Family roadtrip, poem on the side

I keep muttering “Somebody loves us all.” It’s the last line of “Filling Station,” one of my favorite Elizabeth Bishop poems, and also the title of Damien Wilkins’ latest novel, a terrific book Chris and I have been reading. I recently pored through Bishop’s Collected Poems, too, to prepare for a seminar on her work. That’s probably why I keep chanting those words. It’s not an obscure blogger’s desperate mantra or anything.

My ten-year-old called me on it. “What does that mean anyway? Does that mean God?” In retrospect, his tone was probably suspicious. He’s a rationalist.

Well, it could refer to God, I said, and then I told him about Bishop’s poem. There’s a gas station, an Esso station, which is an old name for Exxon. It’s run by a family, and although it’s very dirty there are signs that someone has tried to brighten the place up—wicker furniture out front, a doily, a hairy begonia.  That’s a flower, I said. The poem ends: “ESSO—SO—SO— / Somebody loves us all.” I babbled on that the line is mysterious, that it could signify just a wish for love, but that the “somebody” might also be someone in the family, expressing her devotion through begonias, as people do. Bishop lost both of her parents when she was very little, I finished, a little breathless, and took another bite of toast. I looked at my son’s freckled nose and pointy chin, thought about how beautiful he is, and reached over to trim the bruised bit off his apple.

He looked back at me fondly and said, “Esso—so—so stupid.”

Milk and honey

Writing programs are often accused of producing homogenized, pasteurized work—whirring poems around in the workshop blender until the fat and flavor are consistent throughout, heating and cooling them to get rid of the interesting little microbes. Some strong teachers do produce student imitators. This can happen if your “teacher” is John Keats or Mina Loy, too, because when you fall in love with someone’s work the echoes tend to bounce around in your own lines.  I’m now reading books that resulted from MA theses at the International Institute of Modern Letters, listening for a house style and other family resemblances, but what I’m finding is as mixed as the metaphors in this dreadful paragraph. That is, IIML graduates are writing different kinds of poems. If there’s a common aesthetic it’s one of porousness and exchange. As one example, take the last poem in Hinemoana Baker’s first book, Mātui | Needle. 

“Whenua,” dedicated to “Ariki Noel Riley, b. 26.9.2003,” highlights the significance of place. Baker’s notes gloss the title as “land” and “placenta” in Te Reo Maori. Her mixture of languages roots the poem in Aotearoa. Further, the poem centers on the Maori practice of burying a newborn’s placenta and umbilical cord, a tradition emphasizing the relationship between human beings and the earth. The poem’s home is this moment—identified to the day—and its people are the “we” of the final stanza, participants in a resonant ceremony.

“Whenua” is also full of contrasts, though, between a commitment to place and the constant movement of the poem’s speaker and perspective. The poem begins

      Some other year on this day

      I paid forty-five thousand dinar

      for Season Fruit and when it came

      it was an apple on a plate.

Here is vagueness, reticence, imperfect communication, as the speaker travels through an unnamed Adriatic country. She walks by the sea; she mounts a train. Each of these moments is grounded and simultaneously shifty. The apple is “in season, utterly,” as are the local pears and radishes a few lines later; the sea is “without tides”; the train is “stationary.” The voice itself, though, is dislocating, mimicking travel’s weirdness. While Baker’s language is pared down and plain throughout most of the piece, her punctuation and capitalization are irregular and her narrative proceeds through fragmentary images.

 The fifth stanza produces the biggest dislocation. Suddenly Baker remembers a phrase pencilled by her father into a Bible—“may the earth swarm with you”—and she is examining a “sac”:

       we hold it up, each has a turn

       our ears sizzle, we make

       pronouns with our mouths, it hangs

       heavy as a beehive from our fingers.

 The poem is ebbing: from the wandering woman back through the sea to the placenta; from the apple back through the pollinated flower to the beehive; from I to we; from dispersion to Genesis. “Whenua”’s mystery makes it beautiful even if you don’t work out those correspondences, but its symmetry is deep and lovely too.

