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Fancy Dancing: New and Selected Poems 2004-2020 by Bernadette Hall

This is Bernadette Hall’s eleventh collection of poetry, so I am very late to reading my first. Luckily, this volume contains some small selections from four previous works, so I was able to see some of what I had been missing. I have certainly left it too long. There are some beautiful poems here, and their beauty is their simplicity. Direct language, stunning creation of place and atmosphere and a lasting sense that you have been on a journey with the poet.

I was lucky enough to hear Bernadette read one or two of her poems in Christchurch at the recent Word Festival. Had I not heard them and instantly liked them, I might never have picked up this volume. Of the five poets who read at the session, the only note that I made about Bernadette was that she was “most attuned to the country and the landscape.” She had tales of beach-side living in a place that may be uninhabitable in another thirty years.

The sense of simple words is illustrated by a poem from the 2009 collection ‘The Lustre Jug’; this is taken from “Lost”:

“That’s how it goes some days,

don’t you reckon.

You wander the streets of a city

that’s no longer your own.

You look at a map

and all the words are in German.

You ask a stranger

where the hills have gone

and he bursts out laughing.”

My other favourites were taken from the New Poems. This one is called ‘Actaeon’, and I love the way that it plays with old classical mythology, Māori, and modern ideas:

He gives a little yelp of excitement when he sees her

walking quickly over the gravel track

across the boardwalk around the lagoon that’s called

Mimi Moto. The Little Pissing-hole.

He sees the hare spring up in the blackberry tangle,

how it leaps among the lupins and over

the tall grasses. He sees how the clouds drift,

the cloud-wrack, cloud-burst, cloud-scape, cloudberry.

He’s cloudy and cloudless, poor boy, and all

at the very same time so it must be love. And he whistles

to his dogs but they don’t know him anymore

and they take him for the hare, for he has seen her

naked and she’s set them onto him, his own dogs, poor boy.

The title of the collection, ‘Fancy Dancing’ is a collection of twenty-five sonnets, each numbered and telling a rich story. Right at the start we encounter Phaedra, who has a new tattoo. To set the scene we have this:

“Now finally

it’s time to clear the deck, hang out the dirty linen,

divvy up the consequences and all the other small change.”

There is a great deal to discover in these twenty-five verses. Wide ranging and covering tracks, but leaving little clues in the-subheadings such a ‘Easter Sunday, Co. Cork’ or ‘in conversation with the little cherry tree’ and ‘from the hymnal of short-tongued alpine bees”.

The other thing to really enjoy about this collection are the illustrations by Robyn Webster. There are six full colour plates through the text, suggestions of shapes and figures, of movement within landscapes, of trees and webs and fish-traps. All are delightful.

Victoria University Press, RRP $30

Reviewed by Marcus Hobson


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