last stop before insomnia / dernier arret avant l’insomnie by Marlene Tissot. Translated by Anna Jackson and Genevieve Chevallier.
Wellington: Seraph Press, Translation Series No. 3 (2018).
RRP: $20. Chap book, hand bound, 40pp. ISBN: 9780994134585
Dear Tombs, Dear Horizon by Anna Jackson.
Wellington: Seraph Press, Translation Series No. 3 (2018).
RP: $20. Chap book, hand bound, 40pp.
Tātai Whetū : Seven Māori Women Poets in Translation.
Maraea Rakuraku and Vana Manasiadis, editors.
Wellington: Seraph Press, Translation Series No. 4 (2018).
RRP: $20. Chap book, hand bound, 40pp. ISBN: 9780995108202
Reviewed by Janet Charman.
These three unabashedly fragile constructions from Seraph Press have creamy white covers and exposed string bindings. Exquisitely hand-bound poetry books which, without lettered spines, will be invisible to anyone but their owner, once shelved. But, paradoxically, herein lies an advantage. This delicate format guarantees limited handling to fragile exemplars from a continuum that, at its most subversive, features Samizdat – texts clandestinely copied and distributed by those determined to subvert state censorship. However, at the other extreme, such slim volumes are objects of desire produced solely for the eyes of privileged connoisseurs. Material which the state might be as displeased to see in popular currency as any Samizdat, but whose existence they tolerate if it remains the very private property of social elites.
In fact, the three collections Seraph has produced here are well within the financial reach of anyone who wants to possess a work of art. So where, I ask myself, do these three books sit on the arc between subversion and connoisseurship?
Last Stop Before Insomnia is a sequence of 12 poems translated from French into English on facing pages, in which the narrator finds that sleep eludes her. Note that what she suffers from is not insomnia proper – she has reached the exit just before that. Marlène Tissot invites her reader to imagine what nightmares might yet arise should her narrator’s journey continue into the territory of intractability. As things stand, her waking dreams are haunted by a recurring image of windblown plastic, which recalls the dancing bag in the Sam Mendes film American Beauty. But unlike the youth in Mendes’ film, Marlène Tissot’s unnamed narrator is not consoled by an image of beauty in barrenness. Her emotional disconnection distends to envelop even the ‘you’ who might, anyway, be a manifestation of the narrator’s own alter ego – a job seeker endlessly rebuffed: ‘nothing/they told you, still nothing/nothing corresponding to your abilities’. (p 9, l.25-27). The uppercase of the poems’ titles progressively assuming the character of a shout of anger: “THE SILENCE OF EMPTINESS RICOCHETS OFF THE EXPANSE OF NOTHINGNESS.” In fact the very hook from which the bag-as-symbol-of-feminine- unhappiness hangs, is its-self found to be inadequate – insufficiently high to ensure that a fall from it will result in the annihilation the narrator anticipates. The suicidal impulses here are barely masked. The narrator continuing to be transfixed by loneliness, by the failure of her relationship, by the failure of even her sexual fantasies to engage either herself or the beloved: ‘what would you say if I wore for you/transparent tights without pants on underneath?’ (“DREAM-FALL”, p 19, l.21-22) She does not work. Will ‘nothing’ work? Will anything? She tries the panacea of home renovation in “A CONTEMPLATIVE STUDY OF A SENTIMENTAL MOVEMENT IN AN URBAN SETTING” (p 15). It proves as unsatisfying as her relationship. Her Cannes red carpet daydreams of “MORE AND MORE UPROAR” (p 17) offer no relief. Soon it is only the clicks and hums of Tissot and her translators’ word play, which encourage readerly perseverance.
But, at the sequence’s halfway point, acknowledging that her narrator’s privileged misery risks being discounted as a valorization of first world problems, Tissot boldly asserts her suffering as of equivalence with any of the deprivations felt by others. The concluding line of “EN BANLIEUE DE LA BARBARIE” (p 22) defiantly states that: ‘in any case’ [‘De toute manière] ‘we all live in the suburbs of barbarity’ (p 23). Tissot claiming here that even if the existential suffering of her narrator is endured in a central city arrondissement (the sort of location beloved by habitués of Air B’n’B), it is of no less intensity or significance than the suffering demonstrably endured by those who French civil society has abandoned to one of the outer banlieus. An ostensibly neutral term, the banlieu has recently become synonymous with the grim high-rise slums inhabited by ‘others’: refugees, illegal immigrants, the unemployed and the working poor. In effect anyone whose identity as truly French has been marginalized. For a reader alert to this soul-destroying subtext, can the defiant self-regard that is the dominant note of Tissot’s collection maintain their empathy?
