Book Review: Vanishing Points, by Michele Leggott

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cv_vanishing_pointsVanishing Points is a poetry collection that brings a unique perspective to visual art. The collection itself is divided into eight parts, my favourite being a section titled ‘Self-Portrait: Still Life. A Family Story.’ In this section, Leggott depicts two different paintings in an exhibition, hanging opposite each other. The way Leggott describes each piece of art is a whirlwind of description that is incredibly evocative, even without the presence of the physical paintings themselves. It feels like Leggott herself is the artist, creating brush strokes as she moves from describing the background of the painting to the foreground, and then to smaller details.

When Leggott describes one of the paintings in a poem titled still life: self-portrait with lacewing, she starts by portraying the sunlit view of ‘swimmers no bigger than dots’. She then moves through a set of French doors and into a domestic scene before pinpointing even smaller details, such as flour and pink dough upon a table. Leggott presents a beautifully precise description of the scene. She describes how ‘pink stars are arranged on a baking tray to one side and the leftover dough shows the negative field of stars’. Leggott then picks out other details within the home: an apron, a measuring tape, a full-skirted sundress.

These details reappear throughout other poems in this section. Leggott delves deeper into the world of the painting by describing the possible life of the woman who inhabits it. She depicts a woman who is a creator, ‘a composer, an arranger, a sculptor of the bright air and light permeating surfaces visible and invisible’. She is also a woman who plans to bake pink stars and wear a new dress on Christmas Day.

Finally, Leggott turns to her own experience of these paintings. She talks about how these two pieces of art were part of an exhibition by Elva Bett. ‘I have no recollection of Elva Bett’s show’, Leggott tells us, but she knows that she must have been brought there. This is because she finds the exhibition as a diary entry in her mother’s journal. In this way, Vanishing Points talks about art while being a piece of art itself. These poems not only describe the paintings themselves, but they also portray the lives and experiences surrounding these paintings.

However, a wide array of images can also be overwhelming. In the final section of Leggott’s collection, ‘Figures in the Distance’, Leggott continuously puts forward one image after another. Some images are well connected enough to keep the piece flowing at a steady pace, allowing each image to take its turn in the spotlight. However, other images clashed and culminated to the point that they ended up creating clutter.

Nevertheless, Vanishing Points is a beautiful and unique collection of poetry that looks at visual art through the art of poetry itself. In the collection, Leggott also explores scenes captured through photographs and describes memories surrounding her father’s paintings and drawings. Using poetry as her lens, Leggott is able to reveal the other facets, interpretations, and lives that can be found within art.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Vanishing Points
by Michele Leggott
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408749

 

Book Review: Beyond the Ohlala Mountains / Poems 1968-2002, by Alan Brunton

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On the cover of Beyond the Ohlala Mountains, a paper mask purses a pair of glossy red cv_beyond_the_ohlala_mountainslips. The mask looks determined, and those lips look ready to scold you. The illustrations list tells me the mask was made by Sally Rodwell, Alan Brunton’s partner with whom he established the experimental theatre group Red Mole. Brunton also worked as a tutor, literary critic, community arts worker, was the founding editor of Freed, and co-edited the tabloid-format arts magazine Spleen. In 1998, Brunton was the University of Canterbury’s Writer in Residence, and the thick spine of Beyond the Ohlala Mountains attests to his prolific output as a poet. Maybe the mask on the cover suggests Brunton’s theatricality – as the editors state, “For Alan Brunton poetry was inextricable from performance” – but also the many masks he wore as an artist.

This exquisite selected works is split into five sections which move chronologically from 1968 to 2002. They represent twelve published collections as well as what the editor’s discovered in Brunton’s papers, letters, and notebooks. Each section opens with a photograph of a Red Mole mask or puppet, and they are comical, strange, and confronting: a signal for what is ahead.

My favourite poems of the selected works come from the second section, ‘1970—1973 On The Road’, a time when Brunton journeyed through Australia to Calcutta, and then crossed the Nepalese border and spent two months in Kathmandu (although many poems from this period were lost when Brunton’s bag was stolen). Brunton then ended up in London (via India and Afghanistan) where he lived for a time with poet Ian Wedde. The introduction is full of these details that give the reader insight into the connections and friendships that fuelled New Zealand poetry during these years.

