The Same As Yes, by Joan Fleming (Victoria University Press). $28.00.

Anyone who’s seen the movie, Donnie Darko, knows that cellardoor was J.R.R. Tolkien’s favourite word. A cellar door itself was a mundane disappointment; it was the word he loved. I think he would rather have done without the referent altogether, and let the word float free: cellardoor, cellardoor.

In Joan Fleming’s first collection of prose poems, words often float in the same way, unmoored from things. “Blue’s not my favourite colour,” one poem says, “but it might be my favourite word.” (The word “blue” recurs throughout the collection.) From the moment it begins, this book is making chattering sounds. In the table of contents, the titles of poems aren’t distinct and separate on the page; they run together, forming lines, becoming a kind of poem themselves, fragments of talk, muttering to each other and to anyone with ears to listen. Everything talks, and from this constant hubbub, strange poems arise.

Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Mirror”, is perhaps a model for what Joan Fleming is doing here. Plath’s poem isn’t interested in the question, “What if mirrors could talk?” It’s interested in human beings, and makes us strange and unfamiliar by observing us from a non-human perspective. That’s what these poems do. Take the brief, extraordinary poem, “CLOTHESPEG TALKS TO THE CLOTHESLINE”:

Underwear in my teeth. Socks in my teeth. The shoulder of a shirt in my teeth. Briefly, air—and then the bit of you in my teeth again, strung across the reach of sun and breeze like a prayer to the god of practical things. Every worn thing becomes a flag, waving, waving, and me, small mouth, its way of hanging on.

That italicized you is of course the clothesline, but it’s also emphatically the reader, and it’s like a poke in the chest. The poem has us in its teeth, and it isn’t letting go. The final sentence is a kind of manifesto: “every worn thing” has something to say, and the poem itself is a kind of small mouth, allowing that something to be said.

These poems demonstrate that we don’t need Martians to show us to ourselves. The everyday objects surrounding us can do the job, given voices to speak with. “The rug says lie down, the walls say stand up straighter, the curtains say hide.” So much of the language here is urgent, and slightly sinister, the poems crowded with animate, not necessarily benign presences. Joan Fleming’s odd, singular vision is a wonderfully new and valuable addition to contemporary New Zealand poetry.


NZ Poetry Society

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Tim Tweets