Review: Guarding the Flame reviewed by Vaughan Rapatahana for a fine line, The Magazine of the New Zealand Poetry Society, January 2012
Let me make this quite clear right from the outset: Majella Cullinane can write; she is a damned good poet.
This is a quite quiet, understated, mellow collection; the whole tone reflects one of the thematic obsessions here: Autumn. Indeed there is a continual reflection on falling leaves, and the soft autumnal tones of this season – as witness titles such as ‘Leaves’, ‘Autumn Is Where You Find It’, ‘Autumn’s End’.
There is no bombast here, no overly academic accent on arcane and archaic allusions, nor is there deliberate obscurity or the pilfering of other languages so as to make the verse ‘politically correct’. This is not an extended exercise in pretentiousness.
Instead we sight some outstanding imagery throughout. Let me quote some examples, albeit shaken by me into isolation from their surrounding boughs:
a wind last seen, sliding its forked tongue
through a net
windmills dotted for miles,
the quixotic territory of love
only the wooden eye of a table stared back
the hours closing down for the night
Only the sun
being the star she is, and
too quick to ignite,
folds her coppery tongue
in envy and does not speak.
the bones of the house shaken
by winter’s Voodoo priest
to startle the fading eyelids of the day
Outside trees take deep breaths,
clothes on a line grieve for bodies
they will never own.
There is also here, even more predominant than the reflections on falling leaves and the daubing of concomitant natural hues flecked with appearances of New Zealand native birds, a steady series of ruminations on what it is like to be a recent immigrant to Aotearoa-New Zealand: for Cullinane is an Irishwoman now faaaaaar from home. Indeed, this book is published by Salmon Poetry, County Clare.
Cullinane misses her turangawaewae (place of origin, genesis) quite badly; she is now ‘the orphan leaf, tossed from a branch’; wonders why she is in a home where there is:
Nothing here of beginnings,
of extraction, or nation; the curled fern frond
on the deck as unconvinced as I ...
& pines stringently for her Northern climes, her Northern pines:
But you wanted to say it straight,
talk your way out of unbelonging, whisper yourself
into the leaves, the branches, the bark of a familiar pine,
to the call of birds flying northward.
Entire poems in this succinct collection cry her earlier home – ‘Not So far Behind’ and ‘Rooms’, for example, and especially, ‘A Distant Shore’ with its pangs and pains of being so far asunder:
No more fuss from kakas [sic]
parading the trees in crimson collars and dark-edge feathers,
no rain on a corrugated iron roof, tap, tapping into her heart.
an old heart map she clings to,
bays and inlets from another hemisphere impressed there.
A stranger in a strange land indeed. Robert Heinlein would be proud.
There are other reflections here, of course – pregnancy and impending birth; butterflies, butterflies and more butterflies, even to the extent of incorporating that mighty lepidopterist, Vladimir Nabokov; Irish mythologies and traditions, but nothing as potent as this wistful alienation. Let me quote one more poem, here in its entirety:
Suppose I ask of you
what you make of me
walking this clover grass,
tasting the salty
periwinkles of another
in my mouth?
To borrow from Mike O’Leary, kia ora begorrah Majella. Despite your angst you are well on the way to full integration into the antipodal Aotearoa lifestyle. These are fine poems, real poems, honest poems. Foster the fires and warm yourself in that Kapiti home as Autumn drifts down to see his brother Winter. Keep guarding that flame. For, as you state it so well yourself:
of flame is the matador’s cloak enticing a charge,
just as in this room now shadows are charged with light,
and the rain that would drench the skin damp,
will later arouse the blood to warmth and glow.
Review: Guarding the Flame reviewed by Siobhan Harvey for Poetry NZ, Issue 44.
Guarding The Flame, Majella Cullinane, is the first full collection by a New-Zealand-based Irish author. It's a book underpinned by Cullinane's arresting use of language and imagery, as exemplified by the opening poem, 'Butterfly' which begins evocatively:
Only to say the thought comes
on a winter's morning, at a train station.
The sky is an ashen blue, reeds murmur
behind a track, a bark tails a car...
Time and again, as in verse such as the titular poem, 'The Kiss' and 'Autumn's End' the seemingly simple is transformed into something powerful. Thematically this combination of the unadorned and resonant finds fullest voice where the poems traverse issues of expatriation. 'Ruru', 'Emigrants', 'Memory of Birds', 'Paekakariki', 'Desert Road': here are poems which weave together a cogent philosophical exploration of migrant life. A first New Zealand collection is surely the next logical step for this promising poet.
The Force of Things by Majella Cullinane
I have tapped the arch of the scapula
where the skin dips
to the breastbone.
are the quivering feathers
rustling eucalyptus, macrocarpa, pine.
It’s a question of listening:
the guttural call of your dreams
a kind of offering
I nestle in the cup of my hands.
I snatch the ghost of things
you cannot see.
It is this that frightens you.
The wind holds its blade
against the night’s throat,
but like you, it too will soon forget –
the taste of my lips
buoyed in a gully of dreams.
"The Force of Things" first appeared in Takake 71, ed. Siobhan Harvey, and was published in Majella Cullinane's collection Guarding the Flame (Salmon Publishing 2011). It is reproduced here by permission of the author.
Majella Cullinane is an Irish poet who has recently emigrated to New Zealand. I heard her read her poetry at September's New Zealand Poetry Society meeting in Wellington, enjoyed hearing her poems very much, bought her debut collection Guarding the Flame, and am very pleased I did.
There are a lot of fine poems in this book, and I had a hard time deciding which of them to ask Majella for permission to publish as a Tuesday Poem, but I kept coming back to "The Force of Things". I like the way it takes the images of the natural world that recur through the collection and makes them both intimate and ominous. Restlessness without and restlessness within...
The poems in Guarding the Flame cover the poet's old life in Ireland, her new life in New Zealand, and the transition between the two. It's well worth reading if you like Irish poetry or New Zealand poetry - or if you just like poetry.
Tim Jones is the editor of this week's Tuesday Poem. Tim is a poet, author and editor who lives in Wellington, New Zealand, and won the NZSA Janet Frame Memorial Award for Literature in 2010. He is about to embark on a book tour with Keith Westwater, to launch Tim's new collection Men Briefly Explained and Keith's debut collection Tongues of Ash. This week, one of Tim's poems from Men Briefly Explained is Mary McCallum's Tuesday Poem, and next week Tuesday Poet Helen Lowe will post one on her blog.