WILD LIKE ME, by Elizabeth Nannestad (Victoria University Press, $25.00; THE BLUE COAT, by Elizabeth Smither Auckland University Press, $24.99).

There are different kinds of wildness. “There were butterflies among the lavender –”, the first line of the first poem in Elizabeth Nannestad’s new collection, Wild Like Me, is one kind: a wildness that is not wilderness, but is likely to be found in suburban gardens, roadside verges, ponds and orchards. Nannestad’s close observation of plants, insects and small animals is like D.H. Lawrence’s in Birds, Beasts, and Flowers: tender and exact, hinting at both kinship and otherness.  A poem that begins, “How old the young are! / How dreary their clothes / and their ideas / and their aspirations” (which also strikes a Lawrentian note) soon ushers in the natural world, through simile: “while we, old in years / dream and dress / like butterflies. / And no one sees us.” Blake, that great forebear of Lawrence’s, is also a felt presence: “I am NOT William Blake,” Nannestad declares, yet a few pages later, there’s a poem describing the encroaching, blighting effects of modern education on a child that would not be out of place in Blake’s Songs of Experience.

The more I look, the more influences I see, or maybe imagine: “Days” recalls Philip Larkin’s poem of the same name; Ted Hughes’s “Wind” blows behind “Last night the wind  –”, and “Except for the Goat” re-enacts the ethical dilemma of an encounter with an injured roadside animal in William Stafford’s “Travelling Through the Dark”. Yet Elizabeth Nannestad’s poems are not derivative. She brings to them her own individual sensibility, empathy, and subtle intelligence, which in only a very few instances – for example, the brief “Moon”, and “Oh to Caress” – the poems are too slight to bear: “Go ahead, my feet, / love one another. / I won’t look.” It has been seventeen years since Nannestad’s last book of poems, and this collection reacquaints us with a distinctive voice that has been silent for too long.

Elizabeth Smither’s The Blue Coat is also a record of careful observation, of looking at the ordinarily overlooked and reporting what is found there, as in “The Underside of the Miniature Plane Tree”, or “Stained Glass Window as Seen from the Rear”. A poem about roses characteristically focuses on the “thirds”, those blooms that are put to one side because of their corkscrewy stems or other imperfections. Human constructions of beauty – classical music, painting, poetry – are approached sometimes directly, as in “Two Adorable Things about Mozart”: “First, he’s straight into it. No preamble, / ever”; and sometimes indirectly, as in the semblance of a momentary community of poets in “Tony Hoagland Farewells the Poets”. The latter poem demonstrates Smither’s strength as an anecdotal poet: she knows what to include and what to leave out, and when to stop. Her poetry tips towards refined pleasures, and the close of one poem, where the speaker enjoys a moment of communion with a woman seen in a neighbouring building, could stand for a personal ars poetica: “a wonderful language / when gesture comes as the outcome / of mute and gracious thoughts.”

Amidst this refinement, the occasional infelicity of phrasing is jarring (“comes as the outcome”), but also a kind of relief from decorum. A poetry of restraint leaves a lot of human experience out, and it’s the elegies for dead or dying friends that are, I think, the finest poems in the book, or the most moving, or the finest because the most moving – allowing a rawness of emotion that is beyond the bounds of graciousness, providing a glimpse of chaos.

 

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Tim Tweets