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.

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