review by Owen Bullock
Vanishing Points is Michele Leggott’s tenth book of poetry. She edited major retrospectives of Robyn Hyde’s poetry, and co-edited the influential anthology Big Smoke: New Zealand Poems 1960-1975 (Auckland University Press, 2000). She was New Zealand Poet Laureate from 2008-2009, awarded the Member of New Zealand Order of Merit for services to poetry in 2009, and received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in 2013. Her long career has included a significant shift in the visual and aural balance of her work due to her loss of sight from the mid-1980s onwards, about which she writes openly.
She is a poet whose work continues to evolve, and she creates here in several new ways: firstly, through the form of prose poetry, which is new to her; secondly, by creating works from historical references, in subtly different ekphrastic responses. The first section of lineated poems is inspired by two flags made by New Zealand poet Leigh Davis, one of which is called Macoute, variously personified in Leggott’s poetry. Macoute might be the tree, or the child caught on the print (of the flag). He is present, too: ‘Macoute sits thinking / in a leather chair and above him / a white space’ (2).
The use of the name and persona of Macoute sometimes echoes the disembodied characters of Samuel Becket’s prose. But at other times, it’s easy to substitute the author for this character, or for the name to be a kind of midpoint between the creative artefact that brought inspiration to the author, and her experience, especially in relation to sight. Macoute also has long ears (like a dog with good hearing) and cannot always see where he is going. He counts steps between parts of the house (as a blind person might), but is also plucked down from the wall (being a flag). Leggott as subject is suggested by other references to a dog and to street names which conjure Leggott’s pathway home from the Devonport Ferry terminal that her guide dog, Olive, knows so well, where the companion animal’s eyes are ‘doing the work / for both of them’ (29), so that dog and owner fuse.
The 32 poems in this section are titled in Latin and English by the names for 32 constellations, beginning with ‘carina/ the keel’. Their invocations of the stars seem especially resonant for sightlessness and for the collection’s title. Images of celestial movement in the first poem via reference to the Geminids continues into ‘horologium/ the clock’, with ‘the parabola of his hands’ and a more overt contemplation of the sighting of meteors (3). Later, in ‘pictor/ the painter’ (12), stars are portents. Other things, too, are seen in terms of the patterning of movement or time, such as the flight of wood pigeons; and ‘his wooden fingers’ (3), which references Macoute, or possibly a brother.
The lines often include internal line breaks (gaps signalled by three or four spaces), which are further manipulated and nuanced by enjambment, helping to create additional meanings and sometimes making it seem as though the sense is reversed, since both techniques shift the reader’s perception of where an idea or image begins and ends. I commented in my review of Leggott’s last collection Heartland (Bullock 2015) on the use of internal line breaks to suggest the shifts of thought contained in conversation. Something similar yet slightly different is at work here, a kind of undercutting and complexifying of meaning. The use of internal line breaks is a familiar technique over a long period in Leggott’s writing practice, especially from Mirabile Dictu (2009) onwards. In this latest collection it is particularly well-handled, evoking the multiplicity with which her work is invariably loaded. In ‘columba/ the dove’ (4) a sense of reversal or confoundment is achieved with this technique and, later, in ‘octans/ the octant’ (33), there’s a strong sense of ideas being staggered or anticipated, which takes the approach even further.
The poem ‘vela/ the sails’ introduces a structural variant that punctuates this first section, in the form of short dialogues between ‘M’ and ‘L’. It has the effect of both breaking up the pattern of the other poems and creating another pattern. One wonders if ‘M’ is Michele or Macoute; if ‘L’ is Leggott or someone else. These exchanges usually end with a surreal response from ‘L’.
