A life lived in pause
Lynley Edmeades's 'As the Verb Tenses'
As the Verb Tenses is interested in varieties of distance — physical, temporal, emotional. As a collection, it seems not always certain whether to embrace or to overcome these distances. There is insight to be gained in the cultivation of detachment, it suggests; but might there be something lost in moments of hesitation?
The first poem of the collection, “Imperial,” is a testament to such tension, and to the collection’s record of this ongoing argument. It provides us with an aerial view of that ambivalent postcolonial moment — the New Zealander’s arrival in London. The poem begins with an extended simile: the lights of this often-imagined city are like marbles that have rolled together into cracks and fissures in its surface. It’s a well-behaved but pleasingly acute image. At the core of the poem, though, is an awareness that the distance that allows this neat descriptive trick might be linked to disappointment. It is this perspective, after all, that reveals the city as “finite” and leaves the speaker feeling “the way a child might, / when her marbles have been counted, put away.”
This argument continues throughout the collection. The speakers of these poems tend to place themselves at a consciously cultivated remove from the social world. They occupy a stilled awareness that emerges via highly crafted observation. Yet the poems also remain perplexed by their careful acts of attention. Should experience or memory be captured in order to tell a story and thus achieve a moment of communion with the reader, or should remembering follow other, more personal, ends? Perhaps a poem delves into the past in order to stir up its embers? Or perhaps it could function as a device to decode that which remains hidden? In other words, these are poems that are not content with incidental epiphany, bathos, social consanguinity, daze, or dismay — they leave aside much of the tonal palette of the anecdotal poems that are dominant in New Zealand poetry at present. Instead, they are selective and purposeful: they are in the process of working something out. Physical objects emerge in this collection not simply as evidence of the prosaic or the dazzlingly replete nature of the everyday. Rather, they are tools, material with which one might go to work.
In “The Order of Things,” for example, we are again concerned with distance — the temporal distance from experience that allows us to “forget the three, four, five / of the way things have been” (12). The poem enacts its own thesis: in order to keep memories present, in order to renew their purchase, one must reenter their “order.” If you can just put things back into the right pattern, they might remain “alive.” Here, then, individual memories are treated not as emotionally revelatory in their own right, but as pieces of a bigger machine with intricate component parts: “I remember my sister wanting some Levi’s / and the Christmas that Mum gave us a kayak” (12), the speaker tells us, as if pushing the car of memory along, coaxing the engine to turn over. However, in the poem, the correct configuration is elusive, the engine never fires, and the speaker is left trudging along in the dust: “It’s difficult to keep the order alive / when I get confused with the three, four, five.”
“Whites Road” similarly rehearses and rearranges the sensory and linguistic objects of memory. These objects are — again — tools, and are approached with a kind of affectless detachment:
There’s a yellow house
inside a wide green paddock.
The porch is rusted red
and the door is a ranchslider.
It’s 1985. (13)
In this poem we do reach a defining moment — a flirtation with anecdotal or lyric uplift — yet the poem’s climax ultimately remains a lesson about distance, discrimination, and ambivalence. The poem recalls a childhood incident in which the father leaves his handbrake off, and his truck crashes into a tree. The children impassively survey the damage and chuck the spilled cargo of firewood back into the truck. Talking it over with his wife at dinner, the father supplies two summary responses to the situation. “They’re good kids,” he says, and then, with a typically “kiwi” note of lackadaisical conclusion: “She’ll be right” (15, emphasis in original). The mother demurs to both suggestions. The poem ends with her two inconclusive “half-nod[s]” in response. What this means remains unclear. The children are good kids, yes, but perhaps they are not entirely or simply good kids. Things will be “right,” yes, but perhaps they will not be quite all right. The mother’s response enshrines a kind of in-betweenness, a decision not to accede, to remain detached. This is not denial; it is waiting.
This mode is, in fact, distinctive of the collection as a whole. The speaker of these poems is typically waiting and is typically alone. Social interactions come about, but when they do, they are a temporary collision between the static speaker and a friend in flux or passing through. Thus, “Faute de Mieux” charts the arrival of a nomadic, roaming friend into the speaker’s solitude (“walled up here, / in this holiday spot while there’s no one on holiday, / except myself” ). The poem celebrates the wonderful, temporary “inflation” of friendship, yet ultimately lingers in its own slow pause, its repose, its question. In “Northern Light,” we meet another friend adept at life-as-narrative propulsion: “her chatting / made movies of afternoons” (41). Here, too, the speaker is conscious of her own more passive surrender to time’s slow progress: an immersion in days in which “even the light / looks bored” and in which “the ennui shows through, like a bra under a blouse” (41). A series of similar encounters occurs in “La Strada,” where the speaker stages a series of meetings with friends whose lives are in motion, caught up in story: “an old friend, her new baby. / Another place, a new couple” (42). The speaker of these poems might be moving, but ultimately towards an increased stillness: “I’m headed for my own haunt — a space / to gather dust in, spread myself, like glue” (42).
