Tuesday, August 19, 2008
I suppose that the sanctimonious whining of American poets about money, class, and theory is the screeching of a cog in the mechanism of the gristmill from which that larger thing, poetry, eventually emerges. But it's good to be reminded that it's only ephemeral, part of skin that the snake of literature sloughs away, in due course, to facilitate growth and survival. (There's a couple of bad metaphors for ya!) In such a context it's chastening and heartening to see the publication of Janet Frame's poetry at long last, albeit posthumously - her choice, in fact: she once remarked that "posthumous publication is the last form of literary decency left." Now, just four years after her death, Bloodaxe Books has published Storms Will Tell, a selection of her poems lovingly assembled by Frame's niece, Pamela Gordon, with Denis Harold and New Zealand poet Bill Manhire.
American poets gripe about getting out their first and second books, but Frame only published one, an incredible touchstone for me, The Pocket Mirror; whenever asked, as she repeatedly was, when the next collection would appear, she would explain that she wrote poems all the time, but wrote them too quickly: she wanted her poems to be slower: "Somehow I can't get that." And so everyone just had to wait. Frame would become known as a novelist, and her amazing autobiography was adapted into the film, An Angel at My Table. When I say amazing, I'm not simply praising it. Frame was born into a working-class family in 1924, and grew up in a time and place in which writing, for women, could not be seen as "a real job." Trapped not only in a family full of tragedy and a vocation - teaching - which did not suit her, she endured something unimaginable: she was misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic and incarcerated in brutal and primitive mental hospitals. The only thing that saved her from a planned lobotomy was news that she'd won a prestigious literary prize.
She loved poetry and always worked at it throughout her long life. What did she do with all those unpublished poems? She deposited them into a goose bath. As her niece Pamela Gordon explains, this device was the base of a small fountain on the patio of a town house where Gordon's parents lived. But "the novelty of the garden ornament soon wore off. The fountain required excessive cleaning and draining so June and Wilson donated the dish" to Janet, who had a family of geese. When Frame left rural Shannon to Palmerston North, "she took the large fibreglass bowl (about the size of a child's paddling pool) back to the city with her." And into this goose bath went decades worth of "composition and in some cases, as she would concede herself, decomposition."
Here's a poem retrieved from the goose bath:
The Sick Pawpaw
Hideole old cripple pestered
with crime-fibres of thirst and fever
winding strangling your infertile body
your stem, your sick backbone their spool
to weave your envy of monkey-apple, snowberry,
seven-storey beanflower with bees and sun
early sweeping the white carpet, drift
and pile of pollen on the black stairway;
of soldering bolt of orange and lemon fruit
melting, moulding the dark
poured like winterfall to fit your shape
alone, rocking hopeless helpless in Eden
snake-bitten Hideole old cripple
knowing malice, death, weaving the sack
to steal your fuel from orange and lemon, burn
the snowberry and the beautiful tall stairway.