Aspiring Light by Robynanne Milford.
Christchurch: Pukeko Publications (2015).
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.
Aspiring Light is Robynanne Milford’s third book of poetry, the first being Songcatcher (2009) and the second Grieve Hopefully (2012). She was runner up in the International Manawatu Poetry for Performance competition. Her poetry has been published in journals and anthologies. The poems in Aspiring Light are divided into five sections: ‘Inklings and Traces’, ‘Settlers and Faces’, ‘Skin of Gold Feathering’, ‘Winter, Wanaka’ and ‘Aspiring Light’. The collection is beautifully illustrated with full page paintings and photographs. The book was launched in conjunction with the Festival of Colour, Wanaka.
Robynanne Milford has achieved back-to-back success with her third collection. It gets off to a cracking start with “O’anaka”, juxtaposing and juggling with sound and meaning and setting the tone pertaining to Lake Wanaka and ‘This place of Chief Anaka / home in a time before ours / Explorers eat the hunger to bequeath their names’. Another poem, “Poem on the Shores of Lake Wanaka” (after James Baxter) is emblematic of the New Zealand landscape:
By stealth of drift-mist, men float on mokihi rats
past creeks of broken ribs, paddle strokes silenced
by shivery winds until they arrive at that place
where Matukituiki sweeps into lake waters.
Here at Nehenehe, Te Mohene’s people sleep
after a feed of woodhen.
In “Criffel Diggings” (from the Otago Argus, 1885) she explores what it meant for the settlers to work the land. The poem is told in the laconic voice of a digger:
and I say Criffel is not for rushers
iron ground little water for washings speargrass
the only fuel It be a treeless trackless waste
sudden fog sweep gets a man lost
For the poet, her calling is to recall the detail of the untamed land as seen by Lady Barker in “Runs 337, 337A at Minaret” (1867):
Lady Barker rows her tongue among jungle of thorn
and tussock, frightfully rough, such splendid peak’s steep
purple shadows in bush clefts
lake whipped blue by eroding winds.
No matter North West East South
there was no pasturage,
no passage for animals.
Bought sight unseen, leasehold, not free
a dead loss purchase, abandoned
sold on 9 time in next 40 year.
In the lengthy poem “Sing My Whispers from the Bed at Lake Wanaka”, Milford draws on the music ‘Sounds and Distances’ by the New Zealand composer, Douglas Lilburn. The poem displays an erudite style and demonstrates considerable knowledge, which may be beyond most readers. Her vocabulary is wide-ranging, sometimes slowing reading pace. The poem contains not only poetry, such as this lovely verse in the voice of Elizabeth Ann: Voice in dark
Moon nibbled at, cast whorls
of tourmaline suns on lake waters.
So still this night, wood smoke paints
alpinic air. Willows whisper
in my ear without yet tracery of frost
for I am “excited.”
Begin to lighten to silhouette of Elizabeth Ann.
There are also prose passages in the voices of various characters, such as this laconic passage in the voice of Cayford:
I be called by Robert. Didn’t really know the deceased except she sewed a head-turning hat for the races. Remember her laugh, kind of infectious. So young to be dead. Heard rumours about that husband of hers. I be wondering where he was that night. Nice enough when sober from all accounts.
Another section of poems, ‘Winter, Wanaka’, records the beauty of the lake. The opening poem, “The White Wahine”, (after Winter, Wanaka, Rita Angus, 1939 and Symphony No 2 Douglas Lilburn, 2003), is distinctively beautifully written. It begins:
You might glimpse her
through curlicue of mist
on trout rise
behind vine glow
in soft sun harvest
Was that her willowing lake’s edge
in flake-fall on slopes of Mt Iron
sylph in lucent gown and ballet slippers?
The poem is one of the strongest of the poems in this section. “Grieve Hopefully” is more violent in its description of the ‘Frozen headwater’ and its backdrop of ‘chill cavernous / tears stalactite’, Each poem in this section focuses on the lake or the surrounding mountains, as we see in “From Mt Pisa”:
explosions borne of extreme winds galloping sky horses
draw carriages ‘long magnetic fields
accelerate iono spheres sieved through stars
expelled in our atmos
southern lights hiss and crack
colliding oxygens nitrogen blues
In my mind’s ear hear ululations
After this, the title section, ‘Aspiring Light’, comes at the reader like a triumphant allegro finale. The poems concentrate on the Drawbridge family, a watercolour by Rita Angus, the memory of James K. Baxter, the New Zealand poet, Bernadette Hall and a poem for Christopher David Thompson. ‘Aspiring Light’ is like an impressively structured symphonic work which echoes many modes of the mountains, rivers and lake interacting in different keys.
The emblematic poem, “The Clutha River”, (watercolour Rita Angus, 1939), is a stunning poem beginning:
Clutha gives birth
by aqua and gold strokes in just 2 hours of vigour
I am painting
a lithe tawny presence to wash your walls
my palettes infuse your composition I desire
to release music in you Douglas
The personae in these poems range far and wide in the arts. In “Mountains Make Monstrous Mothers” (in memory of James K. Baxter) the poem begins:
Mountains nurture no one
not a boy free camping at Glendhu Bay, not a young man
whose head wrote his long legs around Wanaka Station
farmhand with brains the size of Stargazer
nor scriptwriter of a poem of ascent
dragged into menace of the Matukituki river
his peaks’ altar cloth of snow become sorrow
when their mountaineer crashes into crag’s cruel buttress
The direction is nostalgic but never sentimental. The lengthy triptych dedicated to New Zealand poet, Bernadette Hall, “Voices from Central”, is based on the poet’s words. The poem links memories, the hurt in a mother’s voice and the “Loss of a voice still talking”. The poem ends in a moving celebration of family:
Now leave me
to orchard voices my whakapapa
voice in harmony lullaby for grandchild’s safe keeping
from a word & a word a love opens out like an umbrella
The striking feature of this section is that in spite of the intensity and authenticity of the emotions, Milford never loses poetic integrity. The penultimate poem, “In the Picture Lounge” (for Christopher David Thompson), is written from the heart, closely linked, on the one hand, to a ‘holy man’ and to ‘a woman in wellies’, and on the other, it exudes a universal dynamic which any reader can relate to:
They will dance a kowhai uenuku
in summer snows of Titiea
shimmer-red from bush fires
inspired views from The Picture Lounge
There are simply too many good individual poems to be reviewed here, but those addressed to individuals demand special mention: Nora Elliot, Irvine Roxborough and Bernadette Hall. Milford makes her reader work; it can be hard going at times, but is always worth the effort. Like all good poetry, it grows with re-reading – each poem a different, inspired pleasure.
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.