XYZ of Happiness by Mary McCallum
Wellington: Submarine, Mākaro Press (2018)
RRP $25.00. Pb 67pp
Reviewed by Anna Smith
Mary McCallum dedicated this, her first collection of poetry to her whanau, her ‘happiness’. Beneath the dedication is the imprint of a dog – perhaps one of the most familiar signs of unreflecting joy we know. And if there is no ‘we’ in this collection, then the joys of dogginess, and the kinds of happiness alphabetised, may be celebrated for their private, singular nature. The good poet will most likely collapse the two perspectives. Certainly McCallum’s best poems show how her personal world moves from private emotion to its translation into a more public, shared language. And thence back to readers re-inhabiting intimate moments of their own.
The most accomplished poem is the opener, ‘After reading Auden’, which won the Caselberg International Poetry Prize. As its judge Bernadette Hall remarked, it is an ambitious poem that fully rises in its challenge to Auden. ‘Able at times to cry’ (1937) is the latter’s portrait of the man who picks his way deliberately with ‘gun and lens and bible’ under the ‘hot incurious sun’. In contrast, McCallum’s narrator delights in dissolving her boundaries in the river’s embrace, feels the ‘leaping light’, the ‘unexpected greenness of trees’; sees the river as a man’s body arching, its mouth ‘a soundless “o” of green ecstasy’. The form still holds the narrator’s passion, however, leading the reader into this moment of intimacy to savour eroticism but then out again to the hilltop. What lingers is warmth in the limbs, the memory of the erotic exchange now lodged in ‘faithless skin’: it’s these sensations that truly count as happiness.
‘Pink T-shirt’ captures that rare moment of joy when a man sees his lover run down the stairs and realises there aren’t enough hands – because they want to be everywhere at once – ‘to stop the smile on her face’. Concise, pared back to its essentials without losing energy or wonder, this is a lovely piece.
‘Element’, ‘Ferry Road’, ‘Of trees’, ‘Vessels’ and ‘Shy Hellebores’ were other consistent works for me. ‘Just Happiness’ presents a row of Happiness Bowls inscribed with the letters for serotonin which prove far too talky and glib once the more ‘serious work’ is brought out which burns with colour and light. I wondered if this paradox could actually be viewed as a figure for the collection as a whole. At times I felt that the effects of the aptly chosen conceits were weighed down with too many words, too much narrative. Thus, ‘Bee story’ admirably plays with bees, the note ‘B’ and ‘be’ in being, yet its effect is overwhelmed with too much conversation – about what the narrator is thinking, about what she could have done, wanted to do, and finally, what she actually does when she goes inside to meet her famous next-door neighbour. McCallum’s outstanding gift for story-telling, her intuitive feel for both adult and children’s narratives, sometimes gets her into trouble in XYZ of Happiness, her first collection of poems.
Like all first collections of poetry, there are delights and weaknesses to be found. One expects, however, that the writer’s natural gifts for language will encourage her to persist with this new medium and accomplish a greater evenness in her next collection.
Anna Smith lives in Lyttelton and writes critical reviews of art and literature, and short stories. She is currently working on her second novel.