Fish Stories (2015)

Jack Ross, ed.: Poetry NZ Yearbook 2 [Issue #50] (November 2015)


Mary Cresswell. Fish Stories. ISBN 978-1-927145-66-1. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2015. RRP $25. 131 pp.

Mary Cresswell: Fish Stories (2015)

The ghazal (pronounced, I’m reliably informed, “guzzle”) is certainly trending in contemporary English-language poetry. One can see its advantages in combining close attention to form with a dizzying number of possible variations: a little like the spread of the sonnet form throughout Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth century.

Mary Cresswell, an American poet who has lived in New Zealand since 1970, says of her collection as a whole: “It is accessible poetry, using rhyme, varying poetic structures and a range of topics,” and goes on to “encourage other poets to use formal verse and rhyme as I think it’s rewarding and fun.”

Her work, she explains, is “not confessional, not an emotional diary and not an autobiography.” What is it, then, if it’s none of those things?
Yes, I’ve heard about the vacant chambers of my mind.
Are you here because you hope to fill the vacant chambers of my mind?
[“Eine Kleine Kammermusik,” p.23]
This poem, whose title translates as “A Little Chambermusic” (presumably on the analogy of Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”), rings the changes on the following dismissive remark by linguist Otto Jespersen, referred to by Cresswell in a footnote:
Jespersen describes (Language, 1922) a reading experiment for speed and comprehension in which women overwhelmingly outperformed men. This proves, he says, that women’s minds have ‘vacant chambers’ in which they promptly accommodate new information whereas men’s minds are already full of weighty thoughts that slow down such acquisition.
So far, so shocking (though it does remind one a little of the passage in A Study in Scarlet where Sherlock Holmes disclaims any interest in the fact that the Earth goes around the Sun, rather than vice versa, explaining that such irrelevant information simply takes up much-needed room in his well-organised brain).

My question is, however, whether the poem itself has much to add to the absurdity of the footnote?
I’ve spoken long with Professor Freud. He knows of course the most
efficient way those pesky little chambers should be mined.
I’m afraid that most readers’ experience of rhyme and strict metrical form is now confined mainly to light verse. The great tradition of such writers as W. S. Gilbert, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll and A. A. Milne has led us to expect witty paradox and ingenuity as inevitable features of such techniques.

Their successors were the Tinpan Alley lyricists of the Broadway Musical: “We hear he is a whiz of a Wiz, if ever a Wiz there was,” or “Doe, a deer, a female deer,” are probably among the lines that spring to mind when one thinks of the fun (Cresswell’s word) of poetic formalism.

Cresswell’s satirical intentions may be not dissimilar to, say, W. S. Gilbert’s, but in a poem such as “Eine Kleine Kammermusik,” I think we feel a certain forced quality to the wit. The allusions are there, but – to my ear, at least – the repeated rhyming variations on the word “mind” lack ease. They “smell of the lamp” (to use another nineteenth century phrase).

Where I think Cresswell is strongest is where she sidesteps the stricter demands of the forms she’s chosen to write in, and allows the language to speak through her with rather more freedom:
Night is cold and coming faster than we’d like.
We sit and shiver under thin and wear-worn shawls,

I assume I’m exempt because I sit around all day,
reading thrillers, writing predictable ghazals.
[“Waiting Room,” p.91]
We forgive, I suspect, the intentional clumsiness of that “wear-worn shawls” line because of the brooding truth underlying the others: the decision to use the ghazal-form, too, can be seen here in better relief – as, essentially, a refusal simply to add to a monotonous chorus of despair.

Some of her experiments in cento, too (selecting and recombining lines from other poets), result in a kind of poetry despite itself: a very personal voice asserting itself through a mountain of off-rhymes and naff experiments:
Where there are two, choose more than one
three, possibly, or a handful,

whatever you need to cross the desert:
dates to tuck in your turban

silver coins to tip the bearers
Biros for taking notes. You know

how hard the sun is on diaries
not to mention sharp sand

between the crumpled pages.
[“The Length of Long Days,” p.45]
The luminosity of such lines goes a long way to make up for a few arid passages here and there.


Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2 [Issue #50]. ISSN 0114-5770 (2014): 255-57.

[748 wds]

Poetry NZ Yearbook 2 (2015)

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