Girls of the Drift by Nina Powles.
Wellington: Seraph Press (2015).
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.
Nina Powles was Book Editor for Salient in 2014. Her poetry and non-fiction have appeared in numerous publications. Her debut collection, Girls of the Drift features women from New Zealand history and literature, including Katherine Mansfield, poets Jessie Mackay and Blanche Baughem and other remarkable women. The poems are followed by a selection of interesting Notes and Acknowledgements.
Powles ambition and optimism about matriarchal culture is everywhere in evidence in this collection, there is a strong sense of female identity in these poems, as well as an evidently committed engagement with the work of other women writers.
In the first gorgeous poem, “Leila”, we meet young women returning from a ball:
The second violin dropped his instrument
when the last song finished on a long note
that went melting all over the ballroom.
Leila thought she heard a string break
before being rushed outside in a wash
of girls’ dresses painted a golden cream
in the glow of the window.
Similarly evocative is “Pencarrow Lighthouse”, a sequence of verses which re-imagines the life of the first permanent lighthouse keeper, Mrs Mary Jane Bennett. Using incantatory verses, the poet examines what life must have been like in the loneliness of the lighthouse:
Mrs Mary Jane Bennett saw frost on the ground
circling the lighthouse where her children sleep.
At the cliff edge where wildflowers were,
gulls wash seafoam up the shore.
The impression given is of a woman for whom such preoccupations are a natural part of life and central to her habitation.
In evidence throughout this volume is Powles’ passionate involvement with the lives of women and her abiding fascination with the variety of women she explores. In “Shipwreck” the focus is on the life of a whaler’s daughter:
She plants daisies in a corner plotted out with bones
pulled from the ribcage of a sperm whale.
Powles seems to be implying something ancient in the human psyche, her patterning language inviting readers to experience words not just in the mind but in the body. The title poem, “Girls of the Drift”, (a letter dated 1929 to Blanche) in which the writer recalls her life as a teacher and the friendship of two women who have gone separate ways. The poem is written in couplets which give rhythmic and patterned shape of the poem:
I pressed a sprig of manuka into the envelope, here,
from a bush by the gate of the school where I taught –
just there are the top of the gorge, where the children
plucked blackberries and pocketed them
thirty-two years ago.
In the very fine poem “Ghosting” some of these energies converge with considerable success in a moving description of ghostly presences:
I can hear the starlings’ beaks on the oak
just out there.
Here, the soothing, incantatory tone of Powles’ verse is both moving and apposite.
Powles writes from an intelligent, vulnerable place where she searches for whatever truths – and here I mean fictional truths as much as factual truths – as she can find. This search ranges through many characters, places and events to the relative comfort of order. The progression of the subject matter is mirrored in the way Powles uses – or abandons – form and punctuation in one or two of the poems. Powles insights are as innovative as her use of language. Maybe the experiences of the people she writes about demand a more flexible language because they consider the composition of identity and instead of finding something fixed and certain, they find shifting ground. In “Constantia”, for example, she writes:
Constantia felt everything in the
parlour change colour when she
pulled the curtains open.
And “The Grief Collector” ends with the following enigmatic verse:
all night long [ ] I am aware of it
] of evildoing
] a clot ion the left lung
Anyone who is interested in New Zealand poetry should read this book and be stunned by the various characters that it visits and returns from; deeper, unscathed and enriched.
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.