It’s been a long time since poetry and I have been on speaking terms, just quietly. I have been giving it the test of time, distance and freedom. As a result, we have been looking a little sideways at each other.
I think it’s because my second poetry collection is still languishing somewhere on the publisher’s in tray. A date for publication wafts like an ion looking for something solid. To save the angst, I've mentally abandoned both the manuscript and the writing of any fresh material and haven't written a poem for weeks. Instead, I have been fraternising with prose. (Shhh, don’t tell poetry!)
A couple of times I’ve touched on the subject with friends who care and asked them if they think poetry and prose come from the same parts of the brain, but as yet no-one's been able to come up with an answer that completely satisfies me.
Yesterday, however, I started reading poetry again. And it felt good. I read David Howard’s book, ‘The Word Went Round’ and also Allison Wong’s book, ‘Cup’. David’s tough, sturdy language pleased me. He uses words that come from the land and from people who work it. He writes of his forbears and in particular, his late father who was of Irish stock; a plain man, a worker, whose character colours all that is in the book. He is a voice on David’s shoulder, an implant in his brain. It is a book largely about the land and people fighting to claim it and/or reclaim it; remember it or forget it. David’s similes and metaphors are unusual, yet how apt they are! They astonish. To my ear, they sound Irish, interesting, quixotic, fitting and fey. He is also very crafty with puns.
I read the book at work, when Baby H was asleep, and every time something written there astonished me, I’d lift my eyes from the book to the view out of the third storey window. Basically it's an angular view of ugly buildings in the part of Dunedin that is called The Exchange. It's called that because it's where the Stock Exchange used to be. The buildings, apart from the odd touch of masonry brilliance, such as the old Bank of New Zealand’s gargoyle-like lions, are largely made up of unimaginative, solid, square blocks of concrete in differing shades of grey, darkened with ingrained smut. And not one of the buildings is still being used for what it was originally built for.
Sometimes I see a silent pigeon winging it to where the empty post office’s flat roof rules its line against a white sky, then disappearing rather clumsily over the edge. I look over at that building and the bus-stop in front of it, and find it hard not to imagine that even from three storeys up, I can smell the whiff of urine that lingers on the steps near where I wait to catch the bus home.
The sound of buses pulling in and then pulling away again with a growl and a release of air from the brakes, intersperses my day. This is the sleepier end of Dunedin’s main street; it is the end that was historically the hub, but which in the last thirty years has slowly retreated as the city's shopping edged closer to the University end. The noises I hear from inside the apartment seem to reflect the inevitable hollowness of abandonment; the sudden roar of a car driven by a young male, echo-y shouts and bangs from builders refurbishing an old hotel, the squeak of brakes, the metal clang of a trailer bumping behind a van, a door slamming shut, the suck and trundle of the apartment’s lift.
Then last night in bed, I read Allison’s book. That is the great thing about poetry. If like me you are a guzzler, it’s possible to devour a whole book in one sitting. Of course I usually go back over to relive and savour. Somehow a poetry book is easy to return to, numerous times. I am not so inclined to go back to a book of prose as I am to a book of poems. Allison’s book was full of charm and tantalising subtlety - sensual and strong - as tough and cool as the fronds of a cabbage tree. Her voice is mesmerising, personal, patient and soft, but with undercurrents of - is it wryness? Bitterness? No, I think it’s maybe quizzical. Prosaic more than angry. Bewildered, amazed, amused, rather than revengeful or stubborn. And always affectionate, even in disappointment. And I like the way she can catch you unawares, surprise and shock you and cause you to start. (She wasn’t going to have me caught napping, even if I was in bed and near sleep.)
I have enjoyed catching up with poetry again and I can feel the urge to write a poem beginning to stir, slowly, like a blue-tongued lizard waking from a long sleep in the sun.
And what a lovely surprise tonight to hear a song-thrush! It has been so long since we’ve had them about here. Contrary to what I thought might happen, I recognised it for what it was straight away and didn't confuse it with a blackbird's song at all. It was unmistakable and seemed to trigger something deep; memories of bulldozed piles of fire-blackened wood; the sodden bonnets of foxgloves. Memories of my father’s voice. Primal memories.
I got out the binoculars, found the little fellow and laughed at his struggle to remain on the thin, wavery mast of a silver birch blustered about by the wind. He was a little ruffled, but undeterred; determined to keep singing until his song was finished, or until it got dark - whichever came first.