Vanishing Points by Michelle Leggott
Auckland: AUP (2017)
RRP: $27.99. Pb, 132pp
Reviewed by Carolyn McCurdie
With Vanishing Points, Michele Leggott, the 2007-9 NZ Poet Laureate, recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry 2013, adds a third collection to the series begun with Mirabile Dictu (2009) and Heartland (2014).
Like the previous two, this work explores aspects of family. It does so much more. In a Radio NZ interview, November 12, 2017, the poet describes the process of losing her sight as ‘the final slide into the dark.’ One of her intentions here, with Vanishing Points, is to record the visual, so that when sight is completely gone, she can ‘bring things back into view.’ This book, with poetry, prose, photos, is vibrant with colour, shape, movement. Light blazes and flickers, in ways intensely real, surreal, in mirrors, paintings, star constellations, and in, and through, and over water.
The painting on the cover is ‘New Plymouth Under Siege – 40th Regiment, Marsland Hill, Taranaki 1860’ by artist Edwin Harris. On a moonlit night, the settlement is busy with marching soldiers, women and children, army tents, houses, and beyond, ships at anchor. In the centre stands a church and churchyard. Light falls through holes cut out of the picture so that the moon, windows of houses and the church, tents and distant ocean waves are illuminated from behind the painting. Shadows, especially the shadow of the church, have as much substance as what is solid. But the helpful notes in the back of the book provide the detail that rocked me. This churchyard contains the body of the artist’s son, three days buried at the time of painting. Not in the painting. But powerfully there. Loss in this book isn’t simple. What is gone is not completely gone, whether remembered childhood holidays, or a larger history, war in Taranaki, settlement in Lyttelton.
There are eight sections. The first, ‘The Looking Glass’, is the only one where poetry is the main form. Poems appear elsewhere, but the later sections are essays, musings, prose and prose poems. Images and thoughts fall, as if through marvellous holes, and appear elsewhere, slightly changed. In ‘The Looking Glass’, some of this playfulness arises in memories of games at school, where chants, song lyrics repeat. Much is there, and not there.
From circinus/the compass:
Macoute and the lady follow each other
around the circle I sent a letter to my love
and on the way I dropped it except it’s a handkerchief
and the children sitting cross-legged ….
as he stoops behind each of them they must not look
as he passes only eyes from the other side
can give the alarm … (p 10).
Only occasionally is there something sombre in the dark.
From argo/the ship:
… the boat sails towards on a dark sea
from the wings a voice like fiction
squares the circle
I am alone with myself riding
on the horse of my own breath (p 24).
Throughout this collection, images are spun from fiction and fact, in order to say the true thing. This is particularly obvious in the second section, ‘Self-Portrait: Still Life. A Family Story’, which begins:
Blindness does not prohibit tears
It cannot be true. But imagine for a moment it is. Two paintings face each other across a room with light falling through a doorway …. (p 36).
Then follow extraordinary descriptions of paintings painted by the poet’s mother. The creation of the works, the practical details, and then the subsequent exhibiting of the canvases completes the story. In the radio interview, Leggott explains that her mother never painted.
The third section, ‘Pisces Standing on a Chair’, explores the poet’s family history further. Five family photos, the earliest from 1903, spark memory and imaginative reconstruction of the flow, calm and chaos of family life. One story is the heart-wrench of the moment Leggott’s toddler son fell 10 feet through a window.
In the section, ‘The Fascicles’, the poet returns us to the world of the cover: the redcoats, the Land Wars, and weaves in the voice of a woman, a family member, who is imagined writing poetry, and following the news of war from her home in Lyttelton. In the seventh section, ‘Emily and her Sisters’, we meet Emily Harris, a historical figure who did write poetry and lived in Taranaki at the time of the wars. She was also a botanical artist. All through this book, but especially here, Leggott gives us the bounty of the land in flowers, vegetables; she sketches character through flowers and relieves the brutality of war stories with details of fruit, vegetables and water exchanged by the combatants.
And then, in Figures in the Distance, Leggott takes us with her guide dog, walking through her darkening world. This world is rich with sound and scent:
The white shell path crunches underfoot. Location. The wind is face on, then slant. Location. (p 100).
I found this book remarkable. Throughout is the warmth and courage of Michele Leggott’s voice and the sky-wide scope of her vision. The beauty, the rich intelligence shook me again and again. It’s a book that pulls me back, to explore further, discover what I’ve missed. Online I found Dr Jack Ross’s blog where he posted the speech he gave at Vanishing Points’ launch. He called it a masterpiece. Yes. Exactly that.
Carolyn McCurdie is a Dunedin writer of fiction and poetry. She has had published: The Unquiet, a children’s novel, (Dunedin: Longacre Press: 2006); Albatross, a short story collection (e-publisher Rosa Mira Books: 2014), and Bones in the Octagon, a poetry collection (Makāro Press: 2015). Carolyn is active in Dunedin’s live poetry scene.