I wouldn’t say that Baker chooses home over travel in this poem. She juxtaposes them instead through image and diction, implicitly arguing for the importance of place and community wherever you are. In the 1991 essay “Dirty Silence,” her teacher Bill Manhire wrote that “poetry should embrace and welcome the great impure worlds of language and experience from which it makes itself” and that poems should be “sociable and surprising in their behavior.” Collage, conversation, code-switching, and multilingualism don’t belong to these islands alone, of course. Nevertheless, contemporary poems in New Zealand most seem akin to one another when they refuse to speak clearly or stand still.

Talk, talk

Several times since I arrived in New Zealand, people have characterized my manner as refreshing and open. Leaving aside my obscure alarm at the word “refreshing”—am I reminding people of American soft drinks?—I think a lot about what that comment means, especially since at home, on the east coast of the U.S., I’m told I seem reserved. Because the Kiwis I talk to are mainly poets, references to conversational style often lead to a discussion of American poetry versus poetry in New Zealand, sometimes with Australia or England thrown in as a third term.

Although these writers learned a British canon at school (if they were taught much poetry at all), they read a fair amount of American verse. It’s not the same selection you’d see on a U.S. shelf. Robert Creeley, who spent a fair amount of time in New Zealand, is important; poets identified with the Language School visited and influenced the Auckland scene; several women poets say that the daring verse of Sylvia Plath and Sharon Olds holds great power for them. American music reverberates in local writing. In Anna Jackson’s American Poetry and Poetics course at Victoria, a wavy line connects Ezra Pound to Elizabeth Bishop to Anne Carson. There are threads between those three, but one link is their expatriatism and ambivalence about national identity. I don’t know many U.S. poets and scholars who read Pacific verse as widely and thoughtfully, but when they do, it’s often in the context of postcolonial studies. I also see strong mutual interest between some indigenous American and Maori and Pacific writers, though getting the books across the water can be a challenge.

Since Bill Manhire has written about nearly every issue that interests me in New Zealand poetry, here’s an excerpt from his take on the relevance of U.S. poets to New Zealand writing, from the 1987 essay “Breaking the Line”: “I want to mention one other aspect of Whitman’s poetry which I find important – and this is the way in which he offers what he writes as a conversation with the reader… This idea of the poem as conversation, as intimate address from writer to reader, has been very important in American poetry. I think you can see signs of it in the work of several New Zealand writers since the 1960s.”  The rest of the essay is well-worth reading; it gives a useful account, for example, of the particular anthologies of American verse that reached these islands in the 60s and 70s. His comment about conversation, though, particularly interests me because it’s a key term in how I’ve come to define community. A sense of belonging is a side-effect of frequent, substantive talk among a group of people, often via multiple media. Talk might not always result in a “we-feeling,” but it’s probably a prerequisite.

 The problem with thinking about poetry as conversation is that it’s generally one-sided, not responsive to talk-back. Yes, living poets exchange drafts and those verses exhibit cross-influence. Page poets revise for their editors and performance poets adjust their set-lists for live audiences. I’m guessing that writers just as often get a charge of connection, though, from the solitary reading of printed text by authors long dead. Whitman, eerily, addresses future readers, reversing the usual flow, and perhaps Manhire is correct that this is an American way of writing. The talkiness of some contemporary U.S. verse owes a debt to Whitman. There’s a surreal, jumpy, elliptic mode that’s popular too, though. And a stream of sound-driven poetry that captures my ear.  

While I worry this over, I notice that I sound increasingly strange to myself, my vowels and r’s oddly exaggerated. Not bubbly and corn-syrup sweet, though, and I haven’t yet confessed any family traumas on syndicated talk shows or reality TV. Why are my poem-drafts developing that self-correcting tic that started with Bishop (say it!)? Who do I think I’m talking to?

Birds of Aotearoa New Zealand

The farm’s still there. Mortgage corporations

Couldn’t give it away.

And Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle

The magpies say.

