Excerpts from a Natural History by Holly Painter.
Pokeno: Titus Books (2015).
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.
Holly Painter is an MFA graduate of the University of Canterbury. Her work has appeared in Sport, Landfall, JAAM and the New Zealand Listener. The collection, Excerpts from a Natural History, follow a year of submissions by a researcher-poet, with revisions and comments – both professional and personal – between the poet and the editor back at corporate affairs.
The collection begins with a couple of notices to the poet:
I Notice: Here the editors specify “that you would kindly refrain from speculating, syllogizing, conjecturing, hypothesizing, or prepossessing your judgment until all the facts are in.”
II Introduction to Those Things That Are stipulates “Dig in, begin, says Bacon, et al. with all that exists. List the speed with which each wandering wisp propels itself across the San Franciscan skyline”
There follows a list of all that must be seen, located, categorised, noted, explored. The following note stipulates: “Field notes submitted to researcher E. J. Wilkins to Supervisor D. P. Haward in the 392nd year of the research.”
The following pages begin with the word “Concerning” – Concerning the Imaginary Unit, Concerning Grade I Listed Buildings, and so on. Each poem or prose piece is accompanied by one or more boxes containing highlighted and underlined comments. The poet is absorbed with the relationship of the student of natural history and she weaves delicate filigrees out of her material. One of the pleasing aspects of her work is the way she allows sentences to flow over the lines and stanzas with the probing inevitability of a river seeking its way and discovering new things as it goes.
“Concerning Grade I Listed Buildings” examines the preservation of “precious things”: these being underlined and highlighted:
– IOxford’s former Prison, now hotel to penthouse girls
– The stone seal perched in peril upon a wall in Cardiff, Wales
– The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries’ Hall, which
brings help throughout the worldI
The comment includes these words: “(And don’t ne discouraged. This was perhaps a little touch for your second assignment.)” A little later in “Concerning the Bridport Railway Stations (disused)”, we find links to the stations which are no longer in use:
Maiden Newton (junction with disused Wilts, Somerset, and
Toller (building removed to Littlehempston)
Powerstock (formerly Poorstock)
Bridport (formerly Bradpole Road)
West Bay (terminus)
“Concerning the London Air Ambulance” develops the notion of the speed of a helicopter answering a distress call:
From the Royal London Hospital, in two minutes or less
comes a helicopter buzzing toward those in distress
a McDonnell Douglas MD Explorer
cruising at I1.50 milesI an hour …
It is finely spun stuff with long sentences never losing track of themselves from stanza to stanza, spelling out an exploratory expression of rescue. The underlined phrase receives a comment: “Metric please. The project officially switched over in 1875. Unfortunately, we Brits are still clinging to the imperial system …”
Painter is at her best when dealing with the humorous pieces, such as “Concerning Roald Dahl Plass, Cardiff”:
Cardiff’s plaza on the bay,
once a dock for ships transporting coal,
is no home to the Welsh Assembly Building
and the Wales Millennium Centre.
Renamed for the author
and host to live musical events,
it is perhaps better known
for its television appearances.
As anyone who watches Doctor Who or Torchwood will know, the plaza features in the stories. The highlighted comment includes these words: ‘Do you watch Doctor Who? I’m obsessed with that programme.’ As with many of the works, the poem starts with a simple statement and follows its implications through without losing track of the argument. Painter finds a subject totally appropriate to her interests and sensibilities in “Concerning the Michigan Lily”, whose overall effect generally is of a rarefied sensitivity playing over the surface of things, finding slightly strange locations to afford an atmosphere:
Michigan lily, with a wild prowl
of the wilting northern prairies,
ribs peeled back like a Christmas bulb
or Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage.
“Concerning a Photograph of Charlie Chaplin” may seem a bit precious, although sometimes the result is a supple, subtle, atmospheric thing:
He crouches on the platform
too glare-shiny shoes spread apart
as if ready to spring and dash
a base-runner bolting for second.
A salesman in his crisp suit
he presses a cheerleader’s bullhorn to his lips
and casts a pitch across the Ivast seaI
Of eager bowlers and bonnets.
Three comments are added to this poem: the first underlined comment reads: “Little too heavy on the metaphors. If they’re not already mixed, I’m certainly mixing them up.”
Excerpts from a Natural History is a thought-provoking work, with its keen visual sense, its stylistic versatility and its fine attention to the significance of the particular. Holly Painter’s poetry turns to the power and sustenance of story, or to the heart-work that we find when reading about natural history and she relishes the sensual and psychological pleasures to be found there. This is a poet who holds the balance between irony and pathos on a knife’s edge.
Patricia Prime, besides being 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).