We sweat and cry salt water so we know that the ocean is really in our blood, wrote Pasifika poet Teresa Teaiwa. These two slim volumes by Pasifika poets Serie Barford and Courtney Sina Meredith affirm the same aphoristic insight. To battle with waves — waves of emotion, waves of climate change, the buffeting metaphorical waves of daily life — in lyrical, charged, crafted language is what both books offer, but they do so in different ways with different aims.
For Serie Barford in Sleeping with Stones, the poet is a shamanistic dancer, channelling voices of ancestors and planetary energies. She celebrates the body electric in all its common humanity; she is accepting of its corporeal flaws, its humbling imperfections and ultimately its inevitable mortality. Yet at the same time her poems emphasise a certain solitariness, an alert self-awareness, where she faces up to destiny and to the fickleness of fate in her own terms and under her own cognizance.
Her poems have the immediacy of spells or chants, and are intended to evoke the animism and the holistic world view of pre-Christian culture as much as the quotidian materialism and interconnectedness of our own globalised era, where the flutter of a bat’s wings in Wuhan can send ripples of chaos and uncertainty to girdle the earth.
Sleeping with Stones is a sequence of urgent, driven writing about the fleetingness of the moment, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Barford’s book is dedicated to ‘Alain’, her long-term partner who ‘went over the edge’ — that is, dramatically slipped from a waterfall in Latin America and was drowned. Poem after elegiac poem is about the metaphorical resonances of their relationship. The first poem in the book recalls how they first met on the island of Upolu in Sāmoa decades ago:
I want to return to Piula
swim through the lava tunnel …
make garlands from laughter
siva with the sun …
These poems draw their energy and power from the poet’s skill and power in mingling tones of voice by turns euphoric, assertive, yearning, fatalistic. Mourning her lost lover, she reaches out addictively to memories of his presence, because alive he was immediate, unpredictable, even dangerous. She writes in ‘Under siege’:
you slept alert
hands ready to strangle …
I hid the knifeblock …
you switched plates at dinner
and made me taste
Summoning up his ghost, she is a gazer into the distance, her eyes are turned seawards and skywards, as if face to face with the whole sweep of a life:
our favourite coastal walk
took us over rivers
past grazing horses
on to a track of expansive views
marked by orange stakes
pegging headlands to the surf
…………. ‘Te Ara Kanohi (The Pathway of the Eye)’
Barford’s poems are always dynamic, alway engaged with physical sensation; they are hymns to vitalism. In ‘I wish’, the poet states: ‘I wish I’d anchored you with rocks/ in a lagoon fenced by coral …’ Poetry creates an emotional truth beyond the prosaic through charged language: the poet becomes seer and soothsayer, able to enact reunion, forgiveness, reconciliation. The poem ‘Into the world of light’ declares:
I resolutely lanced my heart
a swollen fist about to burst
with a shark tooth plucked from a dream…
Her lyricism gives what she writes a textured, haptic quality: ‘I’m scribing banana leaves with permanent ink/ stick figures and pithy messages for you’ (‘Summer equinox’). Her keening phrases are a stamping, staccato, challenging dance — one thinks of the traditional pounding of tree-bark to make ceremonial tapa cloth, or of the tap-tap rhythms of a carver working with chisel and mallet on the toppled trunk of a tree. Sleeping with Stones has a cover image done by the poet in pastels and crayons that suggests turbulence: a tide rapidly coursing over boulders or else stones as ritual markers embedded in the ground, a ceremonial fire pit, elemental flames and smoke. The poem ‘My graffitied heart’ bears witness:
I have …
excavated air pockets
melted into this planet’s core
run with lava to the sea
toasted your birthday
danced to Django Reinhardt
survived a parabolic fall
regained my footing
Her poems, then, offer first-hand testimonies to trials and endurance. Life’s journey is her subject in all its mutability, with its joys, revelations, disappointments, stoic acceptances. Serie Barford lives close to the wild ocean beaches of Auckland’s West Coast, and there is throughout these poems a strong impression of dramatic weatherfronts moving through and over, bringing mercurial atmospheres: gusts of rain, big surf, zig-zag bushpaths, thunder and lightning. Sleeping with Stones, imbued with grief, anger, hope, love, comedic thrills and spills, brings us poems that are exclamations drawn from crucibles of smelted-down, quicksilvery emotions — wonderfully crafted filigrees and traceries that seek to catch the ocean wind and soar away.
Courtney Sina Meredith, in her new collection Burst Kisses on the Actual Wind, also writes the music of the everyday, but her mood music is a shimmering, jazz-like complexity of tones. This is a poet ever alert to the ambivalences of shifting contexts, as in the poem ‘Could you connect me to a diverse community’, or the poem ‘November in New York’:
I hear the term ‘liberal elite’ and the bird in my chest
Her poems resemble collages of speech emerging from background noise at a literary conference, or at a rowdy party, or out on the street driving along. The indeterminacy is resolved, as in hip-hop music, slam poetry or improv theatre, through craft devices. Her poetry works by sampling, or through feedback loops of language, referencing cultures past and present. Sometimes there’s a stuttery rhythmic rap-like listing that attempts to define or pin down a situation or relationship, as in the title poem:
Meredith, in this latest book, is partly a global nomad moving between airports, hotel rooms, writers’ residencies, and delineating the contemporary lifestyles of the young and artistic. Her narratives, fragmentary and elliptical, are attuned to speech vibrations, sonic associations. Her ambition is to create exquisite turns and twists of perception, and glancing insights. She has a knack, a gift, an intuition for synaesthesia, a blending of intensely felt impressions conveyed through her choice and arrangement of painterly or sensuous phrasing:
here is no cure
but aromatic flowers high in a tree
you need a limber boy
to pick them with his teeth
…………. ‘Household Gods’
Hers is a kind of performative theatre of poetry that navigates shifting perceptions of the self. It has an internet-inflected manner in an era when most of us are always connected to our smartphones, as if constantly seeking the reassurance of a Delphic oracle or fount of wisdom on a moment by moment basis. One effect of this has been to turn much contemporary poetry oblique, hermetic and puzzling to outsiders. Poetry has become what the American poetry scholar Stephanie Burt refers to as close calls with nonsense: sense has to be teased out. Poems are a kind of pick and mix of prefabricated fictions or an expansive wardrobe of personal myth options so that we follow where the poet leads on a quest of discovery.
