The Blue Voyage and Other Poems by Anne French.
Auckland: AUP (2015).
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.
The Blue Voyage and Other Poems is a new collection by Anne French. It is her first collection for eleven years, in which she introduces the reader to fellow poets “William Butler ‘Smith’” and the Korean modernist Han Yong-un.
The book is divided into four sections: ‘Works by William Butler (‘Bill’) Smith’, ‘On passage’, ‘March funebre’ and ‘Going to Gwanghu’. In an opening paragraph, French writes that the poet, Bill Smith, “is perhaps better known for writing the poems on the reverse side of the labels on Pic’s Really Good Peanut Butter jars.” The poems begin with “Five peanut butter poems”; the fourth of these poems being the beautiful “Mackerel sky”:
I like the way the waves curl
their white moustaches.
I like the way the cold stars wheel
in their silvery arc.
And how benign the great green swells
come marching, marching;
carry us on their broad green backs
under the mackerel sky.
I found the poems in this section playful and enigmatic. “At Lissadell” enacts the meeting of Bill with two women in the back bar of an old hotel. He found them beautiful in their “silk dresses, all so dainty and fresh.” But the final stanza reveals the death of the ladies, whose domestic life was more chaotic:
One of them drove a red Chevy Impala.
She went Green. Her sister I heard bats
for the other team. A crying shame.
And now they are both dead, the lovely girls,
and the Lissadell has fallen down, left
to the frost and the dry nor-wester.
In the next section, ‘On passage’, French returns to her principal love – that of the sea and sailing. When perceptions are adjoined to humour and the description of water, as in the opening of “Mullet” (‘Spring tide; and the poles on the marina / are buried in water up to their shoulders’) the very poem in which she first finds delight in water, the reader has to go with the flow. Fragmentary scenarios are just as likely to jump into view as we see in “Sailing apercus”, as the perceptions of the poet work as a witty super-charged stream of consciousness. The poem is in 17 sections, ending:
“Mackerel skies and mares’ tails: / tall ships carry short sails.”
I want to dwell on the lengthy poem, “The blue voyage” (for Marat), which is divided into eleven sections. French has long been involved with the sea and sailing and the poem is inspired by sailing along the Turkish coast. In an explanatory note on the book’s back cover, French writes: “I discovered this coast for myself a couple of years ago. It’s not just the dark-blue sea and the warm, steady meltemi coming in like clockwork in the afternoons that drew me back.” She then goes on to talk about the history of the place. Explicit in the poem is celerity of mind and writerly and readerly modes, the montage technique that juggles poetics and knowledge, as when French describes the Turkish people in part ii:
Turkish faces. Gurkman, waiting for the cones,
his quick dark clever face. Osman, big, handsome,
deft, taking our lines on the pontoon;
smiling his million dollar smile; Osman
of the Golden Teeth.
Another section of the poem (vi) describes the Scirocco:
Scirocco. Fallstreaks from
tomorrow’s weather. Something
has scribbled its name on the sky.
For now, a perfect evening; glassy sea,
the light fading. And then a halo
around the moon; the clouds moving.
Tomorrow, a stiff breeze from the south
full of desert sand, building,
Building to a full gale.
At the end of the poem, the poet questions herself “Rainy England is waiting, / green and damp and cool. How can I leave all this?”
The final poem in this section, “The high-country lease”, is a personal favourite because it combines the perceptual and linguistic with the political as the poet leaves the high country when the lease has ended. The poem combines social observation with political comment:
This is no place for sentiment.
Frost shatters rock up here,
It’s hot as hell in summer,
pastures burnt to brown,
the river a silver thread
at the mountain’s foot.
No place for women, either.
Marche funebre contains a series of elegies, laments and funeral songs from French’s “black notebook”. The title poem (for Michael Houston) is dedicated to the pianist:
I looked at the piano,
as though it could explain.
It sat there, black, smug,
luxuriant. Like that, it said;
just like that.
The lengthy poem “Black notebook” (for Geoff Park) is itself a filmic piece in four parts. This is the perfect form for an on-going digressive tracking of the poet’s relationship with Geoff Park. It’s a rollercoaster for the reader who must stay with it, understanding or not. It’s a personal favourite, because it combines observation, personality and plans for the future. The poem ends with these words:
Your new attention is a kind of gift or second sight. That
the autumnal wine is from the Clare; that you indeed
are here, still kindling your bright trails through my brain,
my dear Geoffrey, are sufficient cause for wonder and for thanks.
Yet this quotation from the flow does not do justice to the flicker of the poem’s progress, jumping and cutting, from moments of acuity to the detailed account of a relationship. “On the way” is another poem dedicated to Geoff Park. Beautifully designed, in couplets, we can savour each verse in isolation:
On the way to Main Street, everyone
seems unnaturally well and strong.
That elegant girl, swinging her bag
as she crosses the road in front of me;
that lean school-boy, slouching against the lights,
his shirt tail hanging out and his face shining
with a cheeky thought.
The final section, Going to Gwangju, takes the reader to Korea and includes some loose translations of poems by modernist Korean writer Han Yong-un. These translations pick up themes that were introduced in the book’s first three parts. The title poem begins:
The night before we go to Gwangju
there is an important dinner. Beautiful
women dressed like court ladies bring
us dish after dish. We toast each other
in soju. There is much happy laughter.
There follows Five translations from The Silence of Love, by Han Yong-un. The first poem, “I do not know”, is presented in couplets:
I do not know whose step is the paulownia leaf
falling silently straight to earth;
nor whose face is the blue sky shining through
when the west wind chases the clouds off after rain;
The constraint of the frame allows for tight combinational play, but is no less intuitive for that. Although French confounds identifications, the poems are assembled from a single source, taking ideas from a text and putting back the fragments in a new order, to present a ‘glancing off’ meaning that may not have been present in the originals. There is no typical poem but it is helpful to take another example, such as “The sweet briar rose”:
You promised you would come before
the sweet briar blooms –but it is already spring.
In winter I wanted sprig to come quickly, quickly,
Now that it is here at last I fear it is too soon.
French has the courage to mingle the contemporary with the traditional and her vocabulary and format always serve the best interest of the poem. Her rhythm is dance-like as she weaves and returns to her themes gliding across the page. Her poems are the music of the sea, her unique voice the bow that plays the strings of all that makes us human.
Patricia Prime, besides being a regular contributor to takahē, is co-editor of Kokako, reviews editor of Stylus, assistant editor of Haibun Today. Patricia’s primary interest is Japanese short form poetry: haiku, tanka, haibun and tanka prose.