t. 96, Jo Thorpe, Reihana Robinson, Elizabeth Welsh

t. 96, Jo Thorpe,  Reihana Robinson,  Elizabeth Welsh

 

HOOPLA, Series 5: Welsh, Thorpe and Robinson Wellington: Mākaro Press (2019). RRP: $25.00 each

Reviewed by Janet Charman

 

A three-part review:

Over There a Mountain by Elizabeth Welsh Wellington: HOOPLA (series 5), an imprint of Mākaro Press (2019). RRP: $25. Pb, 88pp. ISBN: 9780995111011

This Thin Now by Jo Thorpe. Wellington: HOOPLA (series 5), an imprint of Mākaro Press (2019). RRP: $25. Pb, 50pp. ISBN: 9780995111004

and

Her Limitless Her by Reihana Robinson. Wellington: HOOPLA (series 5), an imprint of Mākaro Press (2019). RRP: $25. Pb, 82pp. ISBN: 9780994137883

The elegant uniformity of the Hoopla imprint’s blue, orange and green livery is designed to heighten readers’ expectations of a regular appearance of new titles in this innovative series from Mākaro Press. However the distictive line drawings that grace the covers of the collections under discussion here, also decisively differentiate three very distinct offerings.

Elizabeth Welsh’s Over There a Mountain felt to me like a cold fusion of the charming kleptomania of the cat from Lynley Dodd’s Slinky Malinky, with one of Doris Lessing’s late ‘space fictions’ ­– The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five. But Welsh’s fable comes without the reparative political urgency of Lessing’s cunning romance. And although the innocence of Welsh’s protagonist is every bit as poignant as that of Dodd’s recidivist feline, the undertow of irresolvable anger towards the emotionally neglectful parents in Over There a Mountain makes this child’s story highly unsuitable for kids.

Welsh’s fable is told in 84 pages of mainly couplets & triplets ­– these largely unrhymed. It is divided into three sections: ‘childhood’, ‘adulthood’ and ‘last years’. But the singsong repetitive structure of this quasi folktale is abandoned wherever the narrator, in preference to any expression of rage or anguish, opts for traumatically unfinished sentences. In the resulting bare bones, self-censored narrative, the acts of theft in which ‘mountain-child’ engages evoke only detached incomprehension in her parents. Her motives for pilfering remain as opaque to them as the clouds that descend over the peaks to which they prefer, in scientific inquiry, to dedicate their every waking and dreaming moment. However there is also an implication here that the primary source of this obsession is ‘mountain-father’, so subtly calling into question the agency of ‘mountain- mother’.

In this atmosphere of “pure” research the all too flesh and blood daughter ‘mountain-child’, feels her own subjectivity as increasingly insignificant. But paradoxically, since she knows no other tongue, Welsh’s protagonist involuntarily grows to delight in the arcane jargon of her parents’ geophysical immersion. This is a fluency she shares with the reader, despite the fact that her identity (like that of her parents) is being progressively imprisoned and calcified in the very terms they have taught her.

When her instinctive survival actions spontaneously escalate she suddenly finds herself arbitrarily detoured round the lives of ‘mountain-mother’ and ‘mountain-father’ like a traveller halted by a rock fall on a mountain pass. Her “slip” reroutes her into the different, but hardly less coercive rigidities of a convent education.

Welsh’s nuanced exposition of ‘mountain-child’s’ successive emotional reversals is achieved with a series of white-knuckled understatements. She marks her protagonist’s simultaneous incremental transition through youth into early adulthood and on to seniority, with a series of sparse and formal descriptions. The rising sap of maturity represented here by the protagonist’s exposure to art historical mentors; kinship figures – both remote and intimately remembered; and by evolving romantic relationships that are accompanied by both sexual fulfillment and disappointment. Vivid imagery emerges from the wild settings, both mountain and coastal, interior and exterior, which have lasting significance for Welsh’s protagonist because of her mysterious upbringing. But her evolving art practice in printmaking proves to be her most reliable source of personal integrity. This self-installed aesthetic discipline becomes her saving grace. It arms her with a unique vocabulary able to match the power of her parents’ overpowering geo-science-speak. Art-making to her means to express the subjectivity that they were prepared to overlook.