Burst Kisses on the Actual Wind acknowledges this current state of of contingency or haphazardness that reflects the world as we now know it as a given, but it is also a collection that seeks to resist opportunism and uncertain vagaries — what is this poem actually about? — by grounding the poems in the personal, the actual, things witnessed at first-hand, up close. As a collection, it offers poems made up of intimate diaristic confidences that are by turns sceptical, scornful, witty, euphoric, tenderly domestic. Meredith’s strategy is signalled from the get-go by the appearance and format of her book. Slim and small with a textured cover, it resembles a notebook for capturing thoughts, but also a wallet or purse, or perhaps a mirror compact whose contents might reflect glimpses of the peering poetry reader.
The book’s cover, a cool blue, presents a colour that seems to be channelling bliss, or maybe the blues and the Miles Davis jazz album Kind of Blue. And, kind of blue, it inevitably brings to mind, in this country, the ocean, from its surface to its depths. As the poem ’29’ puts it: ‘It’s been a long time since I knew dry land…’
Some of the poems mimic the status of a hug: they give us embraced immediate experience. Others suggest a hovering alert watchfulness, or else a distanced philosophical stance. Some poems seem deliberately nebulous — veils of word association possessing a slippery dream logic. Where Meredith sloganises it is always with an ironic raised eyebrow. Her catchphrases and buzzwords may suggest notions of stream-of-consciousness, but her strategy is essentially programmatic: there are a few key tropes presented over and over. A central concern is ‘identity’ or rather, plural identities. ‘How about being a young brown queer single educated professional woman?’ she asks in the poem ‘How about being a woman?’
But the umbrella term ‘identity’ shelters a number of paradoxes — or uncertainties, mysteries, doubts. The poem ‘Held’ states ‘identity is a luxury’, while the poem ‘Iowa House Hotel’ puzzles over the epistemology: ‘you looked so much like you, so much as I remember’. The poem ‘I was having a conversation with you’ indicates identity is a work in progress: ‘your tongue splits to make room/ for the new selves that bloom.’
And then, one poem’s title tosses out like a hand grenade the proposition that ‘Identity is a dangerous god’. Exploring this proposition requires a kind of remote bomb disposal approach. So she stands at an observational distance in this poem as ‘Old boy’, a white male English professor, gets bogged down in earnest mansplaining:
Brian will resurrect his significance
Brian will rescue his poignance
Brian will overcome Nabokov for Popper
Brian will get to the heart of it.
In a way, this is a generational divide being expressed— millennial to boomer — but also it’s about an ideological shift. One might read this poem as a heretical rejection of the masculinist, if not puritanical, determinism pertaining to a shipwrecked culture cast away in the South Seas whose descendants are still in thrall to the spiritual baggage of their European forebears. But you could also read this poem as an acknowledgment of the truth of Brian Boyd’s assertion that stories and metaphor are paramount for cultural transmission. ‘Identity is a dangerous god’ ends with the lines:
…under melting willow
I expect to end there
recounting my white swan.
These heavily compressed lines conjure up the psychological power of fairy tales to give meaning to life’s randomness. And if the poet’s persona may have metamorphosed here into a kind of enchanted princess, a victim of circumstance, a waif under a spell gripped by a sense of malaise, this sympathetic identification is linked to another central preoccupation in this collection: familial bonds and allegiances.
Burst Kisses on the Actual Wind opens with an introduction, or rather an address, by the poet’s mother, the writer Kim Meredith, to her daughter celebrating milestones and achievements. But it also sketches out a landscape of belonging centred on the western side of the Auckland isthmus: creeks, peninsulas, harbours, wetlands, suburbs. Yet while the poet’s mother has an acknowledged role in this book as a mentor, the poet’s father is an absence.
Still, he is glimpsed and even invoked here and there in a book, which, in a manner of turning full circle, is also about the poet’s partner and their children. Here, the haunting absent father figure is made mythic, or perhaps cartoonish:
your father is the twinkling shark king
my father is running through the jungle
And the poet, addressing her partner, states in the poem ‘Love is a resurrection’: ‘if I close my eyes/ my father will return to me and your father will return to you’.
Burst Kisses on the Actual Wind is a collection of poems that questions the authority of received wisdom and patriarchal imposters. It offers instead rebellious narratives that affirm emotional truth, with suffering and sorrow and anxiety and joy as evidence. It is a book willing to share a delicate quivering receptivity while also being set with sophisticated traps or trapdoors for the unwary. It’s an adversarial volume of poems, leaning on Jacques Derrida, Frantz Fanon, Epeli Hau’ofa and Teresia Tewia, and it conducts its own seminars on the power of poetic utterance as a form of resurrection or communion with the dead with considerable virtuosity. Meredith writes of her own maternal lineage as totemic, transcendental:
And there is her mother
at the top of the sky ablaze
lighting the islands below
into a string of tears.
‘I have stolen away into the secret room’
Shuffling the cards of identity, Courtney Sina Meredith lays out on the table a winning hand, a full house.