Diana Bridge opens her eighth collection of poetry, Deep Colour, by asking ‘how a life gathers its themes’. The ekphrastic, the occasional, and the pastoral intermingle here as Bridge combs gardens, fields, sunsets, and wild bushland in response to that initial question.
Bridge, who was born and raised in Wellington and has now returned to live there, won the Lauris Edmond Memorial Award in 2010 and the Sarah Broom Poetry Prize in 2015. She holds a PhD in classical Chinese poetry, an area of scholarship that has influenced the form and themes of much of her own writing. As the wife of a diplomat, she lived for various extended periods in Singapore, China, Taiwan, India, Australia, and England. It’s a rambling path that, as she has acknowledged elsewhere, ‘differs from most New Zealand writers’. Her poetry treasures the slow-changing natural world, magnifying it from different perspectives: ancient, modern; childlike, aging; the infatuated and the neutral observer.
In Deep Colour, nature holds the sense of life and reveals it to whoever looks hard enough, which means that Bridge’s speaker can’t stand in a clearing, survey a garden, or cut through dense bush without making of that landscape a metaphor. Many poems open with their speakers’ eyes fixed on natural specimens, be they crickets, sunsets, or magnolia trees. Bridge herself discusses this structure in this collection’s notes, citing Chinese lyric poetry as the inspiration for beginning a poem with a ‘scene statement’ and chasing it with a personal reflection. This structure recurs gently and sturdily from Deep Colour’s first page to its last. In the first strophe of ‘Accommodations’, Bridge points at a tree that holds a whole friendship:
She has walked through the Gardens to the camellias
to where tiers of steps part the glossy bushes
and she is encircled by leaves. It is the same
and always different. Above her, a white magnolia;
each year it throws up, with its tide of flowers,
some distinctive conceit. She is thinking
of me – we were children encircled
by stories. It is too cold to meet.
Bridge takes just enough time to tell her reader, without flamboyance, exactly what she wants them to see. There are very few adjectives, and the ones that are here – ‘white’ and ‘glossy’ and ‘cold’ – structure the image in necessary ways. Despite its sparseness, the scene encompasses more than just a tree. ‘It is too cold to meet’ – here, a simple interjection opens the poem up to uncertainty and distance.
These lines – just these lines – could be an entire poem. But Bridge is drawn to questioning, analysing, explaining. The poem ends with lines that say out loud what the first stanza has already gestured towards: ‘the lovely / accommodations of friendship, / the stabbing start of spring.’ It’s frustrating to be ushered into a poem by way of precise description, and then to be shut out by a final stanza that declares, with sibilant insistence, ‘This is what I meant.’
At the centre of Deep Colour, Bridge includes a set of translated ‘Poems on Things’ by fifth-century Chinese poet Xie Tiao. She describes this style of poetry in her notes as ‘impromptu’: poets would congregate to compose rhyming pairs based on the objects before them, obeying a strict time limit. Bridge’s notes, especially on this subject, are gratifyingly detailed and precise. Her translations of Xie’s poems echo that precision, paying uninterrupted attention to the object at hand. Though some lines trip over themselves in Bridge’s English to depict specific vegetation or make sense of a complicated chunk of personification, others are fluid and feel just as spontaneous as they might have originally. The final few poems of this sequence seem to offer that same two-part structure – first noticing, then pondering – that Bridge echoes in her own compositions, and ‘the mirror stand’ especially startles in its bare, uncertain second half:
It gives back a powdered face; she dusts it with rouge;
Places flowers in her hair, adjusts a cloud-like coiffure …
A lovely face stares – to what end – at itself.
Always she fears the ending of his love.
These translations pair with a sequence of Bridge’s own short poems, ‘Songs of the garden’. In these, Bridge draws upon the woodblock prints and poetry compiled in The Book of Insects by Yadoya no Meshimori in 1788. Though Bridge is one step – and a few centuries – removed from the objects of attention that her source material illustrates, her images are just as sharp as when she’s looking first-hand. The sequence treats nature as a reflective surface: poets can’t observe it without seeing their own faces or bodies or cravings shining back at them.
And the poet-suitor? In the evenings we hear him calling
Like any garden creature from its bank, and think
back to the grasshopper they call ‘horse-driving’, the one
who stretches out towards his love the reins of his small heart.
Looking closely is paramount in Deep Colour, but Bridge suggests that looking isn’t enough – what comes next is connection and conversation. She is fervently engaged in discussion with poets and visual artists both long-dead and contemporary. Along with the exchange that translation necessarily entails, other poems rope in Turner and Pissarro and Dryden and Tom Stoppard, crediting them with images and concepts, or just mentioning them because they come to mind. Sometimes, their names arise for a moment, parenthetically, as if we’re witnessing the speaker’s live, tumbling thoughts complete with brief asides – which is to say they don’t get in the way. But they don’t add much, either, except by giving a reader the satisfaction of recognition.
What does it add to a poem, namedropping other poets? What can an outsider – in this case, the reader of this collection – gain when a poet expounds on a connection, however earnestly felt, between themselves and their literary fascination? Often, not a whole lot. Bridge attempts subtlety with these references, and they’re often relevant to the poems in which they appear. In ‘Irish Girls’, for instance, the poet places herself in conversation with Rhian Gallagher’s 2020 collection Far-Flung, which attends to the lives of 19th-century Irish migrants in New Zealand, and calls upon Seamus Heaney as a poet with similar subject matter to Gallagher’s:
You are not so much feet in the peat as Heaney,
who reached down and brought up fine-faced corpses
burnished by ideal until they shone; then blent them
with living atrocities, relayed with a compassion
Bridge’s ear is alert to assonance and iambic lilt, which smooths out her more abstract concepts, and there’s no doubt she has a deep understanding of both Gallagher’s and Heaney’s poetry. But in the time taken to explain all this, the poem grinds to a halt. The collection contains a few other poems that treat their subjects head-on like this, dealing with Hamlet in one, a nature documentary in another. Ultimately, it’s unsatisfying to read a poem that seems ready to explode out of its measured lines and into an essay. Amongst all the overt explication, the luminosity of these poems slips away.
Deep Colour is lush in detail, a trove of exactly – never excessively – described images. It’s generous in sensory loveliness. Still, I found myself clinging to the most alive, uncertain moments, wishing I could linger with a poem’s questions a bit longer before the poet interrupted to sum them up.