One winter afternoon five decades ago, I arrived home from primary school to find my mother slapping onto the rich and ancient Kauri panelling of our living room, a finishing coat of Mushroom Blush. She had in reserve a large pot of Terracotta Sunrise with which she intended to pick out the ceiling crossbeams. At 5.30 on the dot my father came in for his tea. When he made his opinion of the barbarity of her decorating innovations known, she replied: ‘You’re off to work every day. I find it dark in here.”
Anna Jackson’s Dear Tombs: Dear Horizon was composed in response to her 2015 tenure of the Menton Writer’s Fellowship. From it she has constructed one continuous narrative poem, separated into 35 mainly sonnet length sections. In these she deploys her characteristic word play and light rhyming. The focus is on her daily experience of Menton and she supplements the Mansfield mystique with a dash of reality. Or should that be unreality?
Recipients of this career-defining award undertake their tenure on the understanding that nothing they do or say will embarrass the sponsors or affront their hosts. This has a quelling effect on the memoir revelations returnees share. Jackson’s dilemma in this regard encapsulated in her description of a figure in a picture on the wall of the apartment occupied by incumbents: ‘Alas, she has /no politics to offer, only/ this brief – but lovely – fleurescence’. (p 8, l.9-11). The proprieties, to which Fellowship recipients become respectfully hostage, are also ruefully acknowledged in the first phrase of Jackson’s title. It seems any reader’s desire for tales of drunken rampage, sexual adventure and intellectual intrigue, are always to be denied. But then, guest at a party, Jackson dares this vignette of understated drawing room savagery – complete with comically insolent punctuation:
The guests compare
Katherine Mansfield fellows they have met
and agree Greg McGee was the most
congenial. Many they have completely
forgotten! Are you making friends? they ask.
“Have you made many friends?” We haven’t
but we don’t really want to. I explain. (p 13).
The second phrase of Jackson’s title looks beyond social curtailment to artists whose work reaches for an unattainable horizon, which they themselves will slip across with the passing years, leaving the reader with only the shade of their aesthetic immortality. A shade also recognized in the beautiful stone white colour in which Jackson delights (p 18, l.14) – her approval evoking the reader’s appraisal of the shade of white paper on which her own poems are printed. Previously she has offered a glimpse of colour-saturated transcendence in her found poem from KM. It is Sappho redux: ‘ “The mind I love must have wild places, a tangled orchard where/ dark damsons drop/ in the heavy grass […]” ’ (p 15, l.8-10).
The fruit that falls in Dear Tombs, Dear Horizon is caught between the sweet and sour of closely observed settings. For instance, the messily intimate smell of Menton orange blossom (p 15), as opposed to the crystalline finish of what might be preserved. For example, a remembered photo on a wall of the poet’s home on the other side of the world: ‘Erin lies/ in a photograph, against the reedy green, her white face, white arms, striped’ (p 16). A scene in which Erin also ‘lies’ because this image of perfection fails to capture the narrator’s knowledge of how the splendid grass actually imprinted ‘slashes of red’ on Erin’s white arms: A later, traumatic effect, which the photo can’t register.
Jackson’s work here is similarly a confluence of the marvellously known. ‘Fergus and Elizabeth’ (p 19, l.4) and the disconcertingly unknowable: ‘but Rose wants to see it from behind, /from the parking spaces we look at/from the kitchen and the back/bedroom’ (p 9, l.11-14). Jackson, facing the reader with the realization that notoriety and fame, and the desire to peek (or paw) behind the scenes of it, produces in fact no privileged knowledge or definitive meanings. Art shown as a tidal territory marked by impermanence: any aesthetic incursion as liable to erode and expose the mindscape as enlarge it. Whether insights are intended as acts of empathy, as in a family crisis: ‘get their six-year-old/ down to safety’ (p 10, l.8-9), or as acts of passive witness – sibling ‘quarrels in the bedroom’ (p 17, l.7) – best ignored; the poem’s overall tenor is a hymn, or hum, to the provisional.
