Aspiring Light by Robynanne Milford

(Pukeko Press, 2015)

Review by Vaughan Rapatahana

This is Robynanne Milford’s third book of poetry. It is a rather personal assemblage of poems pertaining to a specific geographical area in New Zealand, which is of deep significance to the poet, namely Central Otago and Lake Wanaka in particular. Indeed, on the back cover blurb, Bernadette Hall stressed that this collection, ‘is an emporium of all that Robynanne Milford holds dear in her love affair with Central Otago.’ The book was sparked off by an important event in 1949 — the ascent of Mount Aspiring by the photographer Brian Brake along with other notables, including poet James K Baxter and composer Douglas Lilburn, who are both later incorporated on the pages.

Milford has focused on this geographical zone to the extent of not only providing detailed notes, but also a reference section, including the several books and resources she consulted. I often had to cross-reference these notes as I read some poems, so as to decipher further the poem mentioned.

There are also several illustrations speckled throughout the text, including sepia photographs and Rita Angus paintings. Overall, the production of the book is excellent, given a very slight mis-ordering in the Notes on page 110, in relation to the poem sequence.

We find five separate sections arrayed in a historical continuum, from pre-European times to more recent times, whereby European settlers have well and truly entrenched themselves into and onto the landscape.

As part of Milford’s widescreen panorama of this specific geographical area, she also includes several different forms of poetry on the pages. Thus we sight not only shorter half-page poems, but also concrete poems (for example, “Crossing at Luggate”), found verse (“Lake of Dreamy Beauty”, “The Clutha River”, “Voices from Central”), experimental poetry in which there are, as one example, interlocutory dark type intrusions, as in “The Quiet Life at Glenfinnan”, and even shape poems (such as the ophidian “Mata-Au”).

Milford also has an idiosyncratic spacing pattern throughout, whereby lacunae appear across and through some lines. Here is an early example,

Thomson’s paintings       gifts       a rare vision
(“The Naming of Mt Aspiring”, p.18)

A further idiosyncrasy is the poet’s regular omission of verbs or, more frequently, articles, giving an effect of Morse code at times. Or, in more modern-speak, rather like a text message, actually. An example of this abbreviate articulation follows,

was gondwana
was dreamtime

came hunters
came customary rites
(“Mourning Chorus”, p.80)

Oppositely, Milford also runs together words. One poem displaying the merge copiously throughout is “The Clutha River”. Here is an example: ‘Hemi has taken the mountainsinto his being’ (“Mountains Make Monstrous Mothers”, p.96).

Milford also likes to pun for fun, as in the title, “Mourning Chorus” — although I fear that her word ‘wayfearers’ on page 72 is a misspelling?

Then there is the lengthy verse drama, “Sing My Whispers from the Bed of Lake Wanaka”, covering 15 pages of inquisition of the unhappy life and intriguing demise of one Elizabeth Ann Walsh (1868-1889). I enjoyed this drama, and was caught up in its interrogation as to what did happen to Elizabeth Ann, given that some lines obfuscate the meaning, such as, ‘Moon nibbled at, casts whorls / of tourmaline suns on lake waters’ (p.34). Such opacity, as well as the historical jargon and sometime inherent dialogue in this tract, weigh the verse down, rather like the body of the main protagonist.

This leads onto my chief concern with this collection. I feel Milford is trying too hard to achieve emphasis, convey message. She overwrites. For several poems or parts of poems are too dense. Their navigation is rather like striding through obdurate mud in a fog, given that some pieces are deliberate found poems, and that parts in some pieces are bent on conveying the spoken peculiarities of 19th century English language, as in “Criffel Diggings”.

There are too many obscure words, often conjoint on a page – as though the poet has a thesaurus handcuffed to her wrist (tamponade; gortex; flocculated; flocculation; facies; inflouresce; puerperal – anyone?), which leads to a single line, or several lines such as the following:

Protected from amorous aquifers by Artemis
(“Arethusa’s pool”, p.56)

in atrium of her night orbits
(“The White Wahine” p.67)

Happenstance an ice bridge
back to before
possible impossibilities
(“Grieve Hopefully” p.70)

gyrating congregations of green
banshee scream of spirits cast
(“From Mt. Pisa”, p.73)

You take a feline stretch into the dilemma raise a chalice or two
(“Glendhu Bay”, p.82

amortize reflection of earth transience
(“Rumbling Burn”, p.84)

a riot of rufescent energies with thick bands of foreboding
(“Up the Matukituki”, p.89)

chroma of triadic harmony gathers
(“Hells Gates”, p.91)

Appraise by extracorporeal shock waves…
(“Appraise”, p.103)

Then there is a sort of pidgin te reo Māori, whereby some kupu Māori are thrown into the mix to the detriment of not only the tongue, but also to ‘te reo Ingarihi’. This crosspollination is no postmodern clarion call, but more a rather clumsy overkill, as in “Nehenehe; Karakia; Kahuwhakamarumaruwairua”. While Milford, to give her credit, does attempt to include a limited sense of pre-European vistas — although the timeline presented on pages 113-114 commences only in 1871 — these excursions into a non-first language come across as somewhat patronising for me, especially when there is no requisite macronisation in places.

When I reviewed Milford’s effervescent first collection Songcatcher for a fine line a few years ago, I made almost exactly the same points:

‘Sometimes overwritten, as if she clutched a regurgitant thesaurus as she wrote, [‘katabatic’ keeps calling, as does ‘susurrate’]; sometimes using ngā kupu Māori (Māori words), as if she has gone direct online to find a straight transliteration (as, for example, in Korowai whakakaingoa for Tohinga [sic] – which for me just doesn’t work), rather than meld the two alien languages into a newly holistic codeswitched via media – à la Powhiri Rika-Heke (1991) — Milford, when she hits her straps, IS a forceful and fine poet.’

The last part of which leads me to state that I want now to end my negative comments, and turn to the positive aspects of this collection. Robynanne Milford can indeed write well, too: some of her imagery, extended metaphor and alliterative acts are vividly excellent, as here: ‘…round and round like leaden popcorn’ (“Land of Darkness”, p.24); ‘Lady Barker rows her tongue among jungle of thorn / and tussock…’ (“Runs 337 and 337A at Minaret”, pg. 27); ‘your endeavours / tear at me like jagged teeth’ (“And Always”, p.85), and ‘a clothesline of poetry (“Voices from Central”, p.100).

More significantly — and this is my main point here — the poet writes best when she writes simply and does not try too hard for effect. There are several rather fine poems sprinkled here and there as with, for example, “Mate-Tapu”, “Backyard Days Horizons”, “By Rabbit Skin Creek”, and “In The Picture Lounge”. Well, almost all of that last aforementioned piece, as I am uncertain of what a kowhai uenuku is! He uenuku kōwhai, pea?

Here, there are no unnecessary words. No unnecessarily overblown or obscure words and their combinations. No mixed code. Not too much, but not without, a juxtaposed word array at splay across the page. Some effective omission of words. Limited punctuation.

Here is a good example from Aspiring Light of just how well Robynanne Milford can poeticise:

By Rabbit Skin Creek

Lilburn’s willow creek
of sound and distance
is still

the old road quiet

markings merge
envelop the rabbiter
in snow-petal


A white candle transformed
he floats noiseless
navigating by blinks

the infinite horizon home

More koan than poem and as equally effective.

Kia ora mo tēnei whiti. [Thank you for this poem].

Ko te mutunga o taku arotakenga ināianei. [It’s the end of my review now].