Fleming, Joan. Failed Love Poems. 2015. Victoria University Press. 76pp. ISBN:9780864739896
Bird, Hera Lindsay. Hera Lindsay Bird. 2016. Victoria University Press. 111pp. ISBN:9781776560714
Reading Joan Fleming and Hera Lindsay Bird is like coming in to a room mid-way through a conversation begun by generations of Wellington women poets. Fleming and Birds’ contributions are their twenty-first century sensibility and their playful approach to style, engendered perhaps by their recent exposure to the Creative Writing Program at Victoria which is renowned for its creative dynamism.
‘The gift of the woman is that she comes from a series of alcove
in a tangle of flowering. The gift of the man is that
he knows. ’ (‘Traces’ 11)
When I read the first lines of Joan Fleming’s collection, I felt her to be akin to Dinah Hawken. As I flipped through Failed Love Poems I found much that reflects Fleming’s genesis as a poet in Wellington city, where women have, at least since Lauris Edmond (1924-2000), been producing sterling volumes of personal poetry or, as Fleming dubs it, ‘slant autobiography.’ In Fleming’s collection I also found a refreshing lack of squeamishness and an invigorating array of styles.
Personal poetry demands reflection and generosity from the writer, as well as a knack for turning the minutiae of everyday life into something new and startling. Fleming’s contribution here is to interrogate her own, as well as fictional experiences of failed love across a range of poetic styles: ‘The invention of enough,’ (35-49) a series of prose poems, rubs shoulders with ‘Night Interview,’ (18-19) a series of two-line stanzas in the style of Pablo Neruda’s Preguntas; while minimalist poems such as ‘The refugee’ (22-24) make effective use of compression to finish thus,
‘I know my own
but I don’t know
The use of erasure in poems such as ‘Not yours’ (17) implies a wider narrative concern with the way power operates (or not) in relationships.
‘…………She breaks a
cup. He does not help her clean it
up. She breaks XXXXXXXXX
lays on the XXXXX chaise,
says, XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX’ (17)
Who has excised these lines? Why? Hooked, as if by a novelist, I was moved to keep reading with an urgency I do not ordinarily associate with personal poetry. The jolt of juxtaposition also galvanised me, particularly in the first poem, ‘Traces,’ which moves through the meditative opening, quoted at the beginning of this review, toward the visceral image of a chicken being slaughtered. Everything is at stake in these poems. The reader is not invited to relax.
Despite the inherent struggle and emotional angst of Failed Love Poems, I revelled in the multiplicity of poetic strategies and styles used by Fleming in pursuit of Emily Dickinson’s maxim: ‘Tell the truth but tell it slant.’
Hera Lindsay Bird’s Hera Lindsay Bird is, as the title suggests, a more playful take on personal poetry. One of my favourites was ‘Wild Geese by Mary Oliver by Hera Lindsay Bird,’ in which Bird chastises Oliver for ‘taking relationship advice from a flock of migratory birds.’ (44) The sharp intelligence, wit, and sly humour that characterise this poem accompany the reader from page to page as Bird reflects upon life, love and bisexuality in the 21st century.
Unlike Fleming who utilises third person as well as a subjective ‘I’ Bird speaks directly to the reader in the first person throughout her collection producing a personal tone that oscillates between conversational and confessional. The television sit-com, F.R.I.E.N.D.S. provides the basis for a wonderful monologue poem (‘Monica’ 28-32), a form used elsewhere in the collection to rant ironically about hate (‘Hate’ 40-42) and the impossibility of writing anything original (‘New Things’ 81-82).
Randomisation as a strategy for developing new work was central to the workshop Bird facilitated for PIAF in February, and the way in which randomisation yields unusual word choices and spontaneous juxtapositions is everywhere on display in this collection. It hums, zips and sings. But there is a command of stillness here too, as in these lines from ‘Mirror Traps’ (11-27)
‘I want to lie awake each night
& be struck by
oscillating waves of
the heart like a cold sleigh drawn
again & again
through the dark avenues of spring
always towards your silence’ (27)
Taken together these two volumes provide a neat introduction to the work of two exciting new NZ poets and, by extension, to the wider circle of Wellington poets from which they come. Joan Fleming and Hera Lindsay Bird belong with Lauris Edmond, Dinah Hawken and Jenny Bornholdt on any self-respecting bookshelf dedicated to contemporary NZ poetry. Don’t miss out.
Carol Millner is a poet and short story writer. Her first full length poetry manuscript was shortlisted in the inaugural Dorothy Hewett Award 2015. Carol is currently a doctoral student in Creative Writing at Curtin University.