“Wild Honey Reading New Zealand Women’s Poetry” editor Paula Green
(Massey University Press, NZ, www.masseypress.ac.nz
ISBN 9780995113596, 572pp $45)
The poem “Calling You Home” by Helen Rickerby introduces the book
“This is the house
where we discover
The prose introduction explains the title, “The notion of a hive in relation to women writing poetry resonates on so many levels. The hive is a container of dark and light, of activities that are both in view and hidden from view…The hive is also a house of endeavour: bees collect, build and transform. This book is about the endeavour of New Zealand women poets over one hundred and fifty years of published poetry.” The book offers a series of essays introducing the poets’ work thematically through a series of rooms or outdoor spaces and putting the poetry in context. The downside of this is that the poems are presented as extracts but the generous biographical information at the end offers a means of finding the original publications and reading the poems in full.
The first section deviates from the series of rooms to present three early poets as “The Foundation Stones” with three biographical essays on Jessie Mackay (1864-1938), Blanche Baughan (1870-1958) and Eileen Duggan (1894-1972). Mackay was born to Scottish immigrant parents and used both Scots dialect and Māori words in her work. She commented in a letter in 1903, “I had to take up a double sort of life – half woman’s, half man’s work. It is hard for even the most sympathetic man to understand how hard it is for a woman to obtain the conditions a man can.” She also touched on politics, love and the role of women, saying she was a “voice on the wind”. Paula Green draws parallels between Jessie Mckay and the contemporary Hera Lindsay Bird’s desire to “shake complacency and mediocrity, as if poetry has slumped into sleep-inducing comfort food,” likening Bird to a “voice on the wire” i.e. the internet. Blanche Baughan grew up in London, UK and moved to New Zealand in 1900 after the death of her mother, freeing herself from a tainted family history – her mother had killed her father and was diagnosed as mentally ill and Baughan became her carer. Initially she wrote of nature observed on long walks and widened her scope to people, particularly the marginalised. “Shingle-Short” is written in the viewpoint of Barney, “An’ didn’t them ugly moments thread,/ Straight as cotton, to this good hour?”. Eileen Duggan, like Mackay was born in England to Irish immigrant parents and moved to New Zealand as an adult. Despite a sporty childhood, she suffered an unnamed by life-threatening illness. She wrote in a Georgian tradition just as New Zealand poetic modernism was taking off and became her own worst enemy, attaching conditions to Allen Curnow’s use of her poems in his anthology which led to him being unable to use them. In “And at the End”, “I, made surer by sorrow,/ Beg what seems more to me/ The faith of a willow in winter,”. Jessie Mackay told Duggan, “I am clay and you are china.” Paula Green calls Duggan “our pioneering songbird.”
The second series of essays moves through the imaginary rooms of a house, starting in the study with Woolf’s worn statement a woman needs “a room of one’ s own.” Paula Green suggests a study is both a physical room and a “state of mind that you carry with you”, “the germination chamber”. Paula Green muses, “For some women, poems tuck in between hanging out the washing, pruning trees, reading a story to a child, soothing brows, cooking dinner, doing the shopping, exam marking, earning money. Some poets expect to sit and write most days, while others only do so when something tips them into a starting point.”
“The Mirror” isn’t a room but a symbol to explore the use of the first person pronoun in women’s poetry, “To judge the poetry as missing the desired poetic mark because it retains a strong grip on the domestic, is steeped in the personal, is selective about what is revealed and concealed, is to further the master criticisms that detained women poets in the shadows. To read the poetry within the fertile symbol of the mirror is to discover tracks and trails that not only stimulate what poetry can do but also reinvigorate how we view women.” “The Hallway” is a metaphor for movement in a poem, which includes rhythm and literal movement, particularly in the case of Adcock who moved from her birthplace in New Zealand to England, and the development of a poet’s work from first to current collection. There’s a link between this hallway and “The Shoe Closet” where shoes are open to exploration: stepping into someone else’s, a choice of shoe is also a reflection of character and enable poets to explore myths and legends from a woman’s viewpoint. “Poetry that is in debt to multiple shoes is infused with different histories, relations, languages, experiences, landscapes, power bases, traditions of writing and performing. As poets and readers we are open to such rich and vital harvests.”
Inevitably “The Kitchen” gets its own essay, which tries to tackle the stereotype of women writer as domestic chronicler. Paula Green argues, “I do not accept that the capacity to make poetry or fiction out of an essential part of life is redundant.” Cilla McQueen in her memoir notes in a gathering of writers, she finds herself twenty years their junior, “I cook and listen. I’m making coffee after lunch one day/ when somebody says, Hey, wish I had one of those.” Green concludes, “kitchens might celebrate the domestic, might protest the domestic, might use it as a catalyst to lead a reader elsewhere. The results might be comforting, polemical, sensual, surprising, strange.”
“The Lounge” includes poems that take from other genres, notably fiction, and open the poets’ lives to the reader. “The Music Room” essay encompasses poetry slams, the effect performance has on poems and considers lyricists where poems are accompanied by music. This was where “Wild Honey” stopped being a series of essays and became a series of reviews, presenting close and justified readings of the poems. Other sections that took this approach include “The Hearth”; “The Sickbed”; “The Mantlepiece”, which focused on poems about physical things; “The Love Nest” and “Through the Door” which leaves the interior to look at poems based in the countryside or urban settings. These sections felt like an overview without a depth of insight, as if saying, enjoy the poems. Yes, the poems are enjoyable and display some excellent writing but I would have preferred to read the poems without the essays.
“The Airing Cupboard” is a place to “incubate ideas, and more importantly, to consider the way politics infuses poems.” It’s also the name of a Christchurch-based poetry collective. Green argues, “women writers have been a significant force as a transmitter of different models and ways of being” after admitting, “Their opinions were undermined and their writing was less visible within the reputation-establishing canons because their work did not necessarily mirror the preoccupations, styles or rules of male authors.” She concludes, “a poem can function as a miniature airing cupboard in which ideas provoke us to think and behave in new directions. Poetry has the ability to link us as readers and writers both within our own whānau [family], and across the wider reach of humanity.” Family here is in the sense of extended family which might include families of friends or fellow poets.
Another inevitable section, “The Nursery” looks at women as mothers, women as adult daughters, women who write poetry for children and children who write. It ponders and reflects but doesn’t conclude. It’s noticeable that although her chosen poets do write on the conflict between being a mother and not losing oneself in the process, it doesn’t extend to those whose have lost a mother through bereavement or estrangement, which gives the essay a cosy, celebratory feel.
The book concludes with an afterword which suggests the motivation for the essays was to bring to life the poets featured, “hope that my engagement with the wild honey of their poetry – their fluency, fluidity, transformations and textures – will spark you to track down particular poets and to find your own avenues, bush tracks and sky-gazings through their writing.” The final poem, Nikki-Lee Birdey’s “Objects 12” ends, “the days are getting shorter,/ but I can’t help it anymore/ I think life is just starting.” The biographies demonstrate the book’s span, with poets born in the period 1864 to the 1990s.
“Wild Honey” is a good starting point for those new to New Zealand women’s poetry. Unlike a standard poetry anthology which presents the poems and a brief biography, “Wild Honey” gives the poems a context and a sense of development of each poet from first to current or last publication. For those familiar with some of the poets, it’s chance to see a favourite alongside her contemporaries and to see how each poet’s work fits into the poetry landscape.