Much of the writing is acutely lyrical, for example, the last three lines of ‘grus/ the crane’, with its flowing sentence-like structure and emphasis on sound:
It’s often Leggott’s ability to combine words from diverse reference streams that creates the surprising musicality: ‘how else GLOSSOLALIA / in the slipstream of a renovated god’. (19) The text celebrates sound elsewhere in repeated reference to and evocations of birdsong and its characteristics, for example, in ‘pyxis/ the mariner’s compass’, the listing of twelve birds forms, as the last line reiterates, ‘a zodiac a zodiac a zodiac’ (9). This proclivity for the onomatopoeic call has also surfaced previously in Leggott’s work, e.g. in Mirabile Dictu. With this birdsong in mind, the quotations from song lyrics in the next poem seem to harmonise with it: ‘could have been you could have been you could have been you’ (10). Such borrowings are a regular component of Leggott’s writing, a process which she has described as ‘reticulation’, where she ‘creates complex networks of reference, interlacing quotations from diverse sources in new contexts’, with the intention of creating ‘an alternative poetic world’ (Newman 2015: 111).
The image of the compass is inextricably linked with time in this poem, a preoccupation which is echoed in the next M/L dialogue, and finds its highpoint in the poem ‘mensa/ the table’, where death is perceived as a return or a seeing again. (32)
As well as the ambiguity around the character of Macoute, Leggott plays with other, archaic names for individuals, such as Urania (the muse of astronomy). We have the pleasure in deciphering the fact that this probably references her mother – an artist discussed in the next section of the book. But the reference to ‘her unswerving appetite for difficulty’ evokes Leggott herself, her work on the poet Louis Zukofsky and statements she has made about her own preferences .
The use of the character names Macoute and Urania evokes the work of other New Zealand poets who have worked with personas, for example, CK Stead’s Catullus and Alistair Paterson’s Odysseus. This is rich, imaginative, ekphrastic writing, and its intensity is such that this section alone seems like a book in itself. The poems are deeply layered, sometimes hazy like heat, but they reward re-reading with a renewed sense of clarity and depth; their ambiguity is purposeful.
The remaining seven sections of the book are composed of what I would call prose poetry, with the exception of ‘The Fascicles’ – a group of seven pieces each ending in a short lineated section, in the manner of the haibun. Prose poetry is a new departure for Leggott, though the notes at the end of some previous collections have the tone and expressiveness of the form, for example, those which end DIA (1994) and Heartland (2014). This shift was also signalled in a 2014 interview  where she said: ‘I want to write prose. I want to write prose in sections of no more than 500 words because 500-word prose I can handle.’ Indeed, many of the prose sections here are in 500-word bites.
The prose poetry begins with ‘Self-portrait: Still life. A family story’ and a quote by Jorge Luis Borges: ‘I made a decision. I said to myself: since I have lost the beloved world of appearances, I must create something else.’ The re-creation is perhaps three-fold. As well as moving into fresh territory, formally, with the prose poem, Leggott re-examines two paintings by her mother, exhibited at the exhibition, A Room of One’s Own: Women in New Zealand Art, in Wellington, in 1964. The writing also tends to accentuate the other senses in compensation. This particular work was given as a keynote address at a conference called Professing Creativity. The factual component tends to mean that it starts off reading more as prose than prose poetry with carefully wrought conventional sentences, though with interestingly self-conscious reference to content: ‘If this is not an elegy, a ruin pulling at the heart, then it is no self-portrait and she is not my mother, making herself a work of art’ (37). The language has flow and concentration; it is relatively simple, yet soon begins to let go of clear referents and allow the reader to make imaginative connections:
The passive constructions are quite suited to the completed actions of photographs. As the work becomes more figurative, it’s proportionately more appealing, poetically – I enjoy the metonym of ‘The camera goes for a ride in the truck’, and the image and implication of ‘brown Holland blinds drawn against the damaging light’ (41). The poetry of names is celebrated with colour pigments; a haunting verb inversion informs, ‘Vermilion she would not chance’, and a strong sense of the architecture of design: ‘she builds the jewel in her mind’s eye’ (43). These colours are all lodged in memory and perhaps reflect an effort not to forget them.
In responding to the details of photos, Leggott is comfortable with contingency and imagining, and the frequent use of the word ‘perhaps’ in the closing poem ‘something else’ is both modest and, at the same time, highlights the implicit history of what wasn’t remembered.