However the most immutable underlying truth revealed here is the tenacity of bourgeois values. The tension that undeniably builds in the text as the tectonic plates of science and art grind away at each other, is as nothing compared with the dreaming spires of middle-class parental self-entitlement that allow a teenager, suddenly deemed unmanageable, to be dropped off at boarding school for the nuns to sort out. What’s more, ‘mountain child’s’ thefts, though repeatedly discovered, never result in any intervention from the police. There are no prosecutions or youth court appearances, or any requirement for amends or restitution. As of right ‘mountain-child’ goes on to acquire a place at university. This is also a world where a family bach, whether at sea level or mountain height, is perpetually at her disposal. And her family’s cultural capital includes an unlikely (if seductive) familiarity with the ink preferences of the Dege monastery and the printmaking applications of yak butter. These and other such specialized cultural insights testify, in the absence of any other explanation, to an intergenerationally wealthy family’s plentiful experiences of “exotic” OE. In this privileged European focussed world the registry of mana whenua is limited to the respectful macrons appended to the several place names in te reo that, without further explication, feature here. And finally, both ‘mountain-child’ and her parents appear oblivious to the fact that they are living in the anthropocene age. It entirely escapes their notice that the planet is at an irreversible environmental tipping point, the imminence of whose calamitous geophysical effects ­­– deglaciation, erosion,  drought, plant and animal extinctions, braided river degradation, sea level rise ­ ­­– must exponentially amplify the existential distress not only of ‘mountain-child’ and her parents, but of everybody else who depends on Papatuanuku. The emotional imperviousness of the “parental” mountains in this collection, to the needs of their child, can be read as a metaphor of the climate change denial practiced by those who refuse to alter their own behavior, preferring to leave the welfare of their descendants to somebody else.

The collection This Thin Now from Jo Thorpe, begins with five poems in which a sorely tested relationship is examined against the backdrop of the sublime settings in which it has evolved. In the harbour: ‘The masts are starting to rock’

( l.1,13) but tremors are being felt with equal acuity in the two adjacent lives examined here. And though this couple now appreciates moonlight as never before, its entrancing glimmer illuminates an inescapable fact: ‘Night clocks on’. (l.4,15) Thorpe’s shifts of language and tone, record the march of mortality in a series of night shoots from a bedroom, a marina, a hospital room and back to where she registers the chill of ‘[…] winds at the river ends, cold as the word // ‘tumour’. ’ (l.8-10,18) This short sequence, Terra Incognita: A navigator’s notes, should be depressing. But it isn’t. That is because the narrative voice remains stubbornly invested in the spine tingling immediacy of the moment: ‘The numbered rooms where we sat and waited/ Where we learned to prepare for everything.’ (l.13-14,17)

The second section here, ‘Bella Figura’, contains seven poems. The first shares the narrator’s close scrutiny of a caregiver and her charge. The disabled man’s abjection rendered with decisive understatement in a description of: ‘[…] the quicksand of his legs/ a skittering little non-dance of back and forth, / a further incoherence.’ (l.20-21, 21-22) To register these movements as devoid of the gesturally symbolic meaning every dancer cherishes, (and Thorpe is a professional dancer) speaks eloquently to the annihilation of his agency. The narrator’s unflinching bystander’s appraisal, which also encompasses the man’s caregiver, is then tempered suggestively in the next poem Nocturne, where the narrator intervenes to stop a woman being assaulted by her ‘mate’ (l.8, 23). The poet’s ascription of “neutral” masculinity to the subject intervening in the woman’s assault ‘like a man’ (l.1, 23) – invites the reader to examine the particular ways in which a male observer of intimate partner violence may in fact feel that his very masculinity makes him ill equipped to stop it. The rotating perspective of the poem offers the reader a view of the ‘lover’/assailant; of the screaming woman; of the culpably paralysed male friend of the perpetrator; and of the actively intervening stranger-narrator whose hypothetical strengths and inadequacies are compassionately recorded in terms of their assumed male persona. Thorpe’s eleven lines are as much an intellectual challenge as they are a plea for “men” to refuse the complicity of silence and inaction, and step up to support women who are under attack. This provocation is followed by the thematically linked ‘Alhambra Suite: five variations’, which reveals with deceptive lightness, the ways in which the most privileged of women, whose assault in a carpark would be unimaginable, could in fact be doomed – from birth – to a lifetime of imprisonment and torment: ‘one petal yielding to the weight of a snail’s/ single muscular foot.’ (l.7-8, 24) Thorpe suggests in her next poem, ‘The Mona Lisa resort method for finding oblivion, the kind that passes for joy’, that equivalently entrapping gilded cages may be more prevalent in contemporary life than we like to admit. This poem is Thorpe’s antidote to the glossy enticements to buy into cruisy retirement “resorts”. The poem treats these as fake-holiday destinations that see us tragically spend our last years and our last dollars, replacing temporarily unsettling “senior moments” with a permanent state of obliviousness-to-everyone & everything. Thorpe daring, sotto voce, to state a disconcerting reality: ‘(Yet the subject stares back! There are bonds of blood. / And lives leak in to one another.). (l.11-12,32)

In the three other telling poems in this section ‘Swerve’ chronicles the wishful thinking with which a deluded individual imagines his last gasp attempt at “happy family” redemption could meet with success. ‘The care/taker in winter’ critiques the lure of hunting in terms of what it means to receive a decent burial. And in ‘Medea Reading’ the stars align as space junk in a mythic revenge phantasy that is then matched by the actuality of a contemporary revenge threat.

