Mark Pirie, ed.: JAAM 13 (March 2000)
Michele Leggott. as far as I can see. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1999.
Michele Leggott: As far as I can see (1999)
It’s always difficult to review books whose authors have undergone extraordinary or painful personal experiences. Wystan Curnow’s Cancer Diary springs to mind – or, going to a further extreme, the work of Paul Celan. I suppose, in the final analysis, it really highlights the dilemma of writing a review in the first place: the (inevitable) aching, raw, exposed nerves that characterise almost anyone who’s gone to that much trouble to communicate; the blasé indifference of the average reader. But a review is a reaction, really – description of a work, a reading in progress. The more magisterial it tries to sound, the less it does justice to the shifting moods and sensibilities which inform any reading of any book.
Michele Leggott is losing her “eyesight to the condition called retinitis pigmentosa,” she tells us on the back of this, her fourth book of poems, fourth in that stellar sequence running from Like This? (1988), through Swimmers, Dancers (1991), to DIA (1994). “Standard print is impossible, and I have found other ways to read.” On the personal level, the only possible reaction to this is sympathy: horror, too, at the prospect of losing one’s own access to the visual world. On the intellectual level, one wonders how the poet can deal with this in her work. Will her imagery shift from predominantly visual to tactile? Will memory take over where bibliography has left off?
The questions seem almost frivolous, but they have to be asked. I love Paul Celan, but the Nobel-Prize-winning Nellie Sachs, another concentration camp survivor, leaves me comparatively cold. Homer, Milton, Borges … and John Heath-Stubbs: there seem to be almost as many precedents for the sightless poet as there are ways of invoking the muse.
Do you see me? I am falling out of a blue sky where my days were as dancers in a maze, sure-footed and smiling. I stood in my garden pulling loquats off the tree and eating them to be full of spring.
These lines, from the sequence of prose-poems “A woman, a rose, and what has it do with her or they with one another?” are perhaps as good a place as any to start trying to read her new book. I say trying to read because I’m still not entirely sure how to read a Michele Leggott poem. To read these poems, at any rate. Nor have I found the other reviewers much help. Comments abut “exquisite sureness of touch” and “virtuoso command of language” may well be true, but they’re not really concrete enough to be useful.
Her phrasing fills me with questions. Why are dancers in a maze especially “sure-footed and smiling”? I suppose because they can see where they’re going (“Can you see me?”), so the cramped hedges don’t impede them. I don’t, myself, eat loquats to be “full of spring” – scrubby little yellow things. That reads like a cliché to me: imprecise and Tennysonian. I have to say, though , that those are the kinds of phrases the book is full of. They tumble out of the “book of tears”:
“the grasses of summer … together we make morning” (p.56)
“In their faces were our faces all dewy at the centre of the world.” (p.53)
“An afternoon flight. Hot rain. I spent months getting that right.” (p.54)
“All dewy”? It’s not so much Biblical – “the sons of the morning shouted together for joy” – as pseudo-Biblical: reminiscent of Thus Spake Zarathustra, or (more to the point) Robin Hyde’s pseudo-Nietzschean Book of Nadath. Why is “I spent months getting that right” in italics? Is it a quote (or “sampling”) from the Iris Wilkinson [Robin Hyde] papers at the University of Auckland (a procedure foreshadowed on her acknowledgements page)? DIA, too, was full of quotes, but more integrated into the texture of the poems. I take it, actually, that “I spent months getting it right” is a stepping outside the frame by the author, a way of getting us to look more closely at “An afternoon flight. Hot rain.” But it’s difficult to know.
So what? Do we have to know? This book of tears is undoubtedly full of things that are easy to understand (even in discussing it it’s notable how one’s critical vocabulary gravitates towards metaphors of sight: “vivid flashes” – “precise imagery” – “exact vision”):
At the ticket office my documentation was examined. Are you blind? The fuller’s boy asked. He was in charge of the fare. Yes I said I am. In the change was a small silver leaf.
This comes at the end of a long list of little-known constellations (Tucana, Vela, Volans) addressed to a “second person so recently singular”. Is this someone else who is bereaved, separated? Or is the poet simply speaking to herself? I worry, too, about that “fuller’s boy”. No doubt he was rude, insensitive, but he was hardly to know that he’d got it so terribly wrong. I feel a little sorry for him, despite the pain he undoubtedly caused. A terrible scene, but it’s described with such serenity, such poise. The silver leaf seems more personified, really.
Perhaps I’m making difficulties for myself where there are none, but I find myself curiously uninvolved in Leggott’s world of apples, beautiful children, boats, stars and sea. It seems, yes, imprecise and over-poetic. “The poet,” Hermann Broch tells us in The Death of Virgil, “is heeded only if he extols the world, never if he portrays it as it is.” I don’t really feel I meet many other people in there. The other characters are mostly reflections of some mood of the author’s (“second person so recently singular”). Sometimes there are word invocations which I recognise: “take me to the river” from a Talking Heads song, or “dance me to the end of love” from Leonard Cohen, but even then the point isn’t obvious to me.
“Much of what I have written here is an effort to remember seeing, something to put against the dark while I searched for other ways of understanding where it has put me,” she tells us, but the anguish of this experience seems masked, distant. That Fuller’s story has more the tone of anecdote than parable. Leggott, then, is no Borges the memorious, deep in the library of Babel, no Homer losing himself in gods and bright-greaved heroes, no Milton waiting in his armchair to be milked. Does she have to be? Of course not. She’s chosen to write this way for a reason – perhaps in order to sidestep the long twentieth century Modernist reaction to Romanticism. I can’t say for sure, but I think that Leggott is a natural Modernist (all those years spent poring over Zukofsky?) trying to construct a Romantic from within herself. Which is presumably where Ursula Bethell, Robin Hyde, and Mary Stanley come in – as important precedents.
Undoubtedly that’s an interesting project. But I’ll not resort to describing these as women’s poems, though they are obviously the poems of a woman. This heightened diction, combined with her usual formal complexity and inventiveness don’t really fit into any clear category of classification. She is aiming, I suspect, at no less than a new voice of feeling accessible to all.
I am a dream best left to the ache
and space of letters virtual
upon a screen
is how the first poem in the book begins. “Letters virtual” to me is like fingernails on a blackboard – that unidiomatic inversion of noun and adjective (“No poetic inversions!” thundered Ezra Pound in his famous letter to Harriet Monroe). What’s the point of a book, though, if it only tells you what you already know? Michele Leggott’s book challenges my notion of poetry to the limits – not by being hard but soft, not by being anguished but decorous.
That poem concludes:
Perhaps this is our long-promised awakening. I would like to end more confidently, but questions remain. I feel a little distanced still, kept at arms-length; and yet there is so much here – sharpnesses of phrase, ingenuities of texture – that compels admiration. I’m afraid the reading has only begun.