Second Glance: Reticent Confessional
By Jenny Bornholdt
Victoria University Press, 2008
In “The Rocky Shore,” a yard worker employed by Jenny Bornholdt says, “she may well be a poet, but the only writing of hers I’m interested in seeing / is on a checque.” Would the same yard worker be surprised to learn that his unpoetic utterance had been transformed into verse – specifically into a couplet ending a stanza with an enjambment of long against short, leaving the reader to ponder, in the hanging spaces of the short line, the ways that money talks, even in a poem? Maybe not. Bornholdt’s yard workers, flight attendants, and taxi drivers often express themselves in odd, glancing apercus that unsettle perceptions in much the way a lot of good poetry does – Jenny Bornholdt’s, for example. And there’s something else the yard worker seems to be saying through the agency of Jenny Bornholdt’s poetry: Don’t expect the Duino Elegies.
Compared to the Duino Elegies or “Lycidas” or Sonnets from the Portuguese, Bornholdt’s work might not seem like poetry at all. This is a possibility voiced by the poet herself, who writes in “Fitter Turner,” one of the six long, loose, seemingly random and deceptively shaggy poems that comprise her collection The Rocky Shore, “I remember someone commenting on // an earlier poem of mine, which resembles this one, / saying some people might think it’s not poetry.” Cyril Connolly said that an author has one and only one obligation: to write masterpieces. Is The Rocky Shore, with its easy conversational flow taking in such subjects as composting and grocery shopping, a masterpiece? Does it partake of that complexity of design shared by all poetry at the highest levels? Time will tell. I’m not going to lose any sleep waiting for the verdict, however, because in the meantime Bornholdt’s poetry, with its calm resolution and intimate address, fulfills an authorial obligation unrecognized by Connolly: to help readers get on with their lives.
Contemporary poetry tends to rile people up – it’s too hermetic, it’s too guileless, it’s too political, it’s not political enough – and I suppose some readers might consider Bornholdt’s poetry infuriating on one or another counts. No words of mine will persuade them otherwise. Apart from the pleasure I take in her considerable artfulness (no less impressive for being so unostentatious), I read Jenny Bornholdt because I like poems about composting, grocery shopping, laundry routines, children, parents, hospital visits, and automobile repair. Especially when they’re really poems about love, death, and human connection.
In “Fitter Turner” Bornholdt acknowledges that her poetry “seems very plain and straightforward and / conversational, but it’s taken a lot to get it // this way.” In the same poem she speaks at some length about making a casserole, which isn’t so easy either. I’m not sure if making a casserole is a metaphor for writing poetry or if writing poetry is a metaphor for making a casserole. I can’t do either. But if you think that writing plain, straightforward, and conversational poetry is a walk in the park, try writing a Jenny Bornholdt pastiche and see how far you get:
The waitress in the coffee shop (her name is Maria –
I know this because David calls her Maria) says,
“Such a handsome young man. You should be proud.” Well,
she doesn’t really say that, but she could have said that.
Anyway, she says something almost like that, and I remember
when the waitresses thought that I was a handsome
Atrocious? You bet. Making it look easy is the hard part, and it’s just as hard if the poet tends to produce, as Bornholdt does, “a great sprawling / thing” rather than a small compressed thing. Elsewhere in The Rocky Shore she writes, “People often ask about the form of a poem and I usually say something like // the poem finds its own form” – which could be, and often has been, a rationalization for the worst sort of indulgence. And yet in the course of one representative stanza (from the fifth poem in the book, “A long way from home”) Bornholdt moves easily from a hospital bed to a supermarket checkout line to a memory of early childhood, with its nascent perceptions of an ordering consciousness – from the excruciating to the banal to the subtly epistemological. I wouldn’t call that indulgent:
I was a long way
from home. White bed
in the A & E Department. Someone saying
I’ll get the morphine
from the trauma trolley. Someone else
A cup of tea? I am visited by an African
orthopaedic specialist – male – with the unlikely
but appropriate name of Joy. In London
my sister has her groceries checked at the supermarket
by a young woman named Comfort.
I lie still, remember the child who said
It’s like those times when you wake
then slide into thinking. Yes. I slide and remember
reading. How, as a child, books were the lens
through which I eyed the muddy track to adulthood.
I read for language and the way the words gathered
to make story. I read to understand and not
Similarly unindulgent is Bornholdt’s treatment of a serious illness, which for a time leaves her paralyzed but the nature or even name of which we never learn. A few lines here or there – “Outside of myself. // Pain taking up all the air in the room” — suffice to convey more than enough agony. We can imagine the rest. In “Big Minty Nose” she writes, “Pain, // pleasure, pleasure, pain. That seems to be / how it goes.” Indeed it does. Besides, as these poems know all too well, there are always others who agonize more. In the hospital where her father lies dying there is “a ward full of people / with the kinds of scars on their heads / you would never / have thought possible.” And although the title of the opening poem, “Confessional,” slyly invokes the Lowell/Plath/Sexton mode of madness, despair, and rage, the seamiest revelation it contains is that the poet sometimes yells at her children – “At the eldest because he continues to leave his / wet towel in a heap on the floor, despite my saying // many times it won’t dry there.”
