Landfall Review Online
Closedown, Hibernate, Restart
Aleksandra Lane, Birds of Clay. ISBN 978-0-86473-758-8. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2012. 95 pp. RRP $NZ30.
Helen Lehndorf. The Comforter. ISBN 978-1-877578-03-8. Wellington: Seraph Press, 2011. 76 pp. RRP $NZ25.
Helen Lehndorf: The Comforter (2012)
Insects everywhere – dead bees in the garden, moths
stud the bathroom ceiling like dusty ornaments, praying
mantises crawl out of the compost bucket. The flies.
That’s the opening of Helen Lehndorf’s poem “Fall back.” It is, I suppose, a not unfamiliar region to most of us: a kind of suburban hell, afflicted with its own mini-version of the plagues of Egypt.
Your body corporate must miss you, Mr Chairman.
Yeahno, it’s all right here. The woman next door
keeps pigeons tied to her shoelaces (no, pets are not
allowed (unless signed off by a vet (as long as
there is no washing on the balcony you) will) be fine.
This is the first stanza of Aleksandra Lane’s “Wellington Inc.” Again, it is, I think, immediately recognisable to anyone who’s ever lived in the capital – the immense, impertinent, monstrously invasive petty officialdom, the horror vacui of endless clauses and subclauses in one’s tenancy agreement …
I thought it might be best to begin this review of their work by quoting from two “landscapes” by these two very different poets. This is Helen Lehndorf’s first full-length poetry collection, but she has a long and impressive publishing record behind her already. Aleksandra Lane, too, published two books of poetry in her native Serbia before writing this, her first in English. Neither, then, can be regarded as in any sense a beginner in the poetry game, nor do either of these collections show any signs of haste or carelessness in the arrangement or choice of contents. These are serious writers, and they both merit being taken seriously.
Helen Lehndorf’s poem continues with more evocations of that “feeling / like you lost something all day”:
Manawatu gothic. Even these bright days are tinged
with a kind of violence. There is a black velvet ribbon
threaded through your head, collecting debris.
The last dinner on the dehydrated lawn. [p.59]
It’s true to say that she’s found in me the ideal audience for this kind of thing. I know it’s a bit over-the-top, a bit exaggerated – I would say intentionally – but I love the Audenesque, 1930s quality of that “last dinner on the dehydrated lawn” (“It is time for the destruction of error / … the loud madman / sinks now into a more terrible calm” [W. H. Auden: “1929”]). There’s a haunted quality to all of Lehndorf’s poetry, I would say, but I do think that this in particular is a very effective piece of “Manawatu Gothic.”
She takes them for a walk. I leave official correspondence
in her letterbox – two down from my own. Affection
we must leave at the front door (or you could use the storage
cage in the garage (or the carpark across the road) downstairs);
body corporate rule are very clear about that. [p.52]
Lane’s is an equally recognisable region of the mind. Anyone who watched the 2006 film “Das Leben der Anderen” [The Lives of Others] would spot it at once – a kind of East European nightmare of secret police surveillance, official corruption and callousness, leading to ever-increasing extremes of personal torment. It is, in a word, “Kafkaesque.”
Of course, in saying that one’s said almost nothing at all. “Kafkaesque” is a cliché – a cliché almost as pervasive and indistinct as the word “Gothic.” If Helen Lehndorf’s landscape painting, then, is (deliberately) gothic – she does, after all, employ the term herself – and Aleksandra Lane’s is a bit Kafkaesque, isn’t that an implicit accusation that both of them, in their poetry, are content to inhabit prefabricated imaginative realms? Not so.
Look again at the detail of these two poems. I haven’t quoted it in full, but the careful brushstrokes with which Lehndorf delineates her failing vegetable garden, “spindles of cabbage, arrowheads of spinach,” is exactly the kind of detail we come to associate with her in reading through her collection.
It’s an emotionally weighty region: in the very first poem of the book we move from a lover caught in the snow, melting “icicles / on my tongue for you .. until my lips were raw”; through the Japanese concept of “Wabi-sabi” (“the beauty in the / broken and the worn”); to a shiny new “rebooted” version of the self: “Closedown, / hibernate, restart.”
That’s a lot of ground to cover in one poem. Too much, some would say. Any creative writing workshop worth its salt would immediately set to work pruning out the undergrowth, focussing the points like ducks in a row. But that would be to miss the point, and the originality, of Lehndorf’s writing. There’s nothing undisciplined in her use of language. She’s thought through each line she’s kept, and one has a sense behind each of them of a fully developed process: reams of false starts, of abandoned verbal ornaments. If it’s here, then, it’s because she wants it to be. There’s an untidiness, a broad-strokes quality to her vision of life. “Wabi-sabi” retains its complexities and roughnesses because it has to.
“Fall back” is, perhaps, a simpler poem, which makes it easier to start with. Not by much, though. The fact that it falls into a genre more easily than some of her other poems is no real criticism of it. Gothic is a mode which so much New Zealand writing inhabits naturally in any case. There’s nothing forced in Lehndorf’s easy assumption of its tropes: her book as a whole paints in many styles, in many moods: the overall impression it gives is consistency, both on the aesthetic and emotional level. It’s not a book that can be exhausted in one, or even several readings.
Aleksandra Lane’s writing comes just as clearly from a set of moods and modes we identify as “Eastern European” – it brings with it “a suitcase full of edgy Balkan politics and surrealism”, as Chris Price comments in her blurb. More than Kafka, though, it seems to me reminiscent of Bruno Schulz, that strange mythologist of the Polish ghetto, author of Cinnamon Shops (1934) and Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass (1937). Schulz shares Lane’s uneasy surrealism, her combination of eroticism and anxiety. The lovers in Lane’s poems seem brash (“I have had the strongest overwhelming desire / to take my clothes off. May I?” [“Strong City”]), and yet self-doubting at the same time (“my first-born turns around and says what kind of mother are you with literal breasts and no milk” [“Non sequitur”]).
There’s a strange dream-logic running through her poems. At times this is almost palpable, as in “Wellington Inc.” (with its lovely use of that quintessential Kiwi-ism “yeahno”), or in the Nikola Tesla poems, “There are no ghosts in America,” that close the collection. At times the connections are less evident, as in the folk-fables that make up the section “Birds of Clay.” What is consistent throughout is this sense of an unpredictable, chancy lyricism, finding inspiration in the quirks and corners of the everyday, as Schulz did in the strange and unaccountable antics of the eccentric, messianic “father” in his stories.
It’s nice to be so surprised and delighted by two new “first books”. Certainly, these are both poets to watch. For the moment, though, these strong, full collections give us some foretaste of what’s to come.
JACK ROSS is a a writer, editor, anthologist and blogger who teaches English and Creative Writing at Massey University’s Albany campus. He has had published several collections of poems, two collections of short stories, a novella, and three novels.
Aleksandra Lane: Birds of Clay (2012)
Landfall Review Online (1/7/12).
[Available at: http://www.landfallreview.com/poetry/closedown-hibernate-restart/]
Landfall 1 (1947)