Jack Ross, ed.: brief 32 (July 2005)
Sue Fitchett. Palaver Lava Queen. ISBN 1-86940-326-6. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2004. RRP $24.99.
Sue Fitchett: Palaver Lava Queen (2004)
There’s a lot to be said for the idea of an eclectic, rambling, mock-heroic celebration of the city of Auckland. It’s true that it inevitably challenges comparison with William Carlos Williams’ time-section of a city through history, Paterson, but surely it’s always best to think big? A few alarm bells begin to ring, though, when one looks at the bibliography at the end of Palaver Lava Queen. What exactly is the connection between these lazy sun-soaked poems and (say) the works of Jacques Derrida? Or The Dark Sun: A Study of D. H. Lawrence, for that matter? (That reference, to do Sue Fitchett justice, is a bit more explicable – there’s a quote from Lawrence on p.26).
Now, I’ve got nothing against pretentiousness per se. A lot of people accuse me of it, too (it sometimes seems as if reading a book and wanting to talk about it were a capital crime in this country). I do, however, think that bibliography is a mistake. It sets up false expectations of a long poem engaging (at least in some way) with a few of the more interesting issues of modern poetics, only to founder on the reality of Fitchett’s actual strengths: she’s very adroit at evoking a kind of carnivalesque spirit-of-Auckland-during-the-HERO-parade … (see “Queen Auckland,” for instance [pp. 3-4] – or “Auckland: her risqué harbour, her seductive Gulf”[pp.24-25]).
It seems increasingly significant that Fitchett’s main character, Louise, is a real estate agent (“Auckland is location location location”[p.19]), because that’s the predominant tone behind the poems: selling the place, loading up the palate with every property-owner’s cliché in the book: “hot Mediterranean blue” , “the harbour’s sea breeze” , “pohutukawas on fire & blood needles on the beach” . I’m not saying that that’s all the poems are – Louise isn’t necessarily being endorsed as a character by Fitchett – but it becomes harder and harder to see just exactly what she is saying as the poem goes on.
I guess it’s mainly because my Auckland is so much darker and more thwarted and needy than hers that I fail to feel much identification with Fitchett’s sunny (Waihekean) South-Seas paradise. In that sense, at least, her “mirror-glass city” metaphor is clearly bang-on. We see what we’ve trained ourselves to see. Who am I to say that Fitchett’s vision is any less valid than my own?