Bernadette Hall – Maukatere: Floating Mountain

Mauketere - floating mountain

Maukatere: Floating Mountain by Bernadette Hall.
Wellington: Seraph Press (2016).
RRP: $25.
Sb, 25pp.
ISBN: 9780994134516.

Reviewed by Patricia Prime.

Maukatere by Bernadette Hall is a single long poem sequence that explores and celebrates life below Maukatere (Mt Grey) in the Huruni, Canterbury. This is a hand-printed book on art paper and features 10 drawings by Rachel O’Neill, who is a poet, film-maker and graphic artist. This is a beautiful book that use language like a palette. The lines are lean, the poems compact, the words have been clearly fought over. Some of the lines are in poetic form and other passages are in prose, as we see in “The Tangler (1)”, where the speaker confesses:

My intention, he says, is to freely and madly and inaccurately write down the substance with all the inevitable vices and carelessnesses that arise from my age and from my current situation. (p 7)

Virtually, this is a stunning opening. The language is driving this poem (and most of the others in the volume). This process of discovery, from inside to outside, the search to establish some sense of relationship between the inner self and the exterior world, is the central theme of this collection – skilfully arranged, so that it is readable as a sequence, rather than just a collection. The prose passage is followed by the simple lines

            swales and snowpeas
                                                            snowpeas and swales (p 7)

In “The Tangler (2)” – after finding himself in a panic the speaker calls 111:

He says to the call taker:  “’It’s my birthday. It’s my fucking birthday and I don’t want to die.’”

The poem concludes with “a woman’s voice on the other end of the phone”, saying “’There’s no need for you to talk to me like that. I can’t help you if you talk to me like that.’” This passage is followed by

bathing baby

to hold the little head over the plastic bowl
(the body swaddled in muslin)
to wipe the eyes gently, each one, sideways,
and the ears, to wipe them gently with a circular motion
to smooth back the soft tufts of hair on the rosy skull (p 10)

A perfect balance between what, for reasons of simplicity, we might call inner and outer worlds, is to be found, I would suggest, in the poem which begins: “I have decided to get glasses”, for here Hall’s poetic persona has a confident sense of its own identity. Indeed, it isn’t always clear – and the lack of such clarity is no kind of disadvantage – whether some of Hall’s poems are about others or about herself observed. Either way there is an impressive meticulousness of emotional observation and a lack of sentimentality, which we can see in the prose of “The Tangler (3)” beginning:

I remember the photo well – almost as though it was yesterday. That was a strange time for me. We had a new house and I think I may have wished for new beginnings but the system and all of us locked into it was too difficult to manage – hindsight of course. (p 14)

Later on, we read:

He’s back in the kitchen again there standing in the kitchen,
he’s that little boy again          standing in the middle of the cream-timbered kitchen, the big rack for the washing pulled up over                 the
coal range (p 16)

“The Tangler (4)” focuses in a moving and inspirational way on the death of the father. The prose section, ending with these lines:

I mean grieving. The little boat of grieving.  That’s what got going. That’s what I really mean. (p 19)

This passage is followed by a beautiful verse which contains these lines:

behold a field of snow, an arabesque, the trees weighted with sun

he writes of hooded me in chains, the warders slipping past on felted feet

in transports, the Green Brazilian Toucan and the Shrike Thrush

a memorialist was tried for having blank paper found upon her

a band of ripples like a fancy hemline and all the glister of happiness

accused of being a forger, she was found guilty and sentenced to transportation
(p 19)

The prose continues: “The moss on the sycamores and on the oaks is as thick as my finger. The wedding ring has been found after two years or more lying in dust under the bed.” It’s a sweet scene, remembered by the poet in an intimate sharing with the reader. Hall’s description of seeing her brother “walking into the supermarket in Blarney” is described with an intensity that is very moving: “The long thin height of him, his beautiful jaw. And my eyes fill with tears as is the way with those who walk in two worlds or more, at the one time, the walls between the past and the present are so thin.” (p 20)

“I drove up Courage Road” is a prose poem in double spacing. Here, Hall receives a transgression notice for parking in a no-parking area and this appears to be her letter explaining the situation:

I could not rely on prior knowledge to warn me not to park on the

left-hand side of upper Desolation Street, I was dependent on road

signs and, as I have explained, the crucial one was obscured. (p 24)

“The Tangler (5)” opens with these lines:

“When he told them he was writing again after all these years, they said, so who is your victim this time. I am, he said, I am the victim, isn’t it always the way.” (p 27)

The energy of the language makes us look again at words and phrases, think about syntax, spacing and line breaks and this works well in this poem with its following poetic verses, such as the first one:

In which she takes to Pythia a slice of lemon cake
Arriving unexpectedly at the beauty of the rose geranium
Note: bicycles will be removed if chained to the building
We have no refund policy here
The little silver-eyes are stealing fat from a plastic stocking
As for displacement   :   that’s just his weight in the water (p 28)

The poem ends with these wonderful lines of description:

There are gauzy bandages of mist all down the East Coast as far as Bluff
Having to face out own despairs, we moved out onto the promontory
The ship was an illusion, a golden ship and a galleon, so high in the water
He may not be such a beautiful man when he is older, when the bones take over
I’m so glad we went to meet you, little darling, walking towards us through the tussock. (p 28)

For all the intensity with which the poems evoke and analyse particular places, people and times, the concerns of Maukatere are thought-provoking. Hall persistently articulates the beauty of landscape, the nature of relationships and the joy of working in an experimental style. Alongside what we might call its intellectual texture, this is also a subtly autobiographical sequence of poems and prose. It is an important book, which deserves to find plenty of readers.

Patricia PrimePatricia Prime, a regular contributor to takahē, is co-editor of Kokako and assistant editor of Haibun Today. Patricia’s primary interest is Japanese short form poetry: haiku, tanka, haibun and tanka prose and she has published a book of collaborative tanka sequences called Shizuka (2015).

First published takahe 88
December 2017