Travel dictionaries

     That’s how it goes some days,

     don’t you reckon.

     You wander the streets of a city

     that’s no longer your own.

     You look at a map

     and all the words are in German.

     You ask a stranger

     where the hills have gone

     and he bursts out laughing.

          from “Lost” by Bernadette Hall in The Lustre Jug (Victoria U P, 2009)

Every poetry collection I pick up seems to be about miscommunication and displacement—what happens to language as you barrel through time zones. I don’t know if it’s accident, a New Zealand thing, or a widespread twenty-first century poetic obsession. Probably it’s the way I’m reading, what I’m looking for. The Fulbright Scholar sits down to write reports about how the grant changed her work and disorientation ensues.

The books I’ve been reading keep getting recalled to the library (sad consequence of blogging about them?), and I ought to start bringing them back anyway because I only have three more weeks here, but some of them are hard to part with. Bernadette Hall’s The Lustre Jug is in the latter category. I picked it up early on, when I learned that Hall was convening the poetry-focused MA workshop this year, while Chris Price is on leave. Many of its poems arose from six months Hall spent in Ireland, although there are shards of Australia and New Zealand in there as well. Hall is away from home even while in Wellington. I asked her once if she identified with the label “New Zealand poet” and she answered with hardly any hesitation: “I’m a South Island poet” (the book jacket says she “lives in North Canterbury”). I noticed her omnipresence at Wellington literary events all through this southern fall, but it only recently sank in: she may seem local to a visiting American, but she’s a literary tourist too, soaking it all up while she has a chance.  

When I first read The Lustre Jug I was taken with its southern-hemispheric second half. I had been going to open mics and was intrigued by “The Strenuous Life,” a piece that skewers macho poetry readers:

     See how this one stretches up on his tippy toes,

     cranes forward over the high page,

     crooks one leg behind him as if he’s in the starting blocks,

     rocking himself into the finals of the national hurdles.

The poem goes on to quote a sexist remark by a “famous writer,” to which Hall belatedly responds with a very satisfying four-letter-word. I love how precisely observed, funny, and unsparing this poem is.

Books change, though, as if it’s impossible to step into the same poem twice. I recognize myself more now in those Ireland poems—although Ireland is only an imagined landscape for me, where my grandfather’s parents were born, where some favorite poets live or have lived, but where I’ve never been. What seems familiarly strange is thickness of detail in a new place, accumulating in your brain/notebook like receipts in your pocket; the superimposition of two landscapes, absent home and present alienness; the stickiness of place names and other local words. Ireland and New Zealand in this collection; New Zealand and Virginia for me, with echoes of New York, New Jersey, and England (especially from a January-to-July stint studying abroad twenty-three years ago).

“Lost” is the book’s penultimate poem, and like many others here, it’s epistolary, a poetic note to a friend to whom she gave lousy directions (someday soon I’ll write here about poetic dedications). A turn-left-after-the-zebra crossing poem seems to require a place-based orientation, but the setting is cleverly muddled, involving multiple times and cities. Hall describes herself Yeats-fashion as “all flustered, crazy Jane,/ can’t tell my arse from my elbow.” Her directions refer to streets in Prague, Paris, and a couple of places Google Maps isn’t helping me with. She also remembers a winter night in Fidel’s on Cuba—that’s Wellington, for anybody who hasn’t tasted the coffee. Confused yet? “Lost” translates that predicament into a feeling worth extending, parsing, and remembering. It also zeroes in at the end on hieroglyphs for home:

     n gr8 2 gt yr txt:

     ‘loved LOVED Christchurch’

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