TO SING THE LAST WORD
Review of Oh There You Are Tui! New and Selected Poems by Dinah Hawken. Wellington: Victoria UP, 2002. Originally published in New Zealand Books 12.2 (June 2002): 15-16.
From the outset of her poetic career, one of the most promising debuts in recent New Zealand writing with It has No Sound and is Blue (winner of the 1987 Commonwealth Poetry Prize for the “Best First Time Published Poet”), Dinah Hawken has successfully crystallised the different stages of her endeavour in the titles of her volumes. These inevitably suggest a broader scope than their overlapping themes provide, creating a conceptual spaciousness which the contents of Oh There You Are Tui! New and Selected Poems amply fulfil.
It has No Sound and is Blue , largely written when Hawken was living in New York, evokes the empty, blue sky of our dreams which, she tells us, we love because the clamour of traffic is absent. But although metaphorically celebrating silence, this title also signifies the need for newly minted sounds originating from nature rather than the metropolis, and from women rather than men. Women are needed to recuperate natural resources, and to counteract the destructive potential of technology:
we know, that power
split from the source of its own
body and breath is of a mind
to divide everything else on earth, even
the simplest thing, for a brief
desperate show of brilliance; and that we,
crouched, still, in the hills
of our bodies, are most needed
when we are most
Hawken’s feminism, epitomised in this poem by the appearance of Adrienne Rich (“it was clear that she offered me a future – a precarious one”), with its recognition of nature and its attention to the body, intensifies with the New Zealand landscape and voice of her next volume, Small Stories of Devotion (1991). This title is a literary recapitulation of those small acts of selfless devotion which define intimacy, for the volume records Hawken’s responses to the death of a close friend from cancer. Her testimony of love and friendship beset by loss and bereavement, introduces a female mythology from stories about Inanna, the ancient Sumerian Queen of Heaven and Earth, and it draws on dreams and the unconscious, “fresher and less contaminated by history”, stressing their affinity to nature’s mysteries:
Imagine behind these lines dozens and dozens
of tiny seed heads whispering. They are a field
of mauve flowers. What they say is inexplicable
to us because they speak another language
…made up of
distinct, and very subtle, ready to burgeon sounds.
The achievement of this volume, with its tessellated patterns of contrast and parallelism – paired poems, interlocking themes – defining women’s activities, aspirations, dreams and disappointments, lies in the celebration of female relationships as supportive and nurturing. Hawken’s control over different states of being and voices which mirror and echo each other, creates reverberations: the reversal when nature’s mysterious language is momentarily understood:
What they say is explicable
to us. It is another language in which you and she
are fluent, the way a stream is fluent…
Her consciousness of permeable boundaries informs the all-encompassing vision of the magnificent Epilogue, “Harbour Poems”, which hints at the idea of transcendence through reconciliation. When the harbour itself begins to eviscerate, “a place in the text – a clearing” occurs for the meeting of man and woman. But Hawken’s eschatology is carefully adjusted to perceptions of mortality, in keeping with the epigraph from Wendell Berry: “We will have to live within / our limits”. Moving beyond the transient moment, “time is still, … only / what we make to measure time moves”; and she can conclude, “heaven is here”.
The concrete images of Water, Leaves, Stones (1995) carry these concerns further. Hawken relates her emotions to the different moods and energies of the natural world; and charts the hope it offers by opening her eyes to the essence of things:
As soon as I smell the sea again
I know you are here.
Forests, fields, mountains, hills, rivers, oceans
Turn so firmly in the festive air.
Spin, the noun. Nothing to do with will,
The whole light blue earth turning.
(“Water, Women and Birds Gather, 27”)
The title hints at Hawken’s pantheistic desire for immersion in nature’s processes, “to belong to the whole tremulous scheme of things” as one way of resolving conflicting impulses. Drawing on French feminist Hélène Cixous, and the writings of Phyllis Webb, she approaches this alignment between mortality and nature through a specifically female consciousness. Her explicit gendering of such universal concerns means that she also approaches the business of writing poetry in a revisionist mood. Female creativity – “Trying to get the word-work going” – signalling the death of the love lyric, suggests the possibility of new beginnings. Hawken acclaims the impossibility of art containing nature when it appears clichéd: “Sunsets are for poets and there’s not a thing / I can do with this on. / Gulls are careering out of the picture.” Her search for new meanings means that communion with nature, an act of grace occurring through a personal, rather than a specifically Christian dispensation, determines her inspiration.
Oh, There You Are Tui! – the cry of welcome recognition which labels verse selected from all three volumes, plus a substantial group of new poems – guides the reader towards Hawken’s most intimate preoccupations. It epitomises the poetic philosophy which she has evolved and explores most explicitly in Water, Leaves, Stones: a belief in nature as a source of hope whose proffered moments of revelation, unpredictable as bird-song, she anticipates and prepares for. As the back cover states, “The tui’s sounds … are like creativity itself. Coming out of nothing.” Her work over twenty years of “potting the kohekohe seedlings, waiting, watching, weeding and keeping the cats and magpies away” becomes symbolic of guardianship and conservation. For Hawken, poetry “is based on the faith … that the rare tui could come at any moment”, and tui song is symbolic of her inspiration, which she sees as always immanent: “So there you are, tui. / Oh be there in the end. / Make the last word we both utter / the last we want to sing.”
