Listening In by Lynley Edmeades
Dunedin: Otago University Press (2019)
RRP: $27.50. Pb, 96pp
Reviewed by Mary Cresswell
You can tell a lot by the cover: an uninhabited room, bare coffee table with empty glass and ashtray, five generic waiting-room chairs lined up, looking for all the world like the parts of a sentence waiting for the words to show up. Word games waiting to happen.
This book, Edmeades’ second collection, is a tour of word games, and she does them beautifully. The poem closest to being a cover poem is called ‘Definite Article Abstract Noun Preposition Plural Abstract Noun’ (p 60) (although quoting from it would be a spoiler).
One of my favourites is a set of three poems recycling the same words: ‘Loveliness Extreme’ (p 33), ‘Extreme Loveliness’ (p 34) and ‘Extremely Love’(p35), riffing on the beauty of Japanese pottery and language. The first poems are the same length, saying lovely lovely lovely and blocked out as cubes; the third (like a vase) shatters happily all over the place, first introducing the Japanese word for lovely, utsukushī, over and over (the poem just loves that word) until collapsing on its Japanese character, which says it all in even fewer strokes. It’s a great use of concrete poetry.
‘The Dubious Structural Expressiveness of Arnaut Daniel: non-translated from the Occitan’ (pp 41-42) is a homophonic/surface translation of the world’s first sestina, written in the 12th century. Edmeades has preserved the rhyme scheme and given us the sound of the original, as in this stanza:
Decorate frost, not the armour
and consented maceration on camera.
Careless me has never crocheted atop a verger.
Carlos uses his layout as an illusory entry
and his doilies to sear capsicums on an angle.
A non-crier undermines your uncle.
In another form of translation, there are various transcriptions, starting with John Key’s farewell to parliament, ‘Speetch’ (pp 48-49), beginning: Mista speaka, I ryes to address this house for the viry last time, It’s bin a huge privlidge to have servd the people of Hilinsville as thir member of parlamen…
Donald Trump’s inauguration speech (‘Again American Great Make’ pp50-51) has been turned into an alphabet poem, full of sound and fury and a frequency breakdown, and is considerably more consistent than the original. There is a lesson in that somewhere.
And there is a cento about Dunedin – ‘Octagonal’ (p80) – using sentences from a dozen New Zealand poets, past and present. Another poem uses quotes from Margaret Thatcher. And more and more: it’s a fine collection of various poetic forms, keeping us reminded that poetry is after all the ultimate word game, and Edmeades gives us plenty to start with.
‘Things to Do with Verbs’ (p17: the whole poem) is a nice, domestic scene to get us up and going – or, if you prefer, up and gone.
The day unravels in the precarious throws of verb.
It’s everywhere we look: kitchen, bathroom, garden.
Even the floor waits in its doingness.
Later, when we’ve done all that was necessary
our doing has made little containers of past tense
around the house. We sit back and admire them
as they start their doing, their done.
Excellent craft – excellent choices – excellent book, which we can most definitely sit back and admire.
 Here’s the Occitan, in case surface translation isn’t already your thing: Del cor li fos, non de l’arma/ et cossentis m’a celat dins sa cambra, /que plus me nafra’l cor colp de verja … &c., &c.
Mary Cresswell is from Los Angeles and lives on the Kapiti Coast. Fish Stories, a collection of ghazals and glosas, was published by Canterbury University Press in 2015 and Field Notes was published by Mākaro Press in 2017.