Fish Stories by Mary Cresswell.
Christchurch: CUP (2015).
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.
Mary Cresswell is co-author of Millionaire’s Shortbread (2003) and the author of two poetry books, Nearest & Dearest (2009) and Trace Fossils (20011). Fish Stories is her third collection of poetry.
The poems in Fish Stories are built from her experiments with the ghazal and glosa forms. The ghazal is a poem of fifteen couplets, originally in Persian, Arabic, Turkish and Urdu poetry. The poet is free to make associative jumps from one couplet to the next. Some ghazals have short refrains at the end of each couplet, seemingly in lieu of rhyme. The glosa is a Spanish form, beginning with a short stanza that states the theme of the poem; succeeding stanzas explain or gloss each of these lines, repeating them freely as refrains.
Formal preoccupations are apparent in Fish Stories. It could be said that this is a poetry that minds its manners, it is a poetry of careful observation, of graceful cadences and painstaking craft. But that would be to understate its cumulative power; Cresswell does not shy away from difficult subjects, descriptions of fishing in “Fish Story”: “our white skiff on a glittering day”, and her craft is flexible enough to encompass “the vacant chamber of my mind” (“Eine Kleine Kammermusik”). There are acute observations of the natural world, a satirical response to the fortune-teller, Madame Sorostris, poems about resurrection, and travel, among many other themes.
The collection opens with the title poem, “Fish Story” – a recollection of fishing in the lagoon, which ends:
‘Remember when?’ We’ll laugh
as we tell of another one that got away
an angled line of success, of fishes
exceeding our wildest hopes.
This is the dream-work: to weave, to unweave.
There is a characteristic loneliness and empathy on display here; one never feels these are museum pieces or exercises in form. Among the poems is “As Envisaged”, a delighted poem about deceptive appearances. It begins:
My black and white cat is grey at night
and the tabby totally disappears.
Why are all cats grey at night?
Appearances often deceive, you know;
a bird in the hand knows how to draw blood
and feet in the street can be clay at night.
The often very different subjects are handled with a sensitivity and lightness of touch resulting in large part from the cool, tactful distance afforded by Cresswell’s skilful use of rhyme and metre:
We kayaked for a week to be in the event –
for nothing. We were disqualified, in the event.
I tried to see the islands that shone in the distance,
balanced too high on the railing, and over I went. (“In the Event”)
Much of Cresswell’s work has regular rhythms and cadences that have a lulling, consolatory quality to them. Her take on formalism suggests that the connective forces are “rewarding and fun” and “show readers poems which are both thought provoking and a pleasure to read.” Elsewhere in the collection, Cresswell’s acute sense of the natural environment is striking. Poems such as “Mrs Beeton Regrets” and “Notes from the Edge” are touched by the mystery of the natural world, even as they describe and celebrate aspects of it. And yet, they have an awareness that is never dogmatic or strident, but is nevertheless persistent. This may be found in poems such as “Another Country”, “One World” and “Stateless” (with its rhyming couplets):
When we are cast out of our mother state
can we shelter in another state?
No point in reason. We know that the earthquake,
fire or famine can lay bare a state.
Awareness is drawn small, our tchotchkes,
gadgets, object d’art are affairs of state,
Despite the anxieties darkening the edge of several poems, Cresswell has ultimately a celebrant’s voice. In “Timberline” we are reminded of the beauty of landscape: “Black mountain whiteout swallows our voices. / Earlier travellers shifted the snow poles.” And in “We are the Ocean”: “The tide drags out as the moon demands, / anemones close, disguised as rubble.” Such moments of affirmation are far from rare, the poems imply that they are hard-won through experience instead of simply claimed.
Cresswell’s poems enchant me with their lyricism, with the fluidity of language, with their exploration of her world and with their beauty. These are haunting poems, tending towards the surreal, but grounded in images of nature, ecology and serious images of the universe. These poems are full of mystery and tenderness, with a deftness of touch that takes us from reading to travel, from time to damage control. They conjure a mood which is tentative and meditative, leading the reader to a place where, in the words of the final poem, “Finish Line”:
Now add the hollars and the blues
monodies and threnodies
dirges and lamentations.
We begin to hear them
all the calling voices
laid end to end
This finally-judged collection makes Cresswell’s witness to her thoughts eminently believable. Her thought-provoking work, with its keen visual sense, its stylistic versatility and its fine attention to the significance of the particular, will give readers new ways of seeing our country.
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).