Michele Leggott’s eleventh collection of poetry emerged from a happy accident. It is, in large part, the former Poet Laureate’s response to the revelatory research she stumbled upon when digging through archives to piece together the life of Edwin Harris, New Plymouth’s first professional artist. Emily Cumming Harris, Edwin’s daughter, caught her attention – a female writer and botanical painter who lived in the same part of Taranaki in which Leggott herself grew up, albeit a century earlier.
Though the poems in Face to the Sky arose alongside this research, their connections to Leggott’s archival findings – and to each other – are often associative rather than direct. There are poems here about other artists, other people; though the locus of some pieces is firmly in New Plymouth, others wander through museums in Wellington, Melbourne, and London and the streets of Paris and Portugal. The collection also leaps between different years spanning the last two centuries, often settling in Cumming Harris’s childhood in the 1840s, Leggott’s childhood in the 1950s and 60s, or moments from the past few years of Leggott’s life.
So, if these poems come from so many places, voices, and times, what unites them? Texture, on the level of the poem as well as the line, preoccupies each one. In most of the poems here, each page is more like a cross-section of a ream of paper than a single leaf, and in that cross-section, there are letters, dreams, fragments of Latin homework, paragraphs from 19th-century newspapers, botanical lithographs, and chunks of Paradise Lost. Leggott doesn’t condescend to the reader or attempt to streamline these complicated layers, and even though some of the poems only fully open up when the reader has sufficient context, this is rarely a weakness; it isn’t hard to flick to the few pages of notes at the back of the book and unravel the different voices and influences at work in each piece.
‘Speaking distance’ is one of those poems that draw upon various extratextual sources and perspectives. Here, there’s an observer on a Taranaki hill in 1860, a William Strutt painting of tangata whenua on horseback, and multiple newspaper reports on the First Taranaki War. By beginning with the simple question, ‘Who is speaking?’, the poem reveals Leggott’s commitment to unravelling the voices and images of history, reminding the reader that there’s no fixed point of view, no one person who decides what we remember. Here, Leggott reassembles and reorchestrates what others have already seen, painted, and recorded:
The landscape is extremely pretty.
They were blowing their horns and shouting for a long time, and in the morning it was found that the sap rollers had disappeared, and also a quantity of gabions.
this white flag is not an emblem of peace
In ‘Speaking distance’, with its focus on a war caused by European desire for sovereignty over Māori land, the question of perspective brings with it questions of reliability, accuracy, and issues of hurt and blame. Leggott’s fragmentary approach feels a little too tame, too much the attitude of a neutral observer, to face up to her source material of entrenched conflict. Still, by suggesting that poetry can, and in fact should, confront and challenge the histories we might consider sure things or neglect altogether, it’s a worthwhile addition to the collection.
Emily Cumming Harris herself emerges at various points in Face to the Sky, her persona a landmark by which the reader can orient themselves. Life was never easy for Emily. In just a few lines of ‘Very fine lace knitting’, Leggott deals with the death of Emily’s days-old sister on the voyage from England and the burning down of the family’s first New Plymouth house:
but that house burned down right away
and Papa had no watch
or any instruments to make drawings with
and all of us felt sad
because the ship had gone
perhaps with our baby sister hidden somewhere inside
crying to us but we couldn’t hear
Leggott moves fluidly between voices, pulling on a suit of childlike transparency and simplicity to embody young Emily while never relinquishing the uncertainty and slippage, the ‘perhaps’ and ‘somewhere’, that the act of remembering necessarily involves. Memory, whether the poet’s own or the recollections of historical figures, is the paradoxical core of this collection. Of course, memories are just stories; they only take shape with the language in which we clothe them.
But Face to the Sky wrangles those memories into forms that balance solid narrative with a more amorphous kind of matter, an ‘I’ who sidles between past and present, never quite fixed to either. These poems exist in the rifts between past and present, between Leggott and Emily, and between the artists and writers and historical figures mentioned and borrowed from throughout the collection – rifts Leggott constantly seeks to bridge.
I look upon these letters and do not like to destroy them
they are a house of memory and when I read
I am my mother on deck at last
searching for a ripple on the flat Pacific Ocean
I am my father making delicate waves
around each of the Sugar Loaves on the map going to London
These lines in ‘Very fine lace knitting’ once again take on Emily’s perspective. Through Emily, Leggott demonstrates that when memory is given language, it becomes history, allowing us to enter it, to know its subjects, and to understand our connections to them. This poem is one of the collection’s most successful, because it makes history out of memory in the way only poetry can, including details like the conversations between children and their mothers or the wallpaper in a childhood bedroom which, though not usually valued in academia, are nonetheless just as vital to our understanding of the past as more easily categorised statistics and legal records.
While Leggott’s poetry often grows out of her academic exploits, it’s also richly – if fragmentarily – biographical. In an interview on Kim Hill’s RNZ Saturday Morning programme in early April 2023, the poet detailed the long treatment process following a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma three years earlier. She described rounds of chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and a stem cell transplant, and finally a much-delayed trip to the Malaghan Institute in Wellington where, in late 2022, she received CAR-T cell therapy though a clinical trial that led to her receiving the words, ‘Complete metabolic remission.’ Though this is clinical language, it carries immense weight – it meant Leggott would finally wake up feeling well; it meant she’d see the publication of this new collection.
In the interview, Hill and Leggott uncovered so much detail about the various treatments and relapses that consumed three years of Leggott’s life that there was no time, in the end, to discuss Face to the Sky at all. Leggott returned to the programme a week later for that conversation. But as the initial half hour filled up with topics of cancer and illness and hospital logistics, the poet’s fluency, her attention to language no matter its context, became palpable.
Leggott has previously written about her health and body in great depth, most notably in her 1999 collection As Far as I Can See, which focused heavily on her loss of eyesight caused by retinitis pigmentosa. In Face to the Sky, Leggott’s health is more tangential. While some parts of her illness and recovery were impossible to write about, other parts, and the words attached to them, have emerged as poetry. Many poems in the book took shape in Leggott’s mind during hours-long hospital treatments; when she got home, she’d write them down as quickly as she could.
A listener of the radio interview can sense in Leggott’s voice her bemusement at finding the word ‘haemopoiesis’, containing the Greek root of ‘poetry’, in a pamphlet about the gruelling stem cell transplant she was soon to endure – which, in the notes of the resulting poem, she describes as ‘transformative but ultimately unsuccessful’. Leggott clearly receives poetry from all directions, all lexicons, organically and constantly. In this case, ‘Haemopoiesis’ takes medicine’s multisyllabic vernacular and melds it with language both spiritual and concrete. As ‘tetanic fingerprints’ and ‘neuropathic toes’ meet wetlands and islands and clear water, Leggott reveals a new lexicon, one completely her own.
on strings these spirit houses
on poles these small footsoldiers
spreading out in formation from my bones
blood poetry but oh my darlings
I am beyond repair the dance is too much the house
too big I am neutropenic
unable to move waiting here and counting
In the absence of punctuation, which so often conveys a great deal of a poem’s attitude and emotion, Leggott builds layers of rhythmic repetition to magnify the vulnerability of a human body under the stress of serious illness. While she attends to setting and image in great detail, perpetually folding in the sensory and metaphorical, what shines in these turbulent moments are lines in which the ‘I’ comes forward to make a simple remark, like ‘I am beyond repair’.
It’s easy to drown in the sound of Leggott’s poetry. I’d argue that’s one of the great pleasures of reading it. Yet there’s at least a second of blank, shocking clarity in each poem, allowing the reader to surface from the tumult, take a breath, get their emotional bearings, then plunge back in.