But I still read this work with a corroding pang of envy for the high status the Menton Fellowship confers on a writer. Aware of this tendency Jackson’s narrator positions herself in the no [wo]man’s land between the tomb of perpetual reverence and the duplicitous horizon of the strangely normal. In Hobson Street, Auckland, there used to be an avant-garde, but paradoxically retro shirt shop that went by that very name – Strangely Normal. I see it has now moved to O’Connell St. In Dear Tombs, Dear Horizon Jackson has metaphorically been there, done that, got the t-shirt from Strangely Normal, Menton, and so has nothing to prove. But once armed with the ordinary, she feels free to also adopt the privileged prospects of ‘une flaneuse’ (p 13, l.11) as expressed by her ‘looking for new/angles to look back from.’ (p 13, l. 3-4) The plain-pack of her poem accessorised with the bling of shamelessly boy-heavy high art references to Herman Hesse, Cicero, Virgil, Proust, Martin Heidegger, Turgenev … and Gertrude Jekyll.
Towards the end of the sequence, at a poetry conference in Nicosia no less, the relatable anxieties the poet endures to get to this dusty, out of the way event, vanish as Voila! (p 7, l.21) she presents to the world her own fleurescence – surfacing from a reading of her Virgil poem to dreamily share a fellow guest’s provocation: ‘ “Poetry readings should/only ever take place in tombs,”/ahead of me I hear an English academic/in his soft jacket adamantly state.’ (p 22, l.15-18). The undeniable idiocy of this remark shared so the reader can register that to understand its concurrent utter perfection – you had to be there.
Encountering te reo on the pages facing the English text of Tātai Whetū, is for a monolingual English speaker like myself, akin to experiencing a sudden anesthesia in one of my limbs. I can see it’s there but I can’t feel it. And if this numbness is preparing me for amputation, can I stop it?
The brutal attempted extinguishment of te reo was a hegemonic impulse integral to European colonisation. So if I, as a Pākehā, have begun to feel my ignorance of the language as an existential threat, how much more does this hold for tangata whenua?
Some symptomatic relief is to be gained from Tātai Whetū. Coming after the critical acclaim for Waru and its showcasing of the aesthetics of eight talented indigenous women film-makers, this bilingual collection of poems signals the borderlinks of yet another aesthetic constellation – seven Māori women here working alongside one another in poetics. Each piece is distinct. The volume opens with ‘BECOMING’, a talismanic creation account from editors Maraea Rakuraku and Vana Manasiadis.
“In Search of Mana Wahine”, Anahera Gildea relinquishes the dubious pleasures of a kind of Westworld, so taking the advice of an ‘atua wahine’ (p 6, l.6). Papatūānuku conceptualised here as the grief stricken, original solo mother.
Michelle Ngamoku depicts the remorseless depredations of climate change in the Pacific. In “Tai Pari, Tai Ope” symbolizing sea level rise as an attack on the mana of her Pacifica sisters.
Then in an atmosphere delineated as profoundly hostile, Tru Paraha unfolds in “DARKNYSS a work that asserts the artist’s sovereignty in Aotearoa, over the forms and structures of English. After 14 stanzas of escalating duress: ‘ripped slumber/into therex/euthanasia swallowed/horizon-till now/glacial’ (p 18, l.9), her poem is interrupted by a swathe of stars. It’s as if in the middle of an existential crisis the poet has found a way to a self beyond herself. And, as an antidote to an internalized torrent of abuse, swallows a “3 am” (p 20, l.2) draught of Te Ika o Te Rangi: The whole night sky here, just barely enough to be going on with, just barely enough to enable her to make a distress call.
The image of ‘a sea/of white faces’ (p 22, v. 2, l.6), in Kiri Piahana Wong’s poem “Day by Day” recalls Ezra Pound’s apparition […] in a station of the Metro. But the tristesse in Piahama Wong’s image is directed at racist marginalization, rather than Pound’s alertness to the alienation attending industrialization. The minimalism of his Imagist poetry heralded his determination to expose English readers to the elegant simplicity of Chinese poetics. But, in the simple elegance of her poem, Kiri Piahana Wong signals, quite literally, that she has other fish to fry. For her the Manukau harbour’s silver strip of light has the properties of an eel. And ‘dodging the leaves’ in Auckland’s Greys Avenue, she prefers to leaf through a copy of Landfall in the Aotea Centre – bringing all the hard-won self-possession of a reformed smoker to her scrutiny of the journal’s largely monocultural content. “Day by Day” is Kiri Piahana Wong’s mission statement. Her Anahera Press dedicated to bringing indigenous and Pacifica voices up from the subway into mainstream cultural discourse: She concludes: ‘That’s why/I am here.’ (p 24, v.3, l.11-12).[i]
In the five initial verses of “When Does it Start?” Maraea Rakuraku outlines a framework for decolonization that draws on both specialist indigenous expertise and the institutional structures that support it. In persuasively conciliating language she sequentially recognizes: the value of anti-racist theory; the empowerment that accompanies activism; the attacks, both blatant and covert, to which the colonised are subjected and which must not be condoned in any form; the institutional structures which must be dismantled to expunge white privilege; the feminist consciousness which offers resistance to the racist and sexist hierarchies upheld by patriarchy, and the benefits of working in compassionate community with fellow indigenous ‘others’.