It is impossible to summarise four decades of work in a short review, but Brunton’s poems are energetic and inquisitive; they are experimental and ring with voice; they are of their time, the poems from the late 60s and 70s eschewing capitalisation and liberally using the ampersand; they have what the editors call “linguistic bravura”. This makes it sound like all of his poems are ripping with energy, but some such as ‘In My Wake & Silent Time’ (from ‘1970—1973 On The Road’) are quieter as the poet works in a place that is “between”:

most this day i’ve crawled amongst
the simple vowels of nothingness
trying to fix it again
the direction
the prevailing wind in that town
between two seas
where a birdsong & knowing child
stammered taking wot of things

highwater broke at my window
gunning for the little tern
in the west & secret air,
half a distance away blackbirds
fell from the footbridge
where the black widow spun

bird’s-foot makes me forget
the pipefish
& the trade wind drift
yet i have not wandered aimlessly

all creatures live under the sun
on backshore reaches
but for the prodigal who sings

There is something of sadness in these pages with Brunton’s sudden death from a heart attack in Amsterdam in 2002, and then his partner Rodwell’s suicide four years later. The editors Michele Leggott and Martin Edmond have done a huge amount of work to find and select these poems, and to contextualise them in the generous introduction, which also serves as a biography for Burton. It’s a homage to the poet, and with this selection the editors have certainly achieved what they wished, which is for the poems to be “a resource for those who wish to continue the work: encoding strangeness in the quotidian, tracking the esoteric to and from its home in the words we all use, discovering a depthless meaning in the ordinary music of our lives.”

Reviewed by Sarah Jane Barnett

Beyond the Ohlala Mountains / Poems 1968-2002
by Alan Brunton
Edited by Michele Leggott and Martin Edmond
Titus Books, 2014
ISBN 9781877441479
$38 RRP, 316pp, paperback

 

Book Review: Heartland, by Michele Leggott

Heartland, like Leggott’s other title Milk and Honeycv_heartland_leggott(2005), points to something wholesome and of the earth. Yet Heartland is more than its bestiary of oyster catchers, crayfish and dogs. Rather, it is a work wherein the ‘strange and familiar’ intersect to create dreamlike sequences − tethered to the past and filtered through the imagination.

The Heartland of Leggott’s work is not constrained to one spatial or temporal location. The reader travels from the Taranaki to Brisbane, from the ancestral to the present. Classical references sit beside footnotes to New Zealand history. However, one does not need to know the work of Heraclitus or the tale of Von Luckner to enjoy the work at hand. Leggott is not one of the ‘poets waiting in their towers’ and although she insists that ‘poetry is a crayfish’, it is not only to be picked apart by a privileged few. It is the rich imagery, more than the intellectual treasure hunt, which endures in the reader’s mind.

Leggott’s world is chiaroscuro, and one speculates that, in her blindness, Leggott has ‘learned to love the dark’. But there is light amongst the darkness − ‘white linen on the lawn is moonlight’ and, even in her poem titled ‘the longest night’, there is a ‘bright star’ and the ‘white-flowering Puawananga’. Celestial markers, angels, and Leggott’s own guide dog, Olive, provide the reader with tools to navigate ‘the world I can’t see’.

The darkness Leggott writes of is no silent vacuum. Leggott writes that she ‘stood in the darkness with many others’ and Heartland is pulsing with people and ghosts – the foot soldier, horseman, arrower, earthwalker. These archetypes she recalls to light, as if by séance. They are the ‘foundered derelicts no one mourns’, quoth Mary Stanley, and it is as though Leggott’s exhumation acts to pay its people final respects.

Like the wrecked ship of the cover-image, the poetry within speaks of things prostrate but lingering – the people of our past and their voices that remain, if only in our dreams.

Reviewed by  Elizabeth Morton

Heartland
by Elizabeth Morton
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408084