Field Notes by Mary Cresswell.
Wellington: Mākaro Press (2017).
RRP: $25. Pb/flaps, 68pp.
Reviewed by Jessie Neilson.
Mary Cresswell’s Field Notes bears a cover resembling an exercise book or ring binder, for doodles and scrawlings while out in the field. This field may be a physical, outdoors space for the explorations and fascinations of an amateur or otherwise scientist; a domestic, interior space for the machinations of a hectic, on-the-move family; or an imaginative space for rearranging words, meaning and form. Cresswell, the Kāpiti Coast-based author of several poetry books, shows herself adept at wordplay and invention, in a collection which darts between ghazal, sonnet and haiku forms, amongst others, while in subject matter pulling from the classical past as much as from the immediate, and microscopic, present.
Cresswell’s background as an editor of scientific writing comes to the fore as she prioritises life forms large and small, as well as the currents and flowings of nature. Her collection opens with the piece “Look to the Ant”, where one of life’s smallest critters speaks up on their own fully operating system of industry, for no creature is too small to go unnoticed:
‘we sort out the wheat/ from the chaff and the corn./[…]We’ll belabour/ your smallnesses/ off to the emmetless/ ends of the earth,/ no trace remaining,/ no fuss and no bother.’ (p 9).
The following two poems continue a practical study under a scientific eye, yet this focus has by now pulled back to a larger picture, before homing in on turtles innocently going about their business on a Crusoe-like, person-deserted island: ‘The turtles are moving rocks/ rehearsing their own futures/ fractals in the sandy surf ‘(“Crusoe”, p 10). Next the focus shifts to a peopled suburbia, where summer-dry lawns are deliberately statue-ridden; ownership and beautification upon this piece of land: ‘Look at the space we own and observe the/ amount of water required to maintain it/ We add statues picked up on the grand tour/ babbling fountains with urny nymphs…’ (“Double Damask”, p 11).
Cresswell reworks poetic forms, using her own humorous imaging. Nursery rhyme “Mary had a Little Lamb” becomes reduced to – or dissected into – the purely scientific (“Desperately seeking subtext”, p 45), whereas “Evoking the muse (1)” is a satirical lament from the point of view of the discarded work in progress (p 19), and “Evoking the muse (2)” places the (male) cat rather than a desirous lovely young woman in position of the inspiring one:
‘The ginger cat is my Dark Lady,/ the penates of my lair./ He is my Scarlet Pimpernel –/ I seek him here, I seek him there’ (p 43).
Some pieces focus on an ever-shifting physical field, so that the collection as a whole feels as if it is strangely unstable and modulating. This may be a glimpse into a typical family on the road, children bickering in the back out of impatience (“Landscape with hopelessly restless figures”, p 15), or visceral images of what might be awaiting in the promised land of plenty, transfixed in the meantime by the scary in nature made beautiful:
‘to go to sleep under stars that don’t know Chicago/ to watch the moon scoop across the sky/…to wake up to see two scorpions/ on the foot of my sleeping bag/ dancing close/ in the cold dry light’ (“The road goes west”, pp 34-35).
Or again, it might be a coming-home to one’s own place, the same yet re-seen through life experience: ‘Trailing new visions along with the old’ (“The expat comes home”, p 41).
Another of Cresswell’s interests is playing with the romanticism of Greek and Roman legend and parodying its usage in earlier poetry traditions. Wordsworth’s verbose sonnet “The world is too much with us” is replicated, but with words and phrases blown up and laid over the original text, much as fridge magnets can be rearranged in any number of ways to create new meaning (“Reduction (Mr Wordsworth)”, p18).
Mary Cresswell’s latest collection is alive with exploration and humour, where deliberately opaque words are often chosen, to challenge and entertain the reader. This is a fun work all round, and while there is much more to cover, let us leave here for now with one such lingering, stickily indeed, image, in a heartily compromised field of vision, from “Nepenthe”, p 22:
‘You stick to my memory like guilt/ you are my eyelashes the morning after/ footprints in orange juice on the kitchen floor/ you are flypaper flypaper flypaper’.
Jessie Neilson studied English at Otago and also holds qualifications in the areas of second language teaching and library and information studies. She has taught international students here and abroad. Jessie is a regular reviewer for the Otago Daily Times and works in the University of Otago Central Library. She has broad interests in matters literary.