Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mirabile Dictu

Reviewed this marvellous book of poetry this morning on National Radio. Here's the link.

If you don't want to listen, here are my notes tidied up and joined into sensible sentences...

This is Michele Leggott's 7th book. She is the inaugural NZ Poet Laureate [2007-9] and has just finished her term. She is losing her sight to retinitis pigmentosa. She has spoken movingly of this in her previous collection AS FAR AS I CAN SEE: "I give what is left of the light of my eyes, I have fallen out of a clear sky."

Mirabile Dictu is a year in the life of the Laureate. She wrote a poem a week. At 154 pages, her AUP publisher pointed out it is the same length as a novella. Some poems are as long as eight pages. He says that as Poet Laureate she's gained confidence and knows now she has our attention.

BLINDNESS: The poems capture the darkening world of Michele Leggott and show how she copes: learns to touch type, uses a white stick, deals with grief, travels around NZ and to Italy, tracks the history of her family – joins with family and friends in funerals/weddings/feasts. And writes poems.

POETIC EMPORIUM [from the Greek emporos – a journey]: This is how Michele Leggott describes this collection. It starts with a bunch of poets heading to Hone Tuwhare’s funeral and ends with a wedding. A host of other poets are hauled in by name along the way. There are literal journeys and then the poet's interior journey from light to darkness and then back to another kind of vision.

The poems overlap, breathe on each other, are linked by themes and images [the sky, birds, water, singing.] There is a development through the collection from the early despair of the title poem Mirabile Dictu - "only now/has my hand found the stones/I could add to the smooth interior /of my despair" – to the final poems which are lightened/enlightened and show her rediscovery of the miraculous including Wonderful to Relate [Mirabile Dictu translated] which is about a family reunited at the wedding.

In between there is the "breathing world" which is lit by "flashes of brilliance" and the fire/ahi of poetry and inspiration. "Not a white stick but a sky", she says. The sky to Leggott is light and inspiration and beauty and the miraculous and is embodied in the sky-blue tokotoko which she carries as Laureate.

‘here is the light/here is the darkness/look between them and sing/for we are the breathing world’

FINDING POEMS: they are in pockets, tucked inside books, ‘sometimes you meet the title/walking home and the first lines/present themselves at the corner …’ Leggott follows a trail into the university clock tower to track down two elephant skulls and writes a poem about them. There are snatches of language everywhere, and her delight in the history of words : in one poem, people look for vegetables while she looks for the latin word for "really big flower".

TE KIKORANGI: this is the name of Leggott's exquisite sky-blue Tokotoko [here they both are on the left]. An engraved pool cue, its power is an important part of this collection. It features as a CUE to write, an INSPIRATION [its name means the sky] and a PROD: in one wonderfully humorous poem reminiscent of Tuwhare, the stick tells her to write a poem and then goes "back to cooking up/a feed of mussels from Kawhia."

Leggott doesn't use punctuation, instead the lines have gaps which act like the breath in before the rush of words out. These poems have beauty and humour, they sing and rage, they are full of the serendipity and miraculousness of life. Read them and marvel.


Gondal-girl said...

great post Mary, I love the note jotting quality of it. These poems sound lovely. You NZeders really have it going on ( ditch envy perhaps from this side?). Poet Laureate's and shamanic tokotoko, why doen't we have an equal role here in Oz?

Could you tell me more about the tokotoko too? Have I got it wrong?...

Rachel Fenton said...

What an amazing woman she is, and an inspiration.

Excellent post Mary. Thanks.

I was 'taught' to discard biographical info when reading poetry, and even without being told about her losing her sight, the poems seem to speak with far more insight than any bio could give.

Mary McCallum said...

No, you are right GG - the tokotoko is a gift to each Poet Laureate - each one is different and they are, as you say, shamanic. They also underline and express [in their design] the Laureate's mana - a word that is complex but is essentially status the person achieves through his/her intrinsic 'higher order' qualities rather than something awarded to them as a prize... [not sure that's a great definition but it will do].

Mary McCallum said...

Thanks Rachel - interesting point about removing the poet from the poems. It's hard to do with Michele Leggott's work because she and the business of being a poet are squarely in the middle of these poems - and put together they are a kind of memoir. But more resonant - as you say - than a memoir or bio. I find knowing about her and what's behind the poems adds another important layer in my reading of them.