn to ‘Wrecker’s song’ and return to a speaker who is in the process, once again, of trying to write. This meta-narrative of writing haunts the collection with the gloating of a skilful silk seamstress. ‘Paternity test’ is spoken as a tirade, opening with, ‘Here is how it is: / if I cannot kill you / I will kill myself.’ The poem alludes to women whose creativity is stifled by misogyny, and for whom bearing children is a metaphor for bearing a creative life. It challenges women who bear such children to misogynists. The poem lists ways to kill the creative brain child, literally and figuratively alluding to some better-known suicides by creative women; one begins to read possible identities into the poem’s male addressee. The ending takes the narrative wider, to a shepherd who knows of the wrongdoing of such misogynistic patriarchy, and ‘knows the wolf has visited / his flock.’ This is a fearless, angry poem that holds nothing back. The reader goes to the edge, and like the poem, takes off.

Following ‘Paternity test’ we come to a clearing, and to an eavesdropping, where a ragged blackbird has taken ‘fallen speech’ back to its ‘filthy nest’. What the bird overhears from reader 1, a woman, is her preference of reading, to the disappointing love of a man. Her speech is fallen, for knowledge has ensued, but her words have not fallen on deaf ears. The metaphor extends, and in doing so intertwines the two, man and book – one fallen, the other immortal – between pages and sheets, pointing to a readerly relationship with Lorca, Borges, Hemingway, and Stein, and illustrating the various struggles within their craft. Reader 1 points out, ‘Fleuri or Fleurus, / leurs Chemins et leurs rues [ornate gold Fleurus / their paths and streets] are all / the same to me, leading nowhere’. Yet the poem is set at the Battle of Fleurus, and this ‘ragged blackbird’ is a stone’s throw away from one of the French Revolutionary Wars. Thus the speaker who thinks these revolutionary writers go nowhere, is as unaware as the ‘children of the inner arrondissements’ who never catch the ‘ragged blackbird’. The blackbirds, in any case, are out and about in this collection. In Paris, they’re left free to remain in the bush, rather than in the hand, a metaphor Price has already punned on with Churl – ‘his bird in her hand’ (XIX), and ‘a blackbird lives in the hedge’ (XXIII). Later, the bird is back in hand, in ‘Song of la chouette’. These birds, playing the role of freedom, captor, sex, as well as the lower echelons of society and revolutionaries, are a fine example of the layers of meaning Price is able to create within the text.

The final section, following ‘The Little Witch’, Bensemann’s illustration in response to Sir Thomas Brown’s writing, brings us to another side of Chris Price: Aotearoa. Here there is a leaning to an autobiographical narrative. There’s the poem ‘Antipodean’; the reference to Matariki in ‘Venera’; and correct macron use for Te Reo Māori. Price masterfully positions herself, not only as the European traveller, but also through her ancestry in ‘The Audition’. In this poem, she acknowledges the postcolonial world Pākehā inhabit, and needs to do so unless one unwittingly continues hegemonic structures of Pākehā influence. Nor does she liberally apply te reo in a hope of being au fait with Māori culture. It’s an ongoing issue for Pākehā – how to use the official language of Aotearoa, and native language of Māori, without cultural appropriation. Context is everything: Price respectfully includes te reo for proper nouns, thus where appropriate; and in doing so she has respectfully given acknowledgement of Māori from when ‘Venus [was once] erasing Matariki’ – without a Eurocentric gaze.

There is breadth and depth in this collection, and Price’s work is clever to the extreme. Most of these poems hold both personal and public faces, along with historical ones, giving the poems broader contexts in culture and literature, and making some poems utterly remarkable. Price is generous in how she gives of herself, and is wise in the giving. Price’s excellence hasn’t left ‘the old recipe’, but she’s come down from that snowy alpine province, generously integrated, and shared a few notes. In the final performance, ‘Dressage lesson’, the speaker is ‘myself’ wearing ‘your’ riding jacket:

My dance is not for you 
to judge, or even  
see: I do my dance invisibly.

And indeed, I might not see the dance, and I miss the jacket, but I get the ‘lesson’ of the ‘swinging hanger’ that indicates she is carefully performing more than one Price.

Hera Lindsay Bird, a graduate of the IIML where Price teaches, shows the lessons of poetry dressage in her writing. They read almost like writing exercises, but with spins of brilliance. There is no denying it: while the debut of Bird has brought her Poetry Superstardom, the work has panache. Titled by her name, it’s a bull-at-the-gate, boots ’n’ all, no-holds-barred, everything’s-on-the-line, kind of collection. The book opens with a hook-punch, ‘WRITE A BOOK’, and the speaker seemingly doesn’t care if it’s above her weight – that’s what makes Bird’s writing so admirable:

To be fourteen, and wet yourself extravagantly
At a supermarket checkout
As urine cascades down your black lack stocking 
Is to comprehend what it means to be a poet

The speaker confesses they mean ‘at least 75% of it’ and suggests that it is ‘not a right-sized reaction to the world’ to want to be a poet or write a book. Laying down this premise is outstanding. She – that is, the poem’s persona, or 75% of Bird – has put her self-importance into context, along with the construct of a poet, or the autobiographically writer. In doing so she shows a rare self-effacing, self-reflexivity in an age of narcissism.

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