The sixth section of her seven-part poem then advocates that preceding any of this, indigenous people must enter the spotlight. But her image of ‘the glare of light’ (p 28, l.2) which falls on those who do step up, has resonances not only of the stage, but also of the birthing moment of entry to te ao marama. This positions visible indigeneity not only as performative, but also as intrinsically natural. The subject’s own awareness of their personal agency reiterated by Maraea Rakuraku, as a fundamental of indigeneity: ‘that started/when the idea of you was born/that started/with the idea of you.’ (p 28. l.11-14). Personal agency not seen here as a privilege available only to the well-connected, specially equipped or conspicuously hard working. A position that notably reverses the conventional valorisation in Māori and Pacifica societies of traditional collectivist practices as rightly pre-eminent.
The final two verses of the poem asserting that before any of the challenges and strategies for eradicating indigenous colonisation can be pursued ‘the idea of you’ (p 28, l.14) must be acknowledged. The poem respectfully reaching out to this creative, initiating consciousness in the reader.
In “The Yearning to Have You Back” (p 30) Dayle Takitimu uses the word ‘incantation’ to register, in her subtitle, the oral significance of her piece. Her poem is a direct address that formally evokes the power and significance of an ancestor, whose influence has been compromised as a result of the depredations of colonisation. And in this Takitimu may be understood as speaking both to and on behalf of the reader. Her poem recounts the history and attributes of a direct descendant of sacred Hikurangi, so implying her piece as covenantal in terms of whakapapa. A work whose performative power is therefore not to be voiced by anyone untutored in the contractual privileges and responsibilities which bind together as ‘one being’ (p 32, l.3.) the speaker and the mythopoeic entity she acknowledges here as her sister (p. 31, l.1). This constraint on speaking rights represents a withholding of catharsis. It implicitly invites any reader who knows they are unqualified to participate in the covenant Takitimu recognizes, to up-skill.
The final poem in the collection is titled “Rākau”, which is a term for a male bearer of traditional tools or weaponry. As the central trope of her piece Alice Te Punga Somerville registers the responsibility such a one has, as a carver, to liberate from the wood, a figure conceived of as already in existence inside it. This is a symbolically gestational premise, which recognizes the feminine origins of aesthetic generativity. Te Punga Somerville’s narrator warns against any attempt to repress or appropriate this feminine generative potential. But in phallocentric discourse, this is precisely what is required of the artist as ‘hero-genius’, who is male by definition (Ettinger, pp. 173-174). The poet representing in graphic terms, the trauma caused to an allegorically female subject whose own creative life force is being brutally overwritten by just such a ‘hero-genius’: ‘I will choke on my blood before you’re done. //The wood you’re trying to carve is still a tree.’ (p 34, l.8-9).
By contrast, Bracha Ettinger’s theory of Matrixiality[ii] acknowledges: ‘a supplementary feminine difference that is the human potentiality for a shareability and a co-poiesis where no ‘hero’ can become creative alone.’ (Ettinger, p.180.1) In this model the artist can equally be a she-hero – one who retains agency, but maintains borderlinks with the inspirational figures around them. It is in that spirit of besidedness that I now say to Helen Rickerby, the publisher at Seraph, and to each poet and translator in these 3 collections: Ehara koe i a ia! Thanks heavens you were there! So lucky we have you!
[i] ‘Anahera’ is a transliterated Māori word meaning “Angel”. Anahera Press was founded by editor and poet Kiri Piahana-Wong in July 2011. Its kaupapa/mission statement is to publish work that fosters the telling and recognition of culturally diverse stories.
[ii] Bracha Ettinger (2006), The Matrixial Borderspace, University of Minnesota Press.
Janet Charman’s poetry collection, ‘仁 Surrender’, (OUP, 2017), chronicles her writing residencies in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Her monograph ‘Smoking: The Homoerotic Subtext of Man Alone, A Matrixial Reading’, Genrebooks, Dunedin, (2018), is free to download at: http://www.genrebooks.co.nz/