for Kathryn Madill
What shall we tell them?
That the sea froze under our mukluks
like stretched plastic.
That tiny ice seeds skittered
on the blue pavement, ringing like Inca bells.
That the brash plain was a white plate, a lazy Susan maybe,
or a snowy rodeo where the sun lopes a yellow circuit,
bright show pony, curvetting on a long rein.
That a katabatic wind shawl spins off the mountain,
that the ice dome gleams like a lantern
or the buttocks of our bright blue perishable world.
That the women became feral there and lost their language.
That their sex grew big and glistening in their dark fur,
the placenta red on the ice like a massacre.
About this poem
This poem was first published online as part of a SPL project, supported by Creative New Zealand, which commissioned Scottish writers to introduce a New Zealand poem. This introduction is by Gerrie Fellows, a poet who lives and teaches in Glasgow but was born in New Zealand.
The poems of Bernadette Hall are seductive. Their images are luminous, there is an intense visual clarity with underlying meanings that can't quite be deciphered, all held in a hypnotically musical structure. Her poetry has been described as 'like a bird listening/to sounds underground,//probing with little jabs for the worm.'
There is the music, then the hidden, revealed by degrees; but it's those 'little jabs' that give her poems their sharp edge. The exquisite is balanced by a rougher voice, practical, down-to-earth: humour couched in the language of the everyday.
'I'd like to light/a holy roman candle for you/which is better than a poke/in the eye with a burnt stick' she says in 'For my Catholic Mother'. Her Irish inheritance is present quite literally as voice: 'You boiled the bad fish,/sweet jesus'. The voices are 'raw, self-mocking, tough//when things got rough/they didn't make a song/and dance of it'. That her Irish background was both Catholic and Protestant gives rise in her poems to images of doubles and splittings. In 'Famine' she finds a likeness between Strabane and the Taieri and in using the Maori concept of whakapapa or genealogy, echoes Ireland's duality with New Zealand's own.
Strabane was like the Taieri, that one black
headstone out on its own, 'The burying ground
of the Colhouns!' And at that very moment
the wild geese flew over, two strings of them,
one from the right hand side of my head and one
from the left, cleft whakapapa.
This concern with historical and geographical context, with stories and their echoes, is a key strand in Hall's poetry, whether it's her Irish family background, or New Zealand history in poems like 'Early Settler' (identity figured in signs as diverse as a bike lock and huia feather), or the events of the Second World War addressed in 'The Bomber Pilot'.
Hall is capable of using juxtaposition to achieve shockingly abrupt transformations. 'The History of Europe' begins with a landscape of clay and forest which might (or might not) be New Zealand, but which by the middle of the poem has become the dark barbarian Europe of Antipodean imagination. It's a generalised past, but also a particular place inhabited by folktales and a history of bloodshed. Then with the use of just one word - a plant name, matagouri - that violence is pitched across the boundaries of place and time we might have thought would keep us safe.
She works another of these transformational shocks in the title poem from her 2007 collection, The Ponies. This collection includes a series of poems from a residency in Antarctica and the ponies are those of Scott's ill-fated Antarctic expedition. In this poem, an abrupt slide from the light-hearted endeavour of building an igloo with her companions to the catastrophe of the Scott expedition is precipitated by a tiny but chilling change of tense which traps us without warning in the catastrophe of the past.
That's when the blizzard struck. Now it's white-out.
Our faces grow black from burning blubber, our eyes
weep, our lips split. Jofe says we have to keep calm,
keep on talking to each other. Our rations run low.
Outside, the ponies lying dead in the snow.
Hall's poems from Antarctica are simultaneously stories and evocations of 'the unimaginable blue/we call beauty'. They contain the place with its violet shadows, blue ice and skittering ice seeds, and the human drama enacted there, what she calls the 'human apparatus in a white cabinet'. 'Fissure' has the feel of a first encounter, the continent's sparseness echoed in its brevity of line; though even here, characteristically, Hall moves back and forward in time and place, interconnecting images and meanings so that the white continent exists in the poem both as physical experience and idea.
'Mukluk', by contrast, is conversational in form: a conversation between the poet and the artist Kathryn Madill with whom she shared the Antarctica residency. The poem begins with the one small question, 'What shall we tell them?' and answers it in echoing stanzas of increasing length, a stone encircled by widening ripples. First, the sensuous experiences of place, then the rings of vivid, almost violent images informed by the storied, coloured and fragile world the observers have brought with them.