The stain of words

by Hugh Roberts / 06 May, 2006
The raw-boned and awkward poetry of Janet Frame.

Janet Frame's The Goose Bath is essential reading. This is a volume that alters the landscape of New Zealand poetry. I have always been an admirer of Frame's poetry and been puzzled that more of it had not appeared after her solitary collection The Pocket Mirror, published in 1967. Now we discover that she never stopped writing poetry, allowing the manuscripts to pile up in an old fibreglass basin that at one time had served as a bath for the geese she kept. After her death, Pamela Gordon and Denis Harold - with the later aid of Bill Manhire - waded through this trove of material, eventually selecting the 120-odd poems that comprise this volume.

I do not envy the editors their task. Frame had, they tell us, left some lists of titles for potential collections, but in other ways the manuscripts are in disarray. There is no certain chronological order, no certain record of which poems she considered "finished" and which "drafts" - even in cases involving multiple versions of the same poem. Faced with such a tangle of material there is an understandable pressure to err on the side of inclusiveness. Readers, after all, are already predisposed to be interested in anything written by one of our greatest writers, and without clear guidelines from the poet herself who would want to step in and say "this the public should see, but this they should not"? Why not get it all out there and let readers come to their own conclusions?

And, indeed, some of these poems really are little more than five-finger exercises, the poet writing just to get the words going. Does anybody need to read "Fleas are Fleas", for example?

_Fleas are fleas

because they do as they please,

they hop, do not sneeze,

and suck blood

from places where it is rude

for a flea

to be._

But to criticise the editors for being over-inclusive, as I'm sure some will, is probably beside the point. Frame is not a polished poet. If one started whittling out the "flawed" or "unfinished" poems one would be left with a very slim volume indeed. Frame herself describes her limitations as a poet in a 1979 interview quoted in this volume's foreword:

_I've [n]ever been able to write a real poem, but I keep trying ... Perhaps that's not the way to go about it, but I tend to kill a poem. I start off and write it and then something happens and I destroy it with the wrong words ... It gets to the end and I've used the wrong words and I've slipped in something that's too easy._

Frame overstates the case, but her poetry is often raw-boned and awkward. She fights with language like Jacob wrestling with the angel - and they both fight dirty:

_The stain of words will soak through the thickest gloves.

You touch them. They bite and scratch,

your blood mixes with theirs,

changes colour. You never learn

the chemical process of separating them

only stir stir stir

in the crackpot cookpot

dissolving the dear definition. ("Words")_

The wonderful "Some of My Friends are Excellent Poets" develops a similar thought. While her poet friends "are well-dressed in the classical style"

_I survey a rough land. I have no theodolite.

I'm a foreign settler.

I haven't paid for my acres.

I don't know how to crop them.

Why am I so obstinately trying to write poetry?_

A question to which the poem offers at least one answer:

_ We start with nothing

but pain that does not exist and worm-words eating at the arm.

Not even that.

This is my life and it is my habit

said the poet._

"Pain that does not exist"? It's a dizzying phrase, coming from a poet so obsessed with - and expert in the ways of - pain. Do the "worm-words" bring the pain? Does the pain need to be named before it can be felt - and borne? In any case, the worm-words eat and pain must be acknowledged: not assuaged, but acknowledged. Frame's poetry is rarely comforting, but it is incandescently honest. In her struggle for clarity, moral and spiritual, form, even coherence, is a frequent casualty. She wants to name and understand the pains we suffer and the pains we cause. Her poetry may be lyrical in form, but it is probably best understood in the terms of Aristotle's analysis of tragedy: the pity and terror that lead to katharsis (clarification).

Sometimes her subject is herself, picking up threads that she has explored in her novels and her autobiography:

_When I was a child I wore a fine tartan coat

that my grandmother, woman of might,

magnificent launcher of love and old clothes, had set afloat

on a heaving relative sea

of aunt and cousin and big enfolding wave of mother

down to small wave of me ("Child")_

Readers of the autobiography will not be surprised that this poem ends unhappily, as her schoolmates discover that "my tartan coat was not even new". But perhaps the real terror and pity in the poem lies in the middle section, her moment of glory, when the coat that was a by-product of genuine love becomes just another commodity in the cruel power-economy of the children's playground:

_ and the other children loved me

and the little girls pleaded to lend

their skipping-rope and the boys their football_

But it is perhaps in her frequent observations of the natural world that Frame's tragic sensibility is most original and striking. It is hard for any poet to write "nature poetry" that does not in some way reprise the Romantic theme of nature's redemptive promise. We turn to nature to find a second self that completes us, grounds us, heals us. Frame finds a natural world riven with inexplicable violence:

_Wind snarls in the rain O poor groaning mouth

at the crevices of a season shot full of holes

by birch and maple fire, the trees' incredulous

It does not happen here, the violence of desertion,

of the difference between our lives as mosscovered graves

and the source, the mind of rich leaf light. ("Moss")_

What is original here is not the recognition of suffering and cruelty in the natural world: Ted Hughes can give us plenty of that. Rather, it is Frame's extraordinary suspension of the decision as to whether this violence has a moral or existential significance for us, its human observers. Frame resists both the confident anthropocentrism of Romanticism and its inverted twin that makes us martyred outcasts in an absurdist universe. "Moss" closes with the lines "Only the angel birches, good with weather, / receive violence, return grace". Our relationship to this "grace" - the beauty of the birch trees in the denuded winter forest - remains entirely uncertain. Are those words "angel" and "grace" and "violence" just more "worm-words" eating away at us, constructing pains and joys that "do not exist"? Are our pity and our terror delusional, or self-serving?

Let me give Frame the last word, and end with a complete poem, "Let a Fox Come By and the Porcupine Night Shine with Starry Icicles". Notice the way meaning and agency keep shifting, eluding the writer (and the reader), throughout the poem. The birch-barks code "unfurls" - but is there anyone to read it? Do the woods "let a storm come in", or does a God-like writer arrange her imaginary world that way? When the woods "sigh as if full of care" from whose perspective is this "as if": do the woods pretend to care, or do we pretend that trees can care about their fallen leaves? Do we admire the "starry icicles" of the "porcupine night" or does its prickliness betoken its essential hostility? These questions tug and tease at the edges of a poem that simultaneously manages to be a small miracle of evocation:

_Now the fiery leaves are lying low

crunch like pale biscuits under my feet

the birch-bark, its code complete

unfurls upon the interpreting wind.

A few maple leaves still flare against the sky.

The routine of the woods today is:

All morning, stillness. Afternoon.

Let a storm come in, under, through.

Bury the recent dead. Wear brown and grey.

Also, sigh as if full of care.

Evening: Let a fox come by, and the porcupine night

shine with starry icicles._

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