Deeply intimate yet scrupulously reserved – such is the confessional mode as practiced by Jenny Bornholdt. There are writers who would sooner confess to rape, murder, or incest than to the sort of ordinariness that Bornholdt ruefully acknowledges as the donnée of her existence:
Today while the pasta sauce was cooking
I iced a chocolate cake, dried the dishes and vacuumed
half the living room. Put coffee on, hung out the washing
and put a second load on. Our son Jack rang
from Auckland, laughed, told me he didn’t go
to the boobs on bikes parade because he had to attend
an ethics lecture. I made afghans and remembered
I had to remember a dental appointment. Sometimes,
to make my life more interesting, I empty the dishwasher
in the afternoon, instead of the morning.
(“Big Minty Nose”)
She also curates literary exhibitions, lectures at writers’ conferences, and wins a fellowship that brings her and her family to Menton, France, but it’s the ordinary stuff – the gardening, the shopping, the illnesses, the friendships – that compels her keenest attention. For her, that’s where the poetry is.
Although the life may be ordinary, the art isn’t. One advantage of Bornholdt’s apparent randomness is its temporal flexibility. These are long poems written over long periods of time. Weeks, months, even years may separate the beginning of a poem from its end. A stanza may begin in the near past, look ahead to the near future, look further back to the distant past, and from there look toward the distant future, which is now the present. Or was. Bornholdt doesn’t need a whole poem to convey the process of living in time. She can do it in a seven-line stanza:
After the storm, blossoms stuck to the window
like confetti. We’re about to go to Waitarere Beach
and my mother tells me that the last time she was there
was with my father, the weekend before their wedding.
The two of them went with friends and sat on the sand
talking about the future. The future. Here we are in it,
some of us, some of us not.
(“The Rocky Shore”)
It may be that the world has other things on its mind than the touching, brave, and lyrical ruminations of a middle-aged poet from New Zealand. What the world wants – or what that part of the world wants that still reads literature – is prose fiction, namely, novels with nicely turned plots and more or less “realistic” characters. If a fluent prose style and a certain intellectual pressure can be added to the mix, so much the better, though for many readers the absence of these latter two qualities isn’t exactly a deal breaker. Since I spend a good part of my life reading novels precisely of this high to middle sort, I thrill as much as anyone to an accomplished work of fiction – the “one bright book of life,” as D. H. Lawrence called it.
Yet doesn’t everyone get a little fed up sometimes with the conventions the genre demands – with what, as Ian McEwan put it in the New Republic, “imaginary Henry said or did to nonexistent Sue, and Henry’s lonely childhood, his war, his divorce, his ecstasy and struggle with the truth and how he’s a mirror to his age”? McEwan has written many good novels, so if even he wearies of the effort to suspend disbelief, there must be many more readers who would turn with relief to lyric poetry, which has its own conventions but generally dispenses with imaginary Henrys and nonexistent Sues and the machinery that keeps them in motion.
First, however, they have to give it a chance, and if they gave Jenny Bornholdt a chance they might find the sort of memorable expression of thought and emotion they get from prose fiction but without the contrivances of plot. If Bornholdt wants to say something about the poignancy of aging, she doesn’t need to invent characters with more or less elaborate back stories and then construct a plot around them. She just says it:
On Saturday (the one we started with) I was walking home
along the waterfront noticing the young women and their beautiful
skin and the way their bodies are so firm and lovely
and I remembered that we used to look like that
though I never gave it much thought at the time. It wasn’t until
age started that I realised I too would wrinkle and fold and
mark and that everything would settle down and sure enough
Of course, she says it with due reference to rhythm and form and sound value, and if you’re not interested in such things, you’re probably not interested in poetry. But I believe that good readers are interested in such things, and the notion that some primal human instinct ties us ineluctably and above all else to story ignores the notion that some primal human instinct ties us ineluctably to language.
Anyway, there’s plenty of story in The Rocky Shore. It’s the story of a middle-aged wife and mother in New Zealand who happens to be a poet and who tries to treasure the fleeting moments as her youth recedes, her children grow, and her loved ones sicken and die – all our stories, the Greatest Story Ever Told. You’ll have to work to piece this story together, but it’s worth it, and along the way you’ll find moments when it’s impossible to distinguish the beauty of poetry from the beauty of life:
This morning, on the waterfront, the couple who run
bound at the wrist. After a few mornings I realised
he was blind. She talks him through it. The sky
is lightening. It’s very calm and beautiful.
Do you think it’s going to be a good day?
Yes, I think it is.
(“The Rocky Shore”)
Stephen Akey is the author of College, Library, and A Guide to My Record Collection. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.