Issue 29 features the poetry of Olivia Macassey, who is a performance poet and therefore little known outside of the city she lives in. She is a doctoral student in Film, Television and Media Studies at the University of Auckland. Over forty other poets are also published in this issue, from New Zealand, Australia, China, Ireland and the United States.
An exceptionally wide variety of submissions has been reaching Poetry NZ in the last year or so, sufficient in fact to force a rethinking as to what constitutes the kinds of poetry such a magazine should be publishing. Ideally and in accordance with its stated objective, excellence is still PNZ's only prescription. What constitutes excellence, however, is a matter of continuing discussion and on occasion disagreement concerning poetics.
Relevant to this was a visit in June to Venice and the Peggy Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art—ostensibly holidaying but nevertheless indulging in a little literary theorising—which resulted in one or two thoughts concerning poetics and the relationship between poetry and the visual arts. Jackson Pollock's paintings and those of many of his colleagues and contemporaries suggested these painters were caught up in some kind of conflict (conscious or otherwise) as to their location between medium and object. That is, throughout the last hundred years the painters, sculptors and poets have been trying to deal with a conflict between signifier and signified. This is not to suggest such a conflict operates as an abstraction, but that it represents a question—the question of where painters and poets are to locate their practice. Are they to give their major emphasis to representation or to the medium, which in the case of poets is, of course, language.
Roman Jacobson suggests poetry's dominant focus is on the message as language, and not its meaning. If this is true, it's not primarily concerned, in Jacobson's terms, with 'object language' (speaking of objects) or meta-language (the discussion of language) but with language as it's experienced and responded to in its fullness, richness and variety. Language makes poetry and therefore poetry should be experienced primarily as language rather than discourse, description, narrative or exposition. From this it follows that if what a reader discovers in a poem can be equally well represented in prose, then such a poem leaves much to be desired and may not be a poem at all.
Bryan Walpert's essay in this issue enlarges on the conflict that so often exists between signifier and signified. He finds it strange that a poem could be defined as 'a medium for a message, a way for a poet to get across "what he means"'. I share his sense of strangeness in regard to such a definition and agree with his concluding statement: 'Meaning is the dream of language; the two [meaning and language] must remain at some level, always apart—like distant lovers or, perhaps, any lovers struggling to use something as smoke-like as language to reach across... the ultimately unbridgeable chasm that separates [any] two people...'
— Alistair Paterson, August 2004
"Oh dear, how frightened I have
been," said Little Red Riding
Hood, when she was rescued,
"it is so dark inside the wolf."
(Source: JLC and WC Grimm)
I'm worrying about the monsters under the house.
I'm trying to untie that beautiful
knot we had all agreed upon
the one that is a serpent, swallowing its tail.
The quickest way to a man's heart
is through his stomach, and as for love,
can it be this—the thousands of papercuts
made against the sky
by the short needled pine? I went all the way
to the end of the beach
asking myself that famous question.
But we were haemorrhaging that
nothing was that clear, except the sky
and even that wasn't watching, well not at first.
He opened his mouth and this gave me the opportunity
to slip inside
and start to unravel things.
I would have fed you with everyone I knew
(and they half knew it)
simple and cruel, as in harsh weather, a good mistress,
accidental death under the machinery of a factory.
What will happen to you if you don't eat your vegetables?
What will happen if you eat too much of the pie
eat seven little kids; or eleven small gods, and a rock, drink
all the water in the world, and turn into me?
Is kissing really the reassurance that we don't have to bite,
the accomplished, the formulaic, and quicktongued
of the boundaries we're willing to keep;
the edgesyou admit you can see
and the skin of your teeth?
The endless thereness of here has ended
the figures at the other end of the beach turn back
and begin to retrace their
half washed out footprints
already a little surprised to see
where one had scuffed or the other one leapt.
I would feed you to everyone I know, and they know it now.
It gets so dark inside the wolf.
Not simple, or cruel. But I didn't understand
I don't understand
I won't understand.
We go—down—the garden path
six foot then one foot, then
one, foot, in front of, the other,
we go into the back of the house
one kiss then two kisses;
one, kiss, instead of, the other,
and staggering down the last lot of steps
into the cellar.
We know it all now
follow the blind, look through the gaps
lift up the latch
and swallow them whole.
— Copyright Olivia Macassey, 2004.
Don't forget the heart. Take a deeper windy breath...
Once living on the Terrace, I was a failure
who made success possible (I found it on leaving home).
Today in Wellington they've never heard of me
and this is a great freedom (I was everywhere...).
Young James has picked up a chunk
of the Museum Hotel; he's going to take it home.
Wellington is his full moon, he's crying—
way out in Oriental Bay I used to run into town
(and a face like the moon wouldn't hurt anyone).
History is being made here and it's on the make—
everyday we're beamed up and out to the nation—
everyday we're in search of the very first step.
In 1971 my Wellington friends were great
now they're citizens—the Revolution's old blood
in the Public Service, always remembering
the Day the world turned upside down
and came to live in Manners St, in Wellington.
— Copyright Simon Lewis, 2004.
(Reprinted from a collection of the same title, University of Georgia Press, 1988.)
The frail smoke and virtues of the season blind
us, almost with hands, and which of us can instruct
the other now? I will have to find your body
shifting at the edge of your last word.
You will have to find whatever I could mean
by groping along that same ledge. And all of winter
will be ground to nothing in a slow mill
of smoke and virtue. We are bound to that mill
and our cold seeking and shifting is the blind
set task of that bondage, cruellest in winter.
What does it matter that we love and instruct
our hearts rightly? I have lost the way to your body.
You have lost the way to know what I mean
when I curl up inside every word
you speak as if it were your hand. A word
is as close as I can ever come. This winter,
we have been forced to understand the blind
distance between virtue and a body
bound up in nothing it could ever mean.
A marriage is Gaza. Ours is blind at a mill
now, every turn of which seems meant to instruct
the dark in darkening, heart in how to instruct
themselves in spite. There will be blanks instead of words
from now on, a grist of silence for the mill.
But why is it I still think of going blind
with you as my life's work? In our first winter,
I followed you up the steps to where your body
slipped out of grey ice and lit the mean
rooms wonderfully. What would happen if those mean
rooms turned up again, a few steps from the mill
we turn? Would anything about them instruct
us in how to live there as we did, all winter,
curled up in the smoke and virtue of blind
first nights and first days? I wish that every word
I knew were a step back to them. A body
should give off more light if anybody
is to go on thinking of it not meaning
to go crazy. I should do more with the words
I know than make puzzles. A life's work can instruct
a life or can lead it in bondage to a mill
of bad marriage, bad silence, and a blind
refusal to accept that in one winter
everything can go right, then wrong. The winter
I followed you up your steps is over. Your body
is wrapped up in its own words now and cannot mean
what I wish it did. I think of years of mill
work ahead, grinding down a store of words
you will not hear me say, living to instruct
a puzzled heart in how to live blind.
— Copyright Donald Revell, 2004.