Threading Between by Dorothy Howie.
Wellington: Steele Roberts Aotearoa.
RRP: $19.99. Softcover, 61pp.
Reviewed by Jessie Neilson.
Threading Between is the second poetry collection by Dorothy Howie. She is presently based at the University of Auckland as a researcher in the School of Psychology, and this knowledge and background seeps through her work, with its emphasis on internal states and ever-modulating emotions and memories; identity and belonging; the relationships and patterns between the past and present and how these will continue to haunt; and flight, transitional states, and exile.
This collection is based on twelve years’ worth of poems, written while she was in Dunedin, Auckland, and Hull, England. Within individual works there are switches of time and place, as personal recollections, history and lore combine. The past, both her own and with it English, Irish, and Maori mythology, merges as she looks back from more recent times.
Her work is divided into three quite distinct sections. The first, In the Between, is brief and perhaps the most painful, dealing as it does with suffering and the aftermath of the end of relationships and even of death. It draws on a few dark figures: Martin Buber, Tony Fomison, and Seamus Heaney; all creative individuals affected by existential questions. The depressive Fomison, painter of his deeply revealing self-angst, gives in to suicide, and Howie is moved by him, by the unconscious psyche, the rawest pieces of personality: ‘Tony, I heard your voice in poems/dark as your paintings’ (“In the between”, p 11).
Or again, the ability to fully recognise another, the Other, as Buber investigated, where all real living is meeting ‘responsibility in the responding’ (p10). These are earnest and vital themes on what it comes down to in being a human, in sharing humanity as equals in mutuality and true reciprocity, although these are ideas of lesser focus in Howie’s following two sections.
The other two poems in this first section are equally powerful, and carry on the theme of miscomprehension (‘Oh, to look at the pivots and places of pain’, p 13). Attachment, as a key psychological concept, addresses the grief that comes from the unstitching of once-tight relationships, and the ‘anguished cry’ that comes when all is ripped apart (“Attachment”, p 14). “In the gaps” is a quiet and beautiful piece about probing the limits and depths of being a person, and perhaps about overcoming whatever it is we repress: ‘If you look for the spaces/the loopholes, the losses/what would you see?’ (p 15).
The second part, Birds in Between, is lengthier, and the motifs here are predominantly those of flight, escape, refuge, and exile. On a more literal level Howie also simply observes the various bird life around her home of Carey’s Bay, as well as those in other places. “Frigate birds” looks at the environmentally-wrecked island of Nauru, while “Peregrine, Central Otago” links to peregrini, the general foreigner, traveller, or pilgrim.
Howie ties in female figures who were either involved in flying, themselves (Jean Batten, Amy Johnson), or those who were in their own kind of flight, from their homeland, and from their demons. “Migratory birds” charts one such, ‘circling the world […]/ rejoicing fiercely in her aloneness’ (p 21), and looks to Janet Frame, and to Robin Hyde, both who were at times expatriates.
There is reflection in this second segment on the need to return to one’s roots or to one’s turangawaewae, as well as looking within to see what is real. In the aforementioned poem, she (or the narrator) visits the museum and sees a godwit stuffed and displayed. She thinks upon the changed form of it, and sees in it – its vulnerability yet endurance, something of herself.
The last and longest section, Being Between, has a focus on visited places, many of them historical and British, such as cathedrals in Durham and Truro, and her memories from these moments. There is sadness in the passing of time, which she links with the death of her father, and on her physical distance from her family at such a time of need. There is regret and sorrow, as well as connection through the power of song.
“Truro Cathedral” documents the exiled Dante, who died ‘a pilgrim/in comedy and paradise/as always, apart’ (p 46). “Naming in colonial Christchurch” dwells on the meaning of names as markers of a place, and how these names can transcend their physical boundaries.
One outstanding piece is the first in this section: “Protected”. Wherever she is at that moment she feels the spiritual presence of a personal taniwha, guarding her, speaking of exile and of crossings: ‘A taniwha/stands sentinel/in the hallway/of my home./Its speared tongue flicks/dismissing danger/darkness/and the fear of the unknown’ (p 34).
Threading Between is a quiet, affecting collection which mulls on the human condition, on the sense of belonging and homeland, and on overcoming loss.
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.