Occasionally, the writing suggests the limitations of visual art and the compensating function of words, as in the section ‘Telling Detail’, where, ‘He cannot draw the hot sweetness of the scones coming out of the oven or how they warm the teatowel they are wrapped in’ (62). Again, an appeal to senses other than sight pervade the writing. One of the poems I most admire in this section is ‘six voices answer some questions’, which forms the most extended experiment with point of view via first-person glimpses into the experience of six women disempowered by men, from Iphigenia (daughter of Agamemnon) to Iris Wilkinson (birth name of New Zealand author Robin Hyde).
‘The Fascicles’ visualises the Taranaki Wars and is written in the voice of a female ancestor of Leggott’s. The poems explore space, hesitancy, a different use of time, and convey the senselessness and barbarity of war: ‘redcoats, militia and volunteer rifles are landing to begin the work of construction’ (71); ‘Cattle, sheep and horses are driven off, cultivations destroyed’ (75); ‘a force marched into the valley for the purpose of destroying such native crops as might be found’(79).
In these vignettes, Leggott achieves a delicate balance of appropriately archaic diction with more than enough poetic description to delight the ear of the enthusiast of language in phrases like ‘Prune plums bloom blue in the leaves’ (72); with a colourful voice: ‘She is taken up with a length of baby’ (78), and a mastery of the compressed sentence: ‘My life had stood, a loaded gun’(76).
The section ‘New Moon in the Old Man’s Arms’ makes further excellent use of that contingent ‘perhaps’ in biographical narrative, and offers a neat summation of the job of learning to write: ‘I was far away, learning how to condense words and expand possibilities’ (88). One of my favourite sentence fragments is in the sequence ‘Emily and Her Sisters’: ‘Tribe of hubbub ripped skirts and raspberry mouths’(92). It’s at moments like this I get the strongest sense of Leggott extending her already considerable range as a poet, and I admire her forays into different forms, voices, sequencing, and use of fragments.
The last section, ‘Figures in the distance’ is the second series of 32 pieces in the book. The note at the end of the book tells us: ‘Here is the compass rose with its 32 points of the wind’ (123), a way of structuring the work that emerged not only in the first section of this collection but previously in the long poem ‘so far’, from Milk & Honey (2005). The fragment, as a trope, is at its most developed and impactful here. Incidentally, it also employs the forward slash as an additional variation in the competing functions of line and sentence, acting, effectively, as a time notation. These are fragments of contemporary life, which sometimes lean towards the surreal tradition in prose poetry and are at their most intense in this sequence in poems 12, 13, 15 and 24. It’s worth quoting the first of these to show what Leggott has been learning recently about form:
We can see her guide dog again and various preoccupations from the first section recurring. There’s an emphasis on the sense of touch. There’s also much humour and freedom in the piece, reflective of a practitioner comfortable with both the form and the content that has evolved through these writings. The poems invoke poetic process; sight is associated now with distance, imagining and not seeing from a very particular place and perspective. Contextualising and decontextualizing in the manner of Scalapino, these poems extend Leggott’s free verse significantly. In this last sequence, especially, the poems answer each other, like elements of screen grammar. Full of restrained grief, they work towards a kind of crescendo, much like those 32 pieces in ‘so far’, and easily rivalling that expansive poem in scope and multiplicity.
Leggott is an important poet, an indicator for movements in writing, and a stylist of the highest order. It’s instructive to see what new direction such an accomplished poet takes, and to see that, for whatever reason, they don’t stand still. Leggott has moved onto paragraphs. Yes, paragraphs. And they’re working. No doubt about it.
Owen Bullock has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Canberra, where he currently teaches. His scholarly writing has appeared in Antipodes, Axon, Journal of New Zealand Literature, Ka Mate Ka Ora, New Writing, Qualitative Inquiry and TEXT, with a book chapter in British Prose Poetry: The Poems Without Lines (Palgrave Macmillan). His creative publications include Work & Play (Recent Work Press, 2017), Semi (Puncher & Wattmann, 2017), River’s Edge (Recent Work Press, 2016) and A Cornish Story (Palores, 2010). He has edited a number of journals and anthologies, including Poetry New Zealand and Kokako. He has a website for his latest research, at www.Poetry-in-Process.com
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Vol 23 No 1 April 2019
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker