Heartland by Michele Leggott

(AUP, 2014)

Review by Owen Bullock

Michele Leggott’s latest collection opens with the poem ‘as the car flies’:

it’s no distance to the orchard
where Mrs D asks her son      how many left
and his voice from the darkness of the shed
maybe a couple of weeks     these were on the tree
yesterday      we take two bags and head back
to the city      leaving you to have a lie down
and rethread the silence that preceded
our visit      my friend you are a voice

They’ve been visiting an old friend and the Dragicevich’s orchard in West Auckland. The extra spaces within the lines, which give a kind of alternative lineation, is a device used by a number of other poets, and by Leggott herself in previous collections, and is prominent in this volume. It’s a powerful aspect of her mastery of lineation. It enables a more subtle grouping of ideas than is normally possible; for example, she wants the quote “how many left” to stay with its attribution.

The break in line four helps signal two speeches which are connected. The enjambment from lines four to five creates a curious juxtaposition with the protagonists taking their fruit and leaving. The caesura within the line that follows maintains a link between two places, along with the suggestion that one allows the other.

The reference to the voice and the visit that comes next emphasises the idea that the friend’s voice is one particularly important to the author. These broken phrases might also be said to mimic speech, an idea suggested to me recently by Michael Steven. It certainly seems as though the quiet connections between ideas follows a thought-pattern rooted in the fragmentary and the demotic, even where quotation marks are not used.

The word ‘voice’ is an especially operative one in this collection, as Leggott’s writing takes on numerous personas. Of the book’s six sections, the final group of poems ‘wind and weather’ embraces this strategy to the greatest extent via stories around the wreck of the SS Gairloch in 1903. She writes both about family and within it, as she embodies ancestors whose stories she has recently discovered, such as the loss of a great-grandfather buried in Te Henui. Sometimes in revisiting and reclaiming her own heritage and its stories, Leggott uses portraiture and the safety and objectiveness of distance to evoke another era. But the first person writing takes her closer to human subjects and she boldly enters these minds and beings; the results are convincing.

Leggott is unfaltering in her use of distinctive and fresh language and technique, for example, “a violin is talking to a crowd of people,” a kind of grand blending of metaphor and metonym for a busker (‘forget about paper’); we also encounter, “a vacuum cleaner sucking up heritage” (‘many hands’). Unexpected words like “majuscule” (‘never dreaming’) colour the text, and one finds oneself often looking up words to keep pace with this rich and varied lexicon. Other phrases which could seem metaphoric are simply the poet adhering strictly to detail, such as in “sun pours into Alleluya’s lantern” (‘one hundred days’), for the café of that name’s icon on Karangahape Road, Auckland.

Concision of language is coupled with a willingness to leap from associative subject to subject, including those which spark memories:

same old same      old torea      not in
Native Animals of New Zealand
but certainly one of the cards torn
from the jelly crystals packet each week
(‘te torea / the oystercatcher’)

The phrase “same old same” is strangely lively and reflects the poet’s engagement with the way language is spoken in the here and now. Recent events and issues permeate the poems, such as the Pike River disaster and the threat of earthquakes.

The long sequence ‘many hands’ browses between travels in Australia and real or imagined sojourns elsewhere, with the need to interpret the past always close at hand:

she calls caterpillar dreaming      a painted stone
from a place we can know nothing of      a gift to carry
to the island of abandoned industry redoubts
and cells for recalcitrants cut into the living rock
was there a fever hospital a dry dock a sail loft?

Memories of pony-trekking become records of the adventure games of childhood imagination (‘horseman’) which takes us, among other places, to the Nile Delta. The obvious joy in imagination is analogous to the pleasure the reader receives in the play of words. And always family is backdrop to the adventure: “in progress wherever dear family we are / and the news comes in thick and fast.”

The ‘Note’ which ends the book reminds us of this centrality of topic and does so in poetic fashion:

By the time the parents were arranging cups and milk and nattering to each other, we were back in the river for a last swim or drifting along the water’s edge breaking up finely sculpted terraces of black sand by jumping on them one two three and down they came in thick collapsing slices.

Each slice of text here evokes recollections or locations; the poems speak to each other and to the reader from voices which have a central, controlling voice which is both liberated and empowered by imaginative writing.