Life & Customs, by Bernadette Hall (Victoria University Press, 2013), 88pp, $25.00.


No Need To Start Making Things Up


One of the difficulties in reviewing a book of poems is that, in attempting to say something about the collection as a whole, you fail to do justice to its variousness. Novels get up to all kinds of things, but usually there’s the push of the narrative, chug-chugging its way with its fare-carrying passengers through scene after scene towards a single destination. Reviewing short story collections, with their multiple beginnings and endings, their little arcs of incident and revelation, is more akin to reviewing poetry. You discern a preoccupation or motif that runs through the stories and you talk about that for a while, adducing examples that contribute to an impression of an overarching, unifying theme. Faced with a bunch of miscellaneous poems, you’re soon talking about how collectively they mourn the loss of this, or celebrate the immanence of that, or how certain images or forms or stylistic tics recur. And this is often all you can do, in the limited space available, but it belies the actual experience of reading the poems. As a reviewer you look for similarity, but what you really notice most, as you finish one poem and read another, are the differences: on every page you’re transported not just to a different place but to a different time; whoever engaged your sympathies on the previous page has disappeared; the tone and mood are changed; even the voice is changed.

            And so to Bernandette Hall’s heterogeneous new book of poems, Life & Customs. In a review of her last collection, The Lustre Jug, I generalised about ‘the contemplative, Horatian spirit of her verse, which is concretely detailed and at the same time luminous’: how observed everyday objects, like the jug of the title, acquire a shine of significance. I wouldn’t make that generalisation about her new collection, though Hall seems to invite it in her choice of epigraph, an excerpt from Wallace Stevens’s ‘Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction’ that concludes: ‘Life’s nonsense pierces us with strange revelation.’ For some of the poems in Life & Customs, that seems apt. The first poem, for example, recovers a fragment of memory, an incident – almost not an incident at all – from early childhood:


through the hedge and way back then

pushing my way out into the Central Otago sun


there was the laughing face of Jean

and someone else whose name I have forgotten


they played with me as if I was a doll


            If this were a novel, ‘Jean’ would be a character, more or less developed; but as it’s a book of poems, she’s a ‘laughing face’ that we never see again. That ‘someone else whose name I have forgotten’ demonstrates the speaker’s fidelity to the memory; she doesn’t prevaricate or invent something she doesn’t remember. Or as another poem says, ‘just because it happened such a long time ago, there’s no need to start making things up.’ And just as the speaker remembers her child-self ‘pushing my way out into the Central Otago sun,’ so too the memory itself is brought into the light, and becomes a kind of epiphany.

            There’s something pleasurable about a poem that’s both artless and artful like this – its apparent free verse glossing those unobtrusive slant rhymes in four of its five lines – but the real pleasure, for me, is in the way the poem triggers a childhood memory of my own. I was maybe two years old, and somehow I’d climbed up into the chickens’ nesting box, quite high above the ground because of ferrets, and I was stranded there for some hours until someone – my father, probably – appeared and put strong hands under my armpits and lifted me down. Hall’s poem has nothing about chickens: it’s hard to say how the association comes about, but poems do this kind of thing all the time. Both are memories harking back almost to the beginning of one’s life, so there’s that; perhaps there’s something, too, in ‘they played with me as if I was a doll’ that reminds me of the way I was lifted effortlessly down. This effect is essentially a lyrical one: a moment in time recorded in the poem evokes – from the Latin evocare, to call out, or summons – a corresponding moment in time in the mind of the reader. This is a different kind of engagement from the what-happens-next engagement we tend to get from novels.

            But other poems in the new collection seem distrustful of epiphany: ‘And there she goes again, making a big deal out of everything’ (‘The Book’). There is no ‘strange revelation,’ for instance, in ‘How lovely to see you,’ which also records a memory, this time of an enjoyable day’s sightseeing:


I went happily on the bus to Putney

over the beautiful Putney Bridge

I discovered Bishop’s Park

and a huge stand of oak trees

and an alms-house from the seventeenth century


            That’s the poem in its entirety, and it puts me in mind of William Carlos Williams’s  ‘This is just to say’ (and later in her collection, in ‘A Song that tastes like Iced Plums,’ Hall explicitly acknowledges this poem):


I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox


and which

you were probably


for breakfast


Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold


            If ‘How lovely to see you’ is the poem-as-postcard, ‘This is just to say’ is the poem-as-post-it-note. But there’s a subtext in Williams’s little poem that complicates its simplicity. We could argue all day about what those plums in his icebox represent metaphorically, but first and foremost they are plums, ‘so sweet / and so cold.’ The speaker apologizes for eating them, but he’s confident he’ll be forgiven his transgression: after all, he wanted them, and desire (the poem implies) is its own dispensation. Hall’s poem doesn’t work like that. It too has a blithe simplicity, but there is (as far as I can see) no subtext: the speaker did this, and then she did that, and her impressions are utterly conventional and banal. The bridge is ‘beautiful’; the stand of oaks is ‘huge.’ The poet doesn’t try to work up this experience into something it wasn’t; there’s no insight or discovery, just an enjoyable, unexceptional day.

            And yet: ‘How lovely to see you’ is also the title of the first section of Hall’s collection, which comprises half the book, and I assume the poem has a significance beyond its literal, insignificant content. Perhaps there is a subtext, after all: Hall is providing room in poetry for unremarkable experience, and conventional response. This is how it was, the poem appears to say – nothing less, and certainly nothing more. In its modest way, the poem makes a claim for authenticity (and its attendant mundaneness, even boringness) against artifice. It’s as if Hall has picked up on John Berryman’s line, ‘Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so,’ and responded, ‘You know what? I will say so.’ (Berryman slyly says so, too.)

            Then, about mid-way through the book, Hall changes gear and relates a longer narrative sequence, a fairy tale (‘Once upon a time there was a girl called Sul …’) that draws on hybrid traditions and is told as a series of fragmented fables, or ‘Songs.’ Reminiscent of Celtic folktales, with dashes of Hans Christian Andersen and the Ancient Greek myth of Persephone, the poem incorporates Māori place-names and some pure Kiwiana. J.R.R. Tolkien once criticised his friend C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books for being a kind of grab-bag of pagan and Christian mythologies, and I felt the same kind of unease here: the motifs are decorative rather than archetypal in their effects, and the tone lurches uncertainly, occasionally lapsing into bathos.

            The book’s third section, ‘Life and Customs,’ also features some expansive poems (including perspectives on Aeschylus’s Oresteia tragedy from some of the plays’ minor characters), but interspersed with more of the kind of spare, imagist poems evident in the first section. If (to adopt for a moment that falsifying, generalising reviewing tendency I noted at the beginning), this collection as a whole is concerned with what one poem calls ‘a long slow plunge into memory’ (memory both personal and cultural), it is simultaneously aware of the dishonesty of nostalgia. Individual poems, in their varying ways, test the authenticity of that which is recovered and brought to the surface with a mostly wary, sceptical eye.

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Tim Tweets