Say It Naked by Rachel Tobin
Wellington: Submarine, an imprint of Mākaro Press (2018). RRP: $25.00
Pb with flaps, 86pp
Reviewed by Janet Charman
A Passage of Yellow Red Birds by Robin Peace
Wellington: Submarine, an imprint of Mākaro Press (2018). RRP: $25.00
Pb with flaps, 86pp
Reviewed by Janet Charman
Say it Naked by Rachel Tobin comes with a suite of illustrations in both black & white and full colour. These accomplished nudes, contributed by the poet as artist, are used to break the collection into four parts.
In the first section, ‘Drawing from Life’, Tobin recounts a child’s earliest memories, in all their physical spontaneity and disconcertion. The first poem, ‘Burning Bright’, sees the child narrator swing between the formidable confidence of innocence and the periodic shocks wrought on her assured sense of self by the authoritarian interventions of those around her. A contrast underlined in the random horror of the next poem, ‘Is a voice ever lost?’ when the nearly (but not quite) inexplicable death of an animal the child has known as an integral part of her everyday life, causes a tear in her reality. In the following poem ‘Cherokee’ the sequence expands to recognize the structural confrontation between Native Americans’ traditional lifeways and the effect on them of colonizers intent on destroying their autonomy. This poem describes a Cherokee family’s helplessness in the face of a modernity that does not acknowledge their authoritative knowledge of the land they inhabit. The agents of government contribute nothing to the family’s health or wellbeing. When her intergenerational family loses its maternal linchpin, the brutal sense of loss felt by the poem’s first person narrator is revealed as anguishing: ‘That night my mother/ went blue and I didn’t/ know the song to stop it’ (l.9-11, 15). The poem concludes with the narrator, in adulthood, signaling her sense of the symbolic and spiritual significance of her mother as nonetheless, to this day, the tribal totem of her own mature identity. I wondered in this piece if Tobin’s lower case usage for icons of symbolic identity could, with capitalization or italics, have more clearly signaled these as spiritual entities, so as to distinguish them from the list of prized medicinal plants ‘snakeroot/ hickory, wild ginger’ (l.,10,11), which also feature in this poem.
The following piece, ‘Riddle’, uses word play and teasing imagery to install moonlight as a unifying metaphor of collective human consciousness. The poem after it, ‘Our father’, is set in Aotearoa, where in a mourning ritual two siblings torch a dwelling they associate with their father’s spirit. This is a poem of fearless acceptance, in which the narrator takes consolation from her deceased parent’s sense of fulfillment as he movingly faced his mortality. The five poems that complete this section settle into life in Wellington. The narrator’s engagement with this location is attuned to the sea, glorying in the city’s sublime aesthetic and recreational amenities as an assuagement of the family heartaches and mysteries also alluded to here.
The nine poems in the next section, ‘Undressing’, comprise nuanced responses to the deaths of a woman, a man, and a much-loved animal. Interwoven with these memento mori are the betrayals of a faithless lover, and the experience of a pilgrimage. The latter most fully described in ‘Letter from Spain’. This sojourn abroad a mélange of banal and exquisite detail, in which the ambivalently appraised motives of fellow walkers can be seen to have implicit parallels with those of the narrator. The lives chronicled in earlier poems and addressed in later ones, resonate anew in this piece. Intermittent communications from those outside the penitent’s journey (or is she just a tourist?), achieve a surreal immediacy that vies with her mindfulness of her blistered feet and her steadily stepped sense of geographical accomplishment. But these material realities are consigned to momentary second place in the climactic gestural act with which she memorializes one of her dead. ‘I’ve flung her ashes to lake and land. /Nothing is needed, the stick flies from my hand.’(l.3-4,38) A triumphant finish that does not suppress the emotional hooks and barbs that led up to this moment and which lead the narrator and the reader on from it.
The collection’s third and penultimate section ‘Behind the pose’, reads as a series of therapeutic exercises. The allegorical techniques used here are not as satisfying for the reader as evocations of particular characters would be. What starts promisingly in ‘Look up and kiss the sky’, a poem in which the narrator-artist transgressively shares her experience as a viewer of art, is then swerved in favour of a series of pieces that guardedly and apolitically chronicle sexual and romantic relationships.
The text’s final section, ‘Waking’, extends this allegorical perspective into a meditative domain. The danger that significant narrative possibilities will remain unrealized in the distancing and anonymity of an allegorical approach, is apparent in the poem ‘Full moon Satsang’ where, in a survey of the spiritual questing of a lifetime, one line overpowers everything else that has gone before: ‘That a forlorn man// should not have raped and killed her daughter.’ This expression of empathy with a perpetrator, fails to explain how such a position is reached, both by the narrator and the bereaved character referred to as ‘The Master’. The note on the text, rather than offering an explanation, acknowledges the historical origins of Tibetan spiritual detachment. In the absence of any other information, the truism of the phrase ‘should not have raped and killed’ coupled with the seeming conciliation of the phrase ‘forlorn man’ ruptured this reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. The crime is never referred to again.
