The Lonely Nude
by Emily Dobson (Victoria University Press, $25)
Reviewed by Vaughan Rapatahana
This is a somewhat eclectic and often uneven second collection from a Hawkes bay-based poet: a mixture of poems that ‘work’ and a few that do not quite ‘hit the spot’, so to speak.
At her best, Dobson writes with an economical and elliptical panache, a honed skillsaw craftswomanship that quite delights. Take for example the poem “Like biting into stones, like rough sheets” – here in its entirety:
Like biting into stones, like rough sheets
I did not wash the spinach,
so the spinach was gritty.
Small stones sang in our teeth.
The new blue sheet
has pilled something chronic.
And the rain – it’s
really coming down,
after so long.
You, the sound of water,
in the other room –
a passing whistle.
There is a koan-ish, William Carlos Williams ambience to such work: the words and images hint at something more and never overstep the poetic mark. Dobson here also spreads her poem over a double page – a technique she intermittently does elsewhere also – the final stanza has an entire spare page to itself, given that in this slim volume such second page bits are also sometimes separate ‘found’ poems.
Dobson tends to cross-stitch several formats into the tapestry that is The Lonely Nude, by the way: there is prose, concrete verse, internal rhyme, namelisting, solitary stanza interpolated freely throughout. More, there is nothing too long, while a further condiment flavours via several snatches purloined and adopted/adapted from other writers – from Abraham Lincoln through Walt Whitman to Janet Frame; this poet is certainly not afraid to mix and match on her poetic skillet.
Other poems here, however, are not quite so wonderful. “O, spider! -“, for example comes across as rather glib, somewhat trite:
O, spider! –
building your web
between the Marist Society’s brick letterbox
and the tree –
I try to deliver the mail around it
but today my sleeve catches it
and tears half of it.
some days someone else has come
and cleared it
you are there the next day!
When the back cover blurb notes that ‘the poems in this collection [then] spent several years in Emily’s wardrobe’, I can quite believe it, after tasting these somewhat lesser morsels. Perhaps the poet just did not have sufficient materiel to conjure up a complete collection as impressive as her initial suchlike, namely “A Box of Bees”, from 2005?
Perhaps there is also an attempt to cover too many topic bases? The subject matter is extensive yet episodic and subdivided vaguely into seven sections – from vituperative sneering at Jude Law through a paean to Mother, to reminiscences of Mexico and beyond – and as earlier noted, the stylistic range is also rather extensive; but it all seems a little thinly spread and some poems don’t quite deliver accordingly.
Interestingly also, there is little that could be nominated as specifically Aotearoa-New Zealand in subject matter qua theme. Speaking of the latter also impels me to ask if the poet has a particular fixation with rain – many of the poems are concerned with downpours, showers, getting wet. She also seems to have a predilection for ‘bottom’; ‘anus’; ‘bum’ and ‘arse’ words!
Emily Dobson is most definitely master of her craft when she concentrates on tight personalized reflections of her own life scenes, such as when she was herself a lonely nude life model – these poems work more for me. Her more esoteric reflections and pseudo-postmodern wangles regarding how to write poems per se, such as “Notes: Paradoxical Undressing (hypothermia)”, tend to obfuscate and trip over their own feet.
If I had to My Kitchen Rules rate the collection, it certainly earns a sold passing mark somewhere about 6 or 7 – but I expected more from a poet who compiled a New Zealand Herald Book of the Year for her verse, albeit 9 years ago now.
Let’s end by going full circle – rather as Dobson does in her own book when harking back to being a nude model – by relaying/replaying another fine poem:
The house faces south
And we are crouched in the dark side of a hill.
The grass is long and always wet.
We envy the opposite: we long for its sun.
There are holes in it, tunnels,
like a pencil had been poked through.
The two pines are always black as pitch.
A guitar in the corner keeps creaking.
At night the little train all lit up inside
rattles briefly around the hill,
in and out of the tunnels.