Again the question resurfaces: what is this pause and detachment for? It’s a question that continues to cause the speaker some disquiet, particularly when it’s experienced — somewhat contradictorily — while away from “home.” These are poems that, for all their trend toward stasis, do travel. As the Verb Tenses is comfortably cosmopolitan, charting trips to London, Ireland, Russia. However, even while journeying, the work of the speaker is not simply “being a tourist” (33). The speaker behaves in these locations in the same fashion as in the reflective, family-based poems. She waits, and she records. Thus, in “Lake Baikal,” her observations that “In the afternoon, peasant women set up shop / beside their streetside fish smokers” (33), or that “from here you can see / where the mountain range begins” (33), are not charming evocation of local color, but a record of the inescapable ordinariness and ennui of daily life, wherever you are in the world. Being a tourist is pointless because life here is just as saturated in confounding detail, just as lacking in immediacy and conflagration as anywhere:
It’s like bathing in clothes,
kissing a lover through a handkerchief. (33)
A similar sentiment animates “Cregagh Road,” a poem that again battles through a thicket of detail, while remaining uncertain what the anachronistic act of recording might yield.
It’s small and full of people,
breakfast smells — sausages, bacon, the pork
fattiness of that. They give me a scone from yesterday
to have with my coffee, and I’m back out the door. (24)
Such poems momentarily flirt with the Frank O’Hara “I do this, I do that” mode, but they ultimately resist the flare, the final breathless updraft, the moment in which observations flicker and connect. Instead they keep up their pursuit, they continue their scrutiny, always alert to the possibility that there might be some correct or corrective order that would set the whole thing alight.
In these ways, the collection as a whole at times suggests a poetic in the act of finding itself. Yet what makes it particularly exciting is the handful of poems that clue us in to what Edmeades’s watchful poetic might ultimately achieve. The poems I refer to are those works that embrace their own tendency toward detachment and do so with a tougher, more obdurate edge. “Albatross,” for example, draws a portrait of the speaker and an old friend in the process of neither communicating nor connecting. As they talk, the friend divulges more and more of her detail-oriented life, and the space between the two yawns:
In the second hour, we got to her kids:
lunch boxes and the cost of school uniforms
the making of hobby and sporting decisions,
whether or not there’ll be any more kids.
She said things like it’s just hard sometimes
to know what’s right and when you have children … (49)
As with many of the other poems, the speaker remains trapped in her own observing state. Yet, here we begin to see the worth of such a position: it provides the vantage point for hard insight. Only the speaker is able to look through and beyond this barrage of detail. In doing so she perceives a relationship on the point of collapse, a dialogue that masks a deeper silence, perhaps even a guilt that “shrinks and grows, shrinks and grows / like the wingspan of an albatross, / an albatross” (49). The dark lyricism here feels like something new, a signal departure from the collection’s nearly uniform meticulousness.
A similar realization occurs in “During” — my favorite in the book. Again, this is a poem that draws a direct connection between the painful state of personal distance and the deeply personal moment of insight. The speaker walks her niece and nephew to school for the first time. The children are skirting the basketball court, watching, trying to judge their own place in a new territory. Their very presence here in the schoolyard is evidence of the relentlessness of time, which “has rushed past, like this Wellington wind / has swept them up and their parents up / and their grandparents and me up” (38). Yet, while the speaker might have been “swept up” like all the others in time’s forward rush, she has — perhaps more than any of them — become familiar with its interstices and pauses. That there is loss built into such a position is clear in the poem. These children, as the poem reminds us, are not the speaker’s own:
Perhaps it says less about them than me —
the twins who have occupied niece and nephew
space for five years of my lengthening life —
that it is lengthening and these children
are not mine. (38)
Yet it is this state of conscious detachment — the dwelling within the rarefied, gentle, yet forever-at-a-remove love for children that are not one’s own — that allows the poem its power. The speaker’s distance is what enables her hard-won observation and insight: the ability to look unblinkingly into the bright, passing moments that make up life’s ongoing narrative. “During,” the speaker explains to her five-year-old charges, is “the way things happen inside time … Like now / and now, and now” (39)
This is a collection that weighs, with care and assiduity, what it means to turn such scrutiny on the experience of living, and asks what can and cannot be found in such moments of “during.” It ultimately reveals the simultaneous cost and value of a life lived in this pause.