Failed Love Poems by Joan Fleming.
Wellington: VUP (2015).
Reviewed by Elizabeth Coleman.
Joan Fleming’s second collection of poetry, Failed Love Poems, is a startling read. The poet, who describes herself as a sensitive extrovert, surprises and alarms the first-time reader with her contemporary approach combined with an unusual dream-like vulnerability. The poetry is strange and clever and no doubt doubly attractive when performed by the writer.
Failed Love Poems contains 26 poems of varying styles, in three sections. The mid-section of the book is devoted to prose style narrative poems, separating what seem, in general, to be love-beginning and love-ending poems.
As the title suggests, there is an illusion to love and there is the reality of it, and these are interwoven. The fabric of this is perfectly conveyed by the cover artwork, entitled Distracted Kneeling Lovers by Kushana Bush. Within the book the real madness of falling in love is evident; there is delight and confusion, pleasure and pain and all conveyed by the language, the setting-out, the gaps, punctuation or lack of it and both the pleasure and torment of the syntax.
There are things that can be divulged and things that cannot – or are there? The poems “Not yours”, “Twenty questions” and “What we liked” have black censored blocks which hide what we imagine are intimate excerpts; the text, invaded by angry marks, makes no sense of things … or is it more sense of things? What are we to think? Here is dis-location, tension, secrecy, an unexpectedness:
‘****slowest cruelty **** *********/
in the mornings, ******* ready but sleepy/ ****** I didn’t wake up *********/ *********** lick the *********/ ***** white air and muzzling,/ ******* cruelty in the afternoons.’
(“What we liked”).
In some poems passages are dream-like or suggestive; there is gut-reaction. Everything relates to our humanness, of being in love and being loved, and also to the end of relationships – all of which is challenging. In “The Refugee” we read:
‘in mango lantern malls
where we thrummed and seemed/ so/ coincidentally/ dreamed// You only had to play me/ a song/ I recognised/ in the evening/ car// as we folk-mourned/ and philosophised/ a rocking/ future/ which you drew/ then capsized … ’
As in the above excerpt, there are many examples of composite hyphenated words which charm:
‘ … sing it dark-loose/ my bones thrash-loose … ’ (“Alice Springs”);
‘in your paper-pushed/ peace-makings’ (“The Refugee”);
‘a girl-creature all blink-eyed and mewling … the two halves of her blue-fruit heart’ (“The invention of enough – 7 LABOUR”);
‘each in all its hook-hung softness and sprawl’ (“House-sit in spring”).
There are many example of remarkable word combinations and phrases:
‘headache wine … black pearls of want’ (“The life of the body”).
‘you wore your arriving look’ (“The game”);
‘bruised guessing’ (“The Refugee”);
‘wheaty parachute tufts that could slow/a free-falling finger, maybe a whole hand’ (“Makara”).
“Makara” is a narrative poem and distinctly New Zealand, it is restrained in comparison to most of the others:
‘They drove his van into the dark with the bed/ in the back and five curtains with a pattern of flowers/ so small at first they seemed like polka dots, or sometimes/ not there at all. He kept stones everywhere/ and she talked about the boulders she had seen/ with hollows that would fit a human body/ and he said yes yes yes and she picked one up/ and so smooth she thought he must have loved them,/ and also driftwood on the dashboard … ’
‘… and he grabbed her and pulled her into his beard/ and said I think I’m falling in love with you but then later/ he never said I’m falling in love with you.’
‘they dressed each other, boiled their own thick morning cup/ on the camp stove and talked about going to the Orongorongos,/ and what it might be like, and what it might be like to stay.’
There are rashes of lovely internal rhyme, as in “Standing water”:
‘You asked me what would torrent/ the dirty backs of my mind and when I did finally tell/ your face fell// You walked with your head hung not a citizen/ of that wet town’s green life you walked to your courses/ you learned how to sharpen someone else’s knife’
‘… And all of what we ought (more than that) what we/ belly-wished we never got to do/ The future stayed on paper/ or it gently tore in talk/ And we never fought’.
In many instances grammar and phraseology is elastic and at first, odd; awkward syntax alerts the reader to the vulnerability of the situation. One needs to read and re-read, speak it aloud until it becomes palatable. One then revels in the bravery of it. The last lines of the poetry echo this sentiment:
‘… the endless sunshot blue/ here is crazy/ and we keep swimming and after a while we can’t even/ feel the cold’ (“The End – 3 WASH”).
I am glad to have been introduced to Fleming’s work. My recommendation is that an open mind and commitment will thoroughly reward the reading of her lively poetry.
Elizabeth Coleman lives in Waikanae and has a strong interest in the poetry scene on the Kapiti Coast. She has been published in journals and magazines such as 4th Floor, takahē; in anthologies including Dear to Me, Swings & Roundabouts; has participated in performance poetry entitled Eyes in the Skies, and has judged competition poetry.