In these ways, then, the title of her Selected Poems defines the territory that Hawken excavates in her earlier work. Her linking of the rare sounds of a New Zealand native bird with her own discourse, coupled with the volume’s blue cover, suggests that she intends it to answer the gaps and silences hinted at in the title It has No Sound and is Blue. In other words, she is consciously “writing back” to the earlier volume. The poet’s voice has acquired continuity; two poems on “Talking to a Tree Fern” (from It has No Sound and is Blue and from “New Poems”), placed at either end of the volume, suggests a dialogue between her earlier and more recent selves. This is in turn reinforced by the opening and concluding poems, in which she introduces herself at the different times of writing. The latter concludes the final sequence, “Coastal Revelations”, five poems about the elements – stone, water, fire and air – around which Hawken has oriented her quest for new sources of hope; as such they are a coda to the endeavour of the whole oeuvre.
The Selected illustrates in many other ways Hawken’s constant attentiveness as a writer: to the shiftiness of language, to the infinitesimal patterns that sounds and words create, and the minute variations of meaning. Take the tongue-twister in “The Tug of War”, when the women let the rope go:
They love to let go and they love to get going:
They get themselves going and they let themselves go.
They let love go and they get love going:
They get others going and they let others go.
They let life go and they get life going,
They live to give love and they love to let live.
There’s also more than a hint of Hopkins in her appreciation of nature’s workings in ways that reflect haeccitas (“ thisness”), and which match the individuality of her own nature. In “Hope”:
It is always bleak
at the beginning
but trees are calm
which they believe
will give rise to something
flickering and swaying
as they are: so lucid
is their knowledge of green.
This intensely observed focus is apparent in Hawken’s first volume, where registering impressions of difference between cultures and environments provides a structural analogue for her emotional landscape. Her encounter with New York is conveyed colloquially, often accented with indignation. Yet most poems, like the following sonnet from the sequence “Writing Home” (stylistically modelled on the late Baxter), which concludes with the triumph of faith, reconfigure her hostility towards modernity, subsuming it into the broader spiritual context that, in Hawken’s case, is created by language:
Since you left the trees have been standing against the snow
making those small inexplicable gestures
children make in their sleep. Today they were strictly
still. They gave nothing away, as if
they themselves were the dead
of winter. The sirens, the long echoing boom in the sky,
the angry traffic, made no impression on them …
and I knew that too many people had simply given up,
too little had been simply given and I decided, tossed back
onto my own faith with absolutely nothing
to go on, that their outstretched branches were not,
as they seemed, an empty gesture, but a sign of life.
The various meanings of “gave”: personification (“[The trees] gave nothing away”) through “given up” to “too little had been simply given” is quintessential Hawken. These shifts towards the enigmatic “too little” which is “given” enable her to finally intercept, to create new meaning out of nature’s silence through a semiotic re-reading of the trees’ extended arms. Hawken’s emotional map is dense but assured, and her ability to convey complex meanings through subtle semantic shifts, recalling the rigorous elegance of the theological writer, Julian of Norwich, means that her logic never fails to support her intuitions.
Hawken writes as both a public and private poet, and Oh, There You Are Tui!, offers generous exposure to both sides. The polemical voice which interjects in It has No Sound and is Blue, affronted at the façades of contemporary American society, jibing at terrorists, introducing cultural icons like Adrienne Rich, attacking noise and pollution, is counterbalanced in many of the new poems. Examples are the one about Parihaka, in which she revisits her own ancestry and enters a fraught moment of New Zealand history; and a prose poem sequence about a journey around the Pacific, to Hawaii, Fiji, the Cook Islands, which describes contemporary life, foregrounding political and environmental issues. Sandwiched between is the introspective voice of Small Stories of Devotion and Water, Leaves, Stones, volumes whose poems of meditation attempt to answer the big questions about life, death, mortality. If read in isolation, these would undeniably mark Hawken out as the pioneer of a revisionist spirituality which fuses a feminine consciousness with renewed observation of nature’s powers.
But the range of Hawken’s work raises questions about what kind of poet she is. A feminist like Janet Charman and Michele Leggott? A nature poet like the older generation of Ursula Bethell and Ruth Dallas? A metaphysical poet in the mode of the late Curnow? Or a textually playful poet reminiscent of Bill Manhire and his school? Answers will surely be determined by time and taste, depending on whether the new ageist tone of Hawken’s philosophy appeals more than the sharper tones of her political voice, and on which ultimately offers most to readers; for her concerns seemingly straddle major preoccupations of contemporary New Zealand poetry.
I come down on the side of Hawken as spiritualist healer, for what Oh There You are Tui! proclaims, whatever perspective it is read from, is the balancing of tensions: between the necessary inwardness of a secular faith and the fragility of the external world which calls out for such faith. The weightiness of her work, the density of meanings which introduce a more numinous world, the moments of exuberance which affirm life’s wholeness despite darker, threatening forces, might ultimately guarantee her a distinction all of her own. Hawken’s capacity to suggest resolutions to the despair and perplexities that beset us, makes her poetry worth reading and re-reading, for this is the kind of volume that might well be the choice of the desert castaway.
© Janet Wilson