Perhaps this passage is intended to illustrate the transcendence of materiality, to which a Buddhist novice might aspire? However it contains a disclosure of such seriousness it makes the personal growth aspirations of ‘The Lover’, ‘The Master’ and the narrator, appear trivial.
At the start of her collection, Tobin brought to a child’s experience of her mother’s death, in ‘Cherokee’, a succinct expression of empathy. But, for whatever reason, she has not used the creative tools she clearly has at her disposal, to communicate to the reader at the end of her collection, the anguish of a mother living with the knowledge of her daughter’s rape and murder. Or anything of that daughter’s lived reality.
A more careful grounding of the characters in the collection’s final two sections would have ensured that ‘Say it Naked’ maintained to the end, the credibility Tobin established in its two opening sequences.
A passage of yellow red birds is the debut collection from Robin Peace. It’s first section ‘Yellow’, contains 27 poems that offer a more than passing nod to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ exultant sonnet ‘The Windhover’. Equivalently complex descriptive language is used by Peace to foreground what for her too, are the joyous certainties of the natural world. These she sets against the unpredictability of human interventions. For example in ‘Migration Stories 2’, a seasonally travelling bird, newly arrived here, is ‘just killed for the/ being-foreign hell of it.’ (l.-23,10)
Peace’s attentiveness to the arbitrary in human affairs also registers in the compositionally post-modern aspects of the poems themselves. In ‘Challenge’, the narrator decides to ‘write for 100 days.’ (l.2,14) And then complicates the issue by listing a handful of words chosen by an unnamed aesthetic challenger, for her to incorporate: Words that are indeed woven seamlessly into the poems that form the opening sequence of the collection. The acknowledgments note that the initial draft of the collection was completed over a period of about three months in response to a 100-day writing challenge.
However postmodern playfulness is only a minor key here, what dominates is a tone of sonorous gravity, which references esteemed older voices: For example, Siegfried Sassoon, W.H. Auden and Emily Dickinson. These homages convey to the reader a sense of the poet’s immersion in, and love for, the work of a particular group of writers and artists. It’s as if in this collection Peace integrates into the plumage of her writerly identity the technical and aesthetic precedents of certain literary forerunners. Her aesthetic mentors made to lend structural authority to her poems’ disconcerting revelations of the guilty sense of alienation felt by Aotearoa New Zealand’s European colonisers.
Peace recognizes the migrant’s sense of perilous uncertainty as they observe the genuinely native inhabitants of a land they, as newcomers, can only ambivalently claim as their own. Yet despite the colonizers’ sense of inauthenticity, the literary legacies to which Peace claims allegiance paradoxically allow her to express the sense of dislocation felt by these interlopers, in a tone of imperturbable self-confidence and stylistic propriety (‘Claiming’, ‘Home-making’, Exile, ‘Casual Racism’). The historical provenance she gives to her poems, assumed to justify her narrator’s privileged independence. This is a perspective familiar to those who consider themselves, even after a lifetime residency in a “new” land, to be expatriates. The place that is their genuine “home” not here, or there, but an idealized symbolic locale within the self: Or in Peace’s case, within the English language. Her arcane terminology vouches for her sense of English as a language entirely at her disposal. She had me hiving off to Google on several occasions, to verify what seemed at first reading to be “own words” – intriguingly there are a number of these – but whether invented or authorized, she certainly enriched my vocabulary.
That Peace is herself internationally travelled is clear from her narrators’ engagement with both touring and kinship connections across two hemispheres (for example ‘Traveller’s Tales’, ‘Oslo Autumn’, ‘New York angels’). But the 22 poems in the second section of her collection, ‘Red’, are focussed on a localized family, in particular the relationship between a mother and daughter. The autobiographical elements of this material are recognized in the dedication of the volume, as a whole, to Peace’s late mother. Both intuitively as poet and personally as daughter Peace celebrates their bond in life and death.
A friend of mine who cared for her mother through a terminal illness once shared with me the consternation she felt at being told by her mum, only weeks into her final decline, “I’m ready to go now”. My friend was only too aware from her previous nursing experience that for a miserably indeterminate further period no such longed for release would be forthcoming.
Peace’s poems in the ‘Red’ section draw the reader into precisely this ambivalence and grief. As felt not only by those made helpless bystanders at the passing of one they love, but also registering the ambivalence and grief of the one who is dying.
The life experiences of the daughter are shown in these poems to be all the more fiercely cherished, since set beside her mother’s own vivid realisation of her human finitude. In this sequence Peace eloquently captures the disbelief that for even the most enlightened of us, remarkably complicates our response to the finality of an individual’s death.
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/