Joan Fleming on Wild Honey: Reading New Zealand Women’s Poetry, the humming, house-like opus by poet and champion of poets, Paula Green.
When Miranda July came to Melbourne in 2016, she did something that I have found difficult to forget. She told us that she was going to stage a conversation between ‘all the men in the universe’ and ‘all the women in the universe’. We, the audience, had to help her. First, she readied the men. “You’re going to introduce yourselves,” she said. “I want you to say: Hello, we are all the men in the universe. Ready? two, three, go.” The men in the audience spoke their line. The town hall filled with the irregular sound of their deep, uneasy voices. It was honestly a feeble attempt, but July didn’t ask them to do it again. She moved on to ready the women. She told us our line, counted us down, and then – to our surprise – we spoke in almost perfect harmony: We are all the women in the universe. We tend to be better at collaborating.
The conversation went on, with the men struggling to keep up a strong aural correspondence, and the women speaking their part with, well, perfect togetherness. The claim that women are naturally better at collaborating is, of course, problematic. Is it ‘togetherness’ and mutual encouragement we fall more easily into? Or is it obedience, a socially inscribed and collectively enforced willingness to follow the instructions and do as we’re told?
Whether nature, nurture, or social programming, it’s my experience that women do tend to crave the kinds of gatherings where we listen deeply to one another, and draw each other out. This spirit of a gathering is at the heart of Paula Green’s big book of devotion to New Zealand women poets, Wild Honey: Reading New Zealand Women’s Poetry. Just look at the cover. Sarah Laing’s unabashed illustration shows a recognizable coven of New Zealand women poets, sharing cake, chatting, and daydreaming on a picnic blanket. This book does not perform critique. It is not an academic inquiry. It doesn’t engage in canon building by sorting the major poets from the minor. It is an appreciation. Green writes about the poets and the poetry she loves. Full stop.
Even in those moments where it might not be love at first sight, we see Green working on the page to find the connection. This is the case with Jessie MacKay, a poet who most of us know as the name behind our Best First Book Prize, but whom few of us have ever read. MacKay is named as one of the foundation stone poets, with Eileen Duggan and Blanche Baughan, and this is in part an act of reclamation. Duggan (along with Robin Hyde) was disparaged by Alan Curnow, who said their later work “does not lose that weakness of inviting a special sympathy from the reader”. Is the ability – the skill – to ‘invite a special sympathy from the reader’ really a weakness? Don’t we all want to be moved?
Green’s book re-centers early female poets like MacKay who were sidelined or not taken seriously. It is important to say, though, that this re-centering work is non-hierarchical, like most of the book. MacKay is not a foundation stone because she’s a major poet, or even because Green adores her work. In fact, there are times Green struggles to know how to appreciate it: “Where are you, Jessie MacKay?” she writes. “Your poems move and provoke me, puzzle and divert me. Some poems…do not rise above flatness, even when that flatness is paradoxically ornate. Yet the very best poems reflect an alert mind and an active ear.” To find her way into MacKay, Green invokes Hera Lindsay Bird. It’s an unlikely pairing. Is MacKay’s letter-to-the-editor activism really mirrored by Bird’s wicked, embedded feminism? But Green insists upon these improbable friendships. She draws all who move her into the shared ecosystem of the hive.
Green has imagined her book as a house, and structured it accordingly. We begin with the foundation stones, then move through the house’s rooms and corners, then through the door and out into the garden, then to the city and the sky. The poets in the shoe closet are no less important than those in the study or the music room, although some are given more space – more pages – than others, a fact for which Green very nearly apologises. The house metaphor is self-conscious. It performs a reclamation of the domestic as a worthy subject for literature.
Because of its breadth – the house tries to accommodate everyone – Wild Honey is useful as a guide or a reference book. In the ‘study’ chapter, we find a helpful assemblage of definitions of what poetry can do and be: “it has to fit right in my mouth” (Selina Tusitala Marsh); “I find myself looking for…glorious tension” (Anne Kennedy); “the luminous moment is vital” (Emma Neale); “I like to give myself a bit of a fright” (Bernadette Hall). The ‘kitchen’ chapter is especially occupied with themes of the domestic, and how male critics have loved to trivialise them. We travel the gamut from Blanche Baughan’s basic onomatopoeia (“Hiss! Splut! Splutter!”) to the “incessant hunger” of Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle’s Autobiography of a Margeurite, where food is ever-present but rarely satisfies.
Other preoccupations of Wild Honey include reading through biography to see how women’s historically marginalized experience shapes their writing, and the physical and psychological spaces women have had to carve out in order to write and to keep writing. Green also keeps coming back to the anxiety and crippling self-doubt that so many ambitious female creatives seem to experience as a matter of course.
In reading this book, and thinking about the ways that women gather and listen to and ‘read’ one another, I began to wonder about therapy and its usefulness as a metaphor for criticism. Psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips has said that the work of therapy, “at its most useful and interesting,” can function as a kind of translation. People often come to therapy when they have reached “the limits of their language”, and they need someone to translate their painful stories back to them, with a “better vocabulary”. For me, the loveliest prose in this book is something akin to this, when Green penetrates the psychic layers of a poem, and translates its yearnings back to the reader – or, more precisely, back to herself. One example is her description of Tusiata Avia’s poem “Looming”, where the speaker “releases secret little sadnesses that gather in the bedroom and the grey disquiet of dawn”. Another example is her interpretation of Morgan Bach’s poem “What They Made”, where the speaker feels “an internal stranding, a struggle to shift from origin stories to self-autonomy…to move from dark to light, from haven to wider world.” These moments feel like the insights that can arise when women have the time, space, and freedom to go deep diving together. Perhaps she is not offering a ‘better vocabulary’ to the poets she is reading, or diagnosing the poems’ meanings, but rather, articulating the echoes of her own psychic experiences as she encounters them in poems.
Green has often described reviewing culture in New Zealand as replete with bullying and bandwagons. She has said how certain critics demonstrate a “toxic” and “ego-driven need to demolish and show off”, or hierarchize by claiming certain books of poetry “aren’t poetry”. These critics are often male, however, I am cautious of replicating the implication of a toxic male reviewing culture versus a more generous, more encouraging reviewing culture led by women. Our reviewing culture is certainly not as binary as that. Green’s example as a critic is characterized by her necessary website Poetry Shelf. She has chosen to build her place in New Zealand letters based on a spirit of encouragement and kindness, which she articulates as a conscious revolt against cruel and patriarchal tearing-downs. There’s a flip side to this. Some Kiwi writers want a little more severity. New Zealand is a fishing village, and those critics who dare to say unfavorable things might find the writer of the book they’ve found wanting is sitting on the next prize panel or deciding the next round of residencies. I sometimes worry we’re all damning each other with faint praise.
Green’s point, however, is that behind every book is a human being, and behind most poetry books is a skinless human being whose sensitivity to the world is both their best gift and their worst curse.
All this review long I have been speaking of “male critics” and “women poets” as if there were only two genders. New Zealand is still waiting for its big, queer, new-wave poetry anthology, a gathering of work that might better reflect fresh movements beyond binaries. However, Wild Honey is not that. And it doesn’t need to be. This book is an open house with a garden party happening out the back, and you’re invited.
Wild Honey: Reading New Zealand Women’s Poetry by Paula Green (Massey University Press, $45) is available at Unity Books.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.