Lynley Edmeades – As the Verb Tenses

As the Verb Tenses by Lynley Edmeades.
Dunedin: OUP (2016).
RRP: $25.
Pb, 64pp.
ISBN: 9781927322253.

Reviewed by Janet Newman.

I had the good fortune to hear Lynley Edmeades read poems from the sequence “Instrumental,” which is included in her first collection As the Verb Tenses, at the 2013 Hawkes Bay Poetry Festival in Havelock North. The room silenced to hear the words delivered with the rhythm and pitch of musical notes. Each poem imitates a musical instrument or a sound effect, such as a metronome or scales. Edmeades’ precise timing gave every pause perfect effect, made every rhyme resound. On the page, it is less easy, perhaps, to imagine how stunning these poems sound when read aloud. Nevertheless, their careful word placement and effective use of repetition is obvious. Here is “Trilling:”

there’s a middle C
being mimicked
by a D, echolalically

and back
then back
and back again

like a verb
pushing off
from a noun. (p 56)

Precision of word choice and placement is a feature of the 50 relatively short poems in this collection. Likewise, the eye-catching cover photograph is a precise choreography of hands, an orange and a bowl on an otherwise stark bench. As the witty title suggests, the image appears to be about what happens next.

Poetic content moves through childhood memories in New Zealand (Edmeades was born in Putaruru), descriptions of London and places in Ireland (she completed an MA at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University, Belfast in 2011), memories of friendships and memorials (the collection’s dedication reads: In memory of Andy Harrington (1980-2011)).

Like musical riffs, some poems use repetition sparingly with outstanding effect. Consider, for example, the ending to “Listening In:” “My mother’s hand / upon the pillow, the pillow soft upon the bed.” This creates a fluid evocation of childhood through repetition of “the pillow” and “upon,” a word commonly drawn from nursery rhyme. It is not surprising, then, to know that Edmeades’ is currently completing a doctoral thesis at the University of Otago, looking at sound in avant-garde poetics.

The strongest poems are those that move away from childhood memory towards investigations of place and friendship supported by a focus on word sound and meaning. “Optimism” and “Things to do with Lists” use playful interrogation of words and narrative chronology to great effect. Shorter poems “Inis Mor” and “East Belfast” remarkably capture an Irish attitude through succinct dialogue and the remnants of words written on a mural. The longer “Faute de Mieux” describes a single day with clear subjective lyric that evokes in the reader:

that feeling we get
when we feel so inflated by friendship,
we doubt that language can say it. (pp 59-61)

“During” is exceptional in the way it describes a first day at school from the point of view of an aunt who explores her own feelings about aging and coming-of-age. It ends by returning to the title when one of the five-year-olds asks what the word ‘during’ means:

During is the way things happen inside time,
I try to explain. Like now
and now, and now. (pp 29-31)

Each “now” chimes like a musical note. “As If” and “In It” work less successfully towards their titles which seem insufficient given the weight of their content.

The collection’s final poems masterfully evoke feelings of loss. “Northern Light” explores the difference a friend’s absence makes to the subjective feel of the day and ends with one of the collections few similes:

But here, even the light
looks bored. It lays on the street, the houses.
And the ennui shows through, like a bra under a blouse. (12-14)

There’s great sadness without sentimentality in these final poems which describe the slow acceptance of death, as in “Figure of Speech II:” “you’ve gone and done / the same thing the day does, to the sun.” (3-4). The concluding short poem “The Order of Things” suggests repair as it drops words on the page like notes from a chord. Here it is in full:

Red tulips drooping in the park.
Remarkable how quickly things change:
It’s tomorrow.
It’s today.

This is a sensitive, rhythmical collection that returns again and again to the pace and pause of music to announce its verbal insights.

Janet Newman has completed a Master of Creative Writing at Massey University. Her short stories, poems and essays have been published in New Zealand journals. Her poem, “Biking to the Manawatu River”, won the 2015 New Zealand Poetry Society International Poetry Competition. “beach . river . always” was runner-up in the 2014 International Writers’ Workshop Kathleen Grattan Prize for a Sequence of Poems.

First published takahe 88
December 2016