Bill Manhire and Harry Ricketts characterize Denis Glover’s 1941 ballad “The Magpies,” quoted above, as the best-known poem of New Zealand. Glover briefly tells a story of “Tom and Elizabeth” and their failed farm; the second half of each stanza consists of that peculiar refrain in magpie-language, nonsense words “said” rather than sung. Manhire attributes “doggedness” and “reticence” to the “stubborn, impure music” of the magpies, qualities he discovers throughout New Zealand verse. Ricketts also reads this recitation classic within a larger tradition, linking it to the traditional ballad “The Twa Corbies.” Glover’s rural matter-of-factness, the way he juxtaposes human catastrophe with nature’s persistence, makes me think of Robert Frost’s phoebes in “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things”—my poetic reference points are relentlessly American—but Glover and Frost are both talking back to those Romantic skylarks and nightingales and a flock of other bird-bard correlations. Since I’m concerned in this blog with contemporary poetic conversations, though, here’s a quick look at two twenty-first century counterpoints to Glover: Mary Cresswell’s “Travel Notes (Island Bay)” from Millionaire’s Shortbread (2003) and Robert Sullivan’s “Took: A Preface to ‘The Magpies’” from Shout Ha! to the Sky (2010).  

Cresswell’s answer to the magpies’ nonsense-language is a surface translation of the original’s first verse: “the magpies said,” for example, becomes “thème à gout pays s’assiède.” A mock-pedantic editorial note informs us of the poem’s provenance: this is a “schoolyard rhyme, recalled by Miss Maire McKay of Island Bay, aged eighty, who was taught it by a nun from the Home of Compassion. Miss McKay’s whole generation knew and loved this rhyme,” a “charming ephemeron” now forgotten. (Note the internal rhyme even in the prose note: Cresswell, who emigrated from southern California to New Zealand in 1970, writes highly sound-driven verse, often rhymed and metered.) Literally, she says, the French words refer to “the discomfort of sitting on a poacher’s pruning saw.”

“Travel Notes (Island Bay)” is a puzzle—to solve it you must be familiar with “The Magpies” and have a very good ear (unless, maybe, the poet emails you to let you in on the joke). It’s an expression of delight in sound for its own sake. It’s also a challenge to the masculine lineage of Important Poets that Glover refers back to and generates. Cresswell admires Glover’s poem enough to poach it, but she never mentions him. Her work, unlike the settler labor of Tom and Elizabeth, is schoolyard play. Poetry comes to her through a line of unmarried women. They are Unimportant but they remember how things really happened.

Sullivan, a poet with Maori and Irish ancestors, identifies “The Magpies” as a poem of settler culture immediately, through the title of his response. “Took: A Preface to ‘The Magpies”” appeared in Sullivan’s 2006 essay for Landfall about the dominance of Pakeha and male writers in anthologies of New Zealand verse. His essay plays through the possible meanings of “took” in Glover’s first line, “When Tom and Elizabeth took the farm,” and his poem picks up that issue too by beginning with a bad treaty and displacement. The magpies themselves, Sullivan observes, are a species introduced to Aotearoa by Europeans via Australia; as nest-raiders who harry native birds and threaten their populations, they become ready emblems of colonial dominance and destruction. He rhymes the magpies, “pecking and squawking, frazzled and screwy,” with the native “tui”: both species are excellent mimics whose voices define these islands’ soundscapes. Sullivan ends by translating the tui’s wardle-doodle into Maori: “Do you mean korero, uri, arero, wairua, ruruhau perhaps sir?” Talk, descendants, tongue, spirit, shelter. Take that, Mr. Glover sir.

In his essay, Sullivan writes, “I happily admit that I ‘took’ great pleasure in the task” of writing a preface to Glover’s famous verses. Both he and Cresswell genuinely honor Glover’s resonant poem even as they fault its premises, or at least, I feel both impulses in their response-poems.

Cresswell’s strategy illuminates how Glover is also making a surface translation by converting the magpies’ sounds into human syllables; there is talk out there we can’t fully understand. I have read that the song of the tui contains passages of seeming silence because part of its range is beyond human hearing. I know I often return to a poem I read or even taught years ago and discover a whole new music in it, and sometimes I’m embarrassed at my failure to hear it sooner. This is why even the cleverest readers and writers need conversation, within and beyond poems themselves. Good mimics and critics amplify notes I hadn’t heard before and that’s a great pleasure too, even if I can never catch the whole melody, much less translate it into my own tongue.