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Nice Pretty Things by Rachel Bush, This City by Jennifer Compton, The Same as Yes by Joan Fleming and Shift by Rhian Gallagher review

New poetry from Rachel Bush, Jennifer Compton, Joan Fleming and Rhian Gallagher.

Reading these collections, I was reminded of Wallace Stevens’s phrase “necessary angel of earth”. Like Stevens’s angel of reality, poetry helps us to truly see and even transform the world through a particular vision. Jennifer Compton has a grimly funny poem in This City that lists necessities in a bush-fire evacuation. A fat anthology of poets – preferably containing the work of the four here – would be one of mine. Family, food, water, wallet, oh and whoops, grab those necessary angels.

Rachel Bush’s Nice Pretty Things and Others confirms what she has said elsewhere: a poem can be an act of love, for something known or dreamt about. Many of her poems are repositories of tender memories: of family, friends, a local childhood, even literary infl uences. Despite bursts of comedy and a warm, casual music that plays through diverse subjects, Bush is frequently preoccupied with the depletions of time.

Losses are recorded in small familiar objects and in natural forms that help to characterise and revivify a 1950s New Zealand childhood. Many poems, such as Birthday, which greets a newborn, yet quietly mourns the creep of years, achieve a remarkable union of understatement and directness.

[…] I lay
on my side in the dark and I realised
my right knuckle was pressed hard
on my cheek.
I am sixty-five years old. Little man,
I am an ancestor.

A recurrent melancholy accompanies the sense of a metaphysical quest often vexed by the everyday, the routine. In Looking for It, the voice seeks the essence of the life force, the transcendent, but it evanesces. Bush’s language is always perspicuous, yet with a strong stream of self-doubt, of yearning for authenticity: wanting language to act as a medium of truth.

The cover image of a grubby pair of pink jandals suggests the nice pretty things of the title don’t last. Neither do they satisfy the quietly anxious philosopher who paces the rooms of these poems, questioning identity and the origins and end of time.

THIS CITY BY JENNIFER COMPTON was chosen by Vincent O’Sullivan for the Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award for 2010 – New Zealand’s most generous prize for an unpublished poetry manuscript. It’s divided into three distinct geographical sections, with the poems ranging from Firenze to Palmerston North and Melbourne. Yet this is no breezy travel blog.

The collection has a sombre sense of history, and issues of social inequality, power, exploitation and violence bristle in several poems, jolting us out of certain assumptions, as in On the Waterfront in Genoa, Just Before Dawn, At Chucking Out Time:

I gave him the twenty euro that I
had to hand.
Stammering, ill at ease, he asked me
what I had in mind.
It disgraced us both that he had to ask
what the traffic between us was.

Although one or two metaphors in the longer poems seem loosely tied, the collection tautens as it progresses. Compton often uses a sophisticated Latinate vocabulary with an easy grace that deliberately sets us up for a fall from such elegance. Several poems swoon in and out of an elevated speech into blunt slang: exposing raw appetites beneath social decorum, or frankly graphing turns in mood.

With a confident understanding of how to ratchet up then relax tension over consecutive lines, Compton seems the most alert of all the poets here to poetry’s compressed dramatic powers. Also the most at ease in diverse forms, she flickflacks happily from cento, to poignant lyric, to a more postmodern, sculptural sense of white space and to type placed like small visual shocks. (Against the silences to come).

Compton’s scathing eye for the sordid and cruel and her empathy for the dispossessed suggest someone as pushed into print by a sense of political injustice as she is by a dark wit that pranks around disaster in this bracing collection.

THE SAME AS YES BY JOAN FLEMING is a delightful first book of prose poems, a genre critic Peter Johnson pithily describes as straddling the fine line between comedy and tragedy, with “one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels”. Sometimes Fleming digs into the eerie little chinks of unhappiness or uncertainty between people, yet the predominant tone makes me think of another Stevens phrase: that a poet is “un amoureux perpétuel of the world”.

In love with life, restlessly curious, seeing objects brimming with their own quirky, animate consciousness, looking at situations from unexpected angles (Young Man Who Hasn’t Swum in Fourteen Years Talks to the Ocean), Fleming celebrates the human in a cavortingly optimistic way. She finds wit and emotional wisdom in language earthed in a literal, practical reality, yet plays with fable-like metaphor and hefts credible psychological freight.

Thus Clothespeg Talks to Clothesline on one level cracks jokes about laundry, yet it also lightly touches on hope and endurance in the face of change:

Every worn thing becomes a flag,
waving, waving, and me, small
mouth, its way of hanging on.

One risk in relentlessly writing about the offbeat, or in corralling together a whole zoo of objects as if they had human sensibilities, is that the work will trip into self-conscious whimsy, straining for wacky effect. By my count, Fleming stutters on her heels only once, and that’s arguably a matter of taste. (See Thief and its cameo of sex while wearing a cowbell.)

Any new collection of prose poems inevitably strikes up comparisons to the absurdist world of Charles Simic. Fleming does remind me of Simic’s translation of the everyday into a surreal register, particularly in her verbal puppetry of inanimate forms.

Yet her surreality springs perhaps from youthful dazzlement at fresh experience; perhaps from a comparative freedom from the historic tragedies driving World War II refugee Simic’s work. Where his brooms and boots suggest chilling political parody, Fleming’s idiosyncratic take is more forgiving of human foibles. Her collection gives warm, loving assent to the world.

RHIAN GHALLAGHER'S SHIFT covers an impressive emotional arc: from the compelling mysteries of the adult domain seen through a child’s eye; to the adolescent longing for escape; to the intensities of love and loss; to the cultural deracinations caused by war; and finally to the homing instinct, the drive to return to the primal context of a rural childhood as a means to heal. The return nevertheless brings its own dissociation and strangeness:

Their fine green packed in to make
a dark
and this drew me on
round the lagoon.
Resin scent rinsed like a sharp
shower, tingled long after.
Not moving an inch,
myself to myself become a mystery.
(Under the Pines)

Each poem is assiduously polished, spoken in a quiet key: the overall effect is eerie, moving. Of these four collections, it seems to have the strongest sense of itself as a single shapely whole. The poet’s mind works and reworks its preoccupations, slowly adapting first to love, then to separation. Gallagher calibrates high emotion into careful, even abstemious servings, using unobtrusive yet sonorous melodic structures.

This is an intimate collection, confiding over the love of a woman, yet it achieves an enviable poise between intimacy and reserve. Gallagher’s restraint in form and content shows a deep respect and enduring love for the one lost. In this, it artfully deepens our sense of the enormous shift it traces.

NICE PRETTY THINGS AND OTHERS, by Rachel Bush (VUP, $28); THIS CITY, by Jennifer Compton (Otago, $30); THE SAME AS YES, by Joan Fleming (VUP, $28); SHIFT, by Rhian Gallagher (AUP, $24.99).

Emma Neale is a writer and poet. Her novel Fosterling was one of the Listener’s 100 Best Books of 2011.