A Voice of Her Own
A long time ago I made the point in an anthology introduction, that trying to yoke poets into some kind of ‘tradition’ or ‘order of descent’ might seem a tempting thing to do, but it could also be a heavy-handed muting of particular voices. I should have made far more of a point of it. What poets don’t have in common seems to me far more interesting to listen to than what they do. Similarly, the traces that come through from other places or cultures, or the cast of mind poets don’t share, are more decisive and worth attending to than simply the fact of their living in the same country. Riemke Ensing’s poetry, over several decades, has carried the kind of strong independent voice that bears this out, as vigorously aware now as it ever was of the background she shares with few other New Zealand writers, yet as attentive and attuned to what she does have in common. It’s good to hear her as well as read her in this month’s blog, and to know something too of the kind of poetry she admires.
Intimations of Mortality
Only a short while ago, a friend mentioned Tomas Tranströmer – the 2011 Nobel Prize winner considered to ‘be Sweden’s most important poet’. His poems are spare and dark and I immediately took to the title of one of his volumes – The Deleted World – from which these lines from the poem ‘Midwinter’ are taken.
...Ringing tambourines of ice.
I close my eyes.
There is a silent world,
There is a crack
where the dead
are smuggled over the border...
It is difficult sometimes to know what it is exactly that captures one, but that last line recalled one of the many stories my almost life-long friend and companion once told me of one of his many escapades between France and Spain in the early 50’s when he was a student of the piano at the Paris Conservatoire. He was doing just that – smuggling an old Spaniard across the border back to his homeland. The man died on the journey.
And so a poem suddenly conjures an entirely different world as well as the one in question. And that ‘ringing ice’ for instance, that ‘crack’ – how so very unexpectedly one is back there at the age of ten, in another country, hearing and seeing just that as one falls into the freezing water.
I suppose, because like Webster I have been ‘much pre-occupied with death’, these last few years –the poems I’ve been writing and reading have tended towards trying to make sense of the fact of death. So many friends and family members are no longer here and as one gets older, intimations of mortality increase on an almost daily basis. That is why I am also drawn to the poem ‘After a Death’ by Tomas Tranströmer.
When my partner – how I dislike that so American word that conjures up Stetsons, spurs and John Wayne movies – was dying, the garden was suddenly filled with fantails for three or four days. They were everywhere. Flew against the windows, flittered about under the verandah roof, gathered in great flocks in the bottlebrush trees and finally even came inside. I rang my friend Emilia Oppenheim, wanting a legend, a significance other than death, but she defusingly inclined towards Stein – ‘a bird is a bird is a bird’. She too has now died and a poem is in the making although it is taking its time.
After Bill’s funeral the fantails had gone. Instead great noisy hordes of Tui were darting and cavorting about in the trees. Previously there might have been one or two or even three, but this was a most unusual sight and sound. And because of the flurry of black feathers and white collars you couldn’t but make a connection with musicians dressed up in concert gear. Here is the poem I wrote some years later.
It won the 2012 NZSA Kevin Ireland Poetry Competition.
A different kind of Hemingway episode
after reading ‘There Is Never Any End to Paris.’
[For my friend and companion Bill Trussell, 1920-2009]
Conditions for writing could not have been more dangerous.
There was the year you died
and then another and another year.
Everything froze over.
Grief was deep and nothing seemed bound to earth.
Whole hillsides came down in a rush.
I hardly wrote at all
but stars were close and very bright
lucent through the open window
as though death were normal and every day
without this desperation or desire.
There was wind too and rain
and much silence being solitary.
And all the time there were birds.
The trees full of them, and the garden.
Musicians in white ties, fiercely fast,
chatting, whistling, making passes at each other
as though it were spring and not this depth of winter
with life almost at standstill.
The blackbird of Glanmore
And then, just recently re-reading Seamus Heaney, there’s another bird poem.
That ‘shadow on the raked gravel’, that ‘blue light’ in the ‘midwinter’ have a worrying resonance. Is it significant that these particular poems appear at the end of each respective volume? Heaney too has gone and ‘the world is now a different place’ as Marco Sonzogni so movingly pointed out at his session about the art of translation at the New Zealand Writers Week Festival in Wellington recently when he took out a framed photograph of Seamus Heaney and put it on the table in front of him on the podium. They had worked together and become friends and poignantly we too were included in that privilege.
I peruse Heaney’s many volumes on my shelves. Some are first edition hardbacks given to me over the years by my friend Dorothy Howie. All are treasures and there is much to engage the mind and heart. I read his magnificent translation of Beowulf particularly – aloud – as performance – and I think of all the people I’ve known who have died and for whom I would have loved to build a great pyre, Heaney included.
...On a great height they kindled the hugest of all
Funeral fires; fumes of woodsmoke
Billowed darkly up, the blaze roared
And drowned out their weeping, wind died down
And flames wrought havoc in the hot bone-house,
Burning it to the core...
How much more magnificent a rite than our paltry and stereotypical ways.
In the year that Bill died, I was asked to put together a set of poems for the Charles Brasch [founding editor of Landfall] Centennial, by Donald Kerr, Keeper of the Books at the University of Otago Special Collections Library. One of the poems I wrote for that volume was the title poem ‘O lucky man’. I had seen some of Brasch’s diary entries, and the last one, written on May 6, 1973 (he died a few days later on the 20th) seemed to me quite amazing, ‘seven or eight little poems since turning on the light’.
O lucky man
[for Charles Brasch]
Eight or nine small poems for breakfast, you record.
O lucky man! Here it’s a wonder
there’s any writing at all with the light slowly failing
and such clouds inexorably dark across the moon.
Rilke had one of his characters admit to maybe ten good lines
at the end of a long life. It has to be better than that
but every day the horizon is closing in –
‘life’ and ‘art’ – the two unequal parts of the equation
never finding the balance to make that perfect symmetry.
This morning though, three blackbirds
at the bowl of persimmons on the outside table.
Poem enough itself
and a Chinese painting to break the fast.
I have always been drawn to the Chinese poets and Japanese Haiku and to the visual, particularly. Yeats continues to be heard. I hear him in the garden when I’m planting my bean rows and thinking of honey bees. And who could forget his ‘two women, both beautiful, one a gazelle.’ But I always go back to Eliot, and more particularly his Four Quartets, which I first heard read as a first year student at Ardmore Teachers’ College in 1957. It was the first English lecture of the year. A tall man leaned into the open door jamb and flicked a book out of the back of his corduroys. He started to read. He read for a long time. Nobody stirred. We were mesmerized. I don’t think anyone understood a word of what was being read, but we were transported by the rhythm, the music, the whole newness and strangeness of it. Somehow we knew it was great, that it was important and had much to come to grips with and would be amazing. And it was, and continues to be. When I read lines from ‘East Coker’ and ‘Little Gidding’ I get revitalized with a kind of energy and courage. I mean if Eliot was struggling, my smaller, and in the larger picture, insignificant attempts at making sense of language, and the world, are easier to put in perspective.
For us there is only the trying.