The collection’s closing section ‘Love abundant’, addresses two poems to the writer’s mother – at 94. First caught cleaning the leaves out of the swimming pool and then sitting out the night in her ‘blue-winged chair’ (l.6,47) The reader privileged to enter a mother/daughter circle of fragile, mysterious normality.

In her afterword poem, ‘Oracular’, the poet elects to look fearlessly forward. Thorpe’s steady poetic gaze giving the reader every reason to join her in future collections.

A small demur is the referencing at the end of the work, which seems unnecessary – except where direct quotes occur – as the poems speak for themselves.

Reihana Robinson’s collection Her Limitless Her is divided into two sections but the reason for this was not clear to me.

A number of poems here respond to the last days and deaths of the narrator’s much-loved mother and father. Voiced with mourning energy, this particular work (‘No return’, ‘How did I lose my husband?’, ‘I bow my head’, ‘From these contraries spring’ ), freewheels across continents, history, mythologies and time zones. Some of it reads as “given” or “sent”: Grief work in which the poet-as-receiver might legitimately claim exemption from the aesthetic scrutiny that, on less anguishing topics, would necessitate further drafts. For example there is the disturbing reference in ‘No return’, to ‘a 3am snuff movie’ (l.17, 22). These unrevised aspects of ‘Her Limitless Her’ suggest it as a private document only conditionally in the public domain. In my opinion such work is felt most accessibly and powerfully under the protocols of live performance rather than on the page. However the extensive list of notable journals in which many of the poems collected here have been previously published, underline the fact that the critical consensus does not endorse my view.

Robinson’s poems accumulate fragments of terminology, imagery and narrative in eclectic and poignantly allusive patterns (‘How did I lose my husband?’). There are chant like repetitions (‘Mama marae’) and poems where rhyme lends a welcome energy. Such a variety of accretions, rhythms and disjunctions are, if not commonplace, critically (if confrontationally) respectable under the conventions of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetics. However some of Robinson’s inventive elisions have dismaying elements. For example the personalized poem ‘Beauty’ registers as an inspiring Everywoman meditation on agency. But the notes on its series of spirited affirmations reveal that it is an address made in the persona of the African American poet and novelist Maya Angelou. However the compressed lines: ‘why in this pause you can/ confound the pigment skin’ (l.15-16, 14), inadvertently install hostility towards pigmentation in the skin its-self. This reads as an own goal. For surely Robinson’s intended meaning is that Maya Angelou gives herself and her readers’ enough pause to ‘confound’ the prejudice against ‘pigment skin’.  

In navigating Robinson’s jump cuts; homages to other poets and respected mentors (‘We let him down’), and her fleeting glimpses of cataclysmic trauma (‘What is a nation’), the notes supplied at the end of the text become a kind of drift anchor in a choppy sea. Whenever this “extra” material seemed indispensable to meaning (‘The sadness of mountains’) I wondered if it should have featured in the poems proper.

Of course, since before TS Eliot’s famous addenda to ‘The Wasteland’, poets have added explanatory notes to their work that expand or obscure it. Eliot’s notes reveal his failure of nerve as to what he could include in his body text (namely an explicit recognition of his narrator’s bisexuality) – material that in the end, he couldn’t bear to leave out. However Robinson’s notes aren’t indicative of belated bravery, rather they seem to me the tranquil recollections made necessary by the white heat of emotion in which many of her poems were composed.

The reader of Her Limitless Her exposes themselves to lightning feminist readings of patriarchal life-ways (‘Marrying’, ‘It starts with an E’, ‘Ka’ena Point, O’ahu’); to the scandal of colonial expropriations; and to the resilience of first nations identity in art and politics – whether in Hawai’i the US or Aotearoa. There are also eloquent vignettes of girlhood in a remote inland timber town (‘How I Lost You’, ‘Island Girl Tokoroa’,‘ Jealousy on the main highway’). Robinson revisiting this particular setting in adulthood ­– and in mourning – in precise imagery that makes these poems the most satisfying of the collection.

Clearly possessed of rich life experience this is a poet whose raw talent, inventiveness and fearless address of transgressive topics are, in this collection, not fully complimented by an analytically stringent approach to redrafting.


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/