Review of Settler Dreaming by Bernadette Hall
Victoria UP, 2001
Originally published in Takahe 45 (May 2003): 61-63
Settler Dreaming consolidates Bernadette Hall’s position as one of New Zealand’s poets most attuned to the countries and the stories that nestle (t)here. These new poems extend the process of poetic gifting through a generous series of dedications. The book demonstrates a hard-won compassion, an ongoing sense of what the poet bestows; it also demonstrates an ‘ethics of care’ that attends to place and people. (Buell 218). Settler Dreaming recognises the demands that spring from knowing ‘We are what we love’ (‘Open Field’). Hall honours and transcends limitation by working with memory and diverse voices that are invoked and shared. In the process of gleaning and transmission Hall ‘refashions’ this place/time within the echo of other landscapes and speakers (85). In Ireland, for example, ‘I thought the stories were / a true map of the landscape’ (‘Famine’).
There’s so much to recognise anew here. Settler Dreaming revels in the diversity of New Zild , often through a foreign lens: ‘We just love you y-a-i-s / they say. Yes, I say. / Oh my god, just listen to her!’ (‘The Beautiful Plains’). Much of the first section travels between Ireland, Iowa and Aotearoa/New Zealand, confounding any easy notions of belonging: ‘this is the song / of your original sins: / the albatross around your neck / the botched document / hello, kia ora! / This is a message from New Zealand!’ (‘Singalong’). Attending to those places where past and present seeps together Hall interleaves personal stories back into wider histories.
In The Persistent Levitator Hall observed ‘Travel broadens the mind, then / renders us homeless’ (‘As a Matter of Fact’). Much of Settler Dreaming still grapples with the personal and collective consequences of this experience. The first of the book’s five parts, ‘Settler Dreaming,’ tracks leave-taking (‘you’re off / to make a go of it’) and return. For Hall a journey brings its own limits into relief. Settlement does not bring peace: it can carve things up, ‘ours / and theirs’ (‘Waitara Canticle’); inequality is passed on:
The third section of the book is a prose poem, ‘Erlich’, which charts a man’s dissolution and the narrator’s careful (potentially dangerous) observation. Several poems are marked with ‘the cautious kindness of the war wounded’ (‘The Merino Princess’). Hall’s poetry demonstrates a quality of compassion and understanding that confers precision and power. There is threat, loss or limitation, but there is also a great deal of wonder and gratitude, so that a poem like ‘The Merino Princess’ can sketch the ways pain allows a kind of steeled sharing; it’s all part of the ethics of care that gives this work such generous maturity. This is a compassion alive to the ways experience and environment work on us, confirming that ‘We cannot get far without history, without stories’ (Park 1).
Settler Dreaming is alive to an ecology of memory that folds the body into its reckonings. Again and again the body returns to what the body can or cannot bear, be it in dying or in enduring the loss of loved ones. Canadian writer Daphne Marlatt observes: ‘If the text carries traces of the body and its passage through place/time, then it is marked by memory, that dubious compass needle veering under the magnetic pull of the present as it reads a fabulous store of imprints in body tissue’ (185). Hall’s perception pares back known imprints, but her poetry is not solely about stripping things away; the book performs its own kind of healing.
So it is fitting that the two sequences that surround ‘Erlich’s’ melting core are gifts to Hall’s sister and late brother respectively, two groups of five sonnets that gather powerful couplets softened by occasional half-rhyme. These elegant sonnets salute the vernacular at key moments but always maintain the dignity and grace necessary for the tasks of salutation and tribute. What’s more, there’s enough levity amidst the gravity to keep things lithe:
Settler Dreaming is not only a superb book of poetry: Hall collaborated with artist Kathryn Madill throughout the writing process. Image and word are linked in the six drawings within the book. Hall: ‘In her miniatures I saw exactly what I was looking to make in words: an honest way to look fair and square at what I am as a Pakeha woman in Aotearoa’ (85). Madill’s remarkable cover (an evocative homage to shadows and transient human tracings) reminds me of the Maori appreciation of all the rich phases of darkness i te po but also bears out the inheritance of loss. Hall was compelled by Madill’s work on a number of levels: ‘In Kathryn’s work I saw the Gothic and the grieving, the exquisite and the intellectually tough, my European heritage in all its complexity and the “new land” that constantly refashions it.’ Focusing on the depths wrenched from the everyday this keen-eyed pair offer us ‘the possibilities of another spatiality’ (Rose 345).
Madill renders the human form as both graceful and insubstantial against dark backgrounds. Facial detail is pared back; against this indistinct flesh Madill’s flora is full of detail: ferns, leaves and bare branches arc, leaf skeletons are pressed into haunting service. The fern’s fractal grace contends with wrecked cars and upraised hands. In part five (‘The Merino Princess’) Hall faces what’s broken in these islands; she and Madill evoke harsh legacies of dispossession. Yet in poems like ‘The Big Nude’ or ‘The Bomber Pilot’ (a homage to those felled in war, and the enduring survivors) Hall brings us back to the familiar in voice (‘that sweet old guy whose worked for years / at the Aranui service station’) and history. There’s a certain painful familiarity too:
For Hall ‘the “new land” continues to elude / like blue-eyed eels in the river’ and we are left looking to those who see and understand the current, people like Hall prepared to make journeys and watch others (perhaps fail to) return. No amount of quotation can do justice to this book and its braided voices. I can only urge you to read and appreciate how much has been refashioned (‘bless the furrow’) in this graced and tender homing.
Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing and the Formation of American Culture. Harvard: The Belknap Press, 1995.
Hall, Bernadette. The Persistent Levitator. Wellington: Victoria UP, 1994.
Marlatt, Daphne. ‘Her(e) in the Labyrinth: Reading/Writing Theory.’ Readings from the Labyrinth. Edmonton, Alberta: NeWest Press, 1998: 183-99.
Park, Geoff. Nga Uruora: The Groves of Life. History and Ecology in a New Zealand Landscape. Wellington: Victoria UP, 1995.
Rose, Gillian. ‘Making space for the female subject of feminism.’ In Mapping the subject: Geographies of Cultural Transformation. Eds. Steve Pile and Nigel Thrift. London: Routledge, 1995: 332-54.