A Last-Ditch Calligraphy


In the Supplementary Garden by Diana Bridge (Cold Hub Press, 2016), 192 pp., $39.95; Fish Stories by Mary Cresswell (Canterbury University Press, 2015), 132 pp., $25; Anatomize by Natasha Dennerstein (Norfolk Press, 2015), 74 pp., US$14.95

I’m not sure what the technical term is for when a poem hits you in the brain; when you read a particular phrase and your whole mind stops and goes: ‘… huh’. And it’s like the light on a square moves, and you realise it’s actually a cube. Whatever that is, Diana Bridge does it. A lot. From ‘A book of screens’:

She celebrates herself

in an arc of tea …

(Ever since I read that, each time I pour out a cup of tea, I think: I am celebrating myself.)

Diana Bridge’s In the Supplementary Garden has been edited by Robert McLean for Cold Hub Press, and he says he chose these new and selected poems to demonstrate Bridge’s best and most diverse work, drawing on her five previous books published over the past 20 years. In her introduction, Janet Hughes describes Bridge’s poetry as ‘uncompromising’, and I think that’s absolutely right. From ‘Court poem of almost any period’:

Behind it all is someone else’s image,

repeatedly breaking the surface.

The other keyword here is ‘serious’. As I worked my way slowly through the nearly 170 pages of In the Supplementary Garden, I began to fall under the spell of Bridge’s seriousness. She is, I was unsurprised to learn from the author bio, an academic; she has a PhD in classical Chinese poetry, has researched early Indian art history, amongst other things, and has taught at Hong Kong University in the Chinese department. She has lived in many different countries, and, I gather from reading her poems, has taken the nature and culture of each country very seriously. From ‘The route’:

… to read the sharp calligraphy

of birds carved on the air, to ambush

nature into telling, you need to stay

in one place for more than a year.

Many of Bridge’s poems are her responses to particular artworks or landscapes. I imagine her standing in a garden with a clipboard, frowning earnestly, and bringing the entire weight of her intellect and experience to bear on a single flower. She considers not just this particular flower, but also the history of flowers, and the history of poems about flowers. She thoughtfully weighs up what poetry can and cannot do to illuminate and communicate her complex artistic response to this flower. She then crafts poetic lines and images that somehow bring it all together in a way that pulls the reader towards her and insists ‘focus on this’. From ‘Sequence, Sarnath’:

It’s obvious, I’d say; you like your statue leavened

with a dash of theory. I am simply addicted to looking.

From ‘Closing the border 2’:

… an unidentifiable fragrance

blows across centuries

demanding a precise response.

From ‘Jars, bubble bowls and bottle vases’:

The more we gaze, the more we want a story

… the mind decides what it sees.

From ‘French doors’:

We trim a thought still, crop a word, as we fit half to

half, hoping to find a symmetry that jolts the heart

and soothes the mind with the illusion of completion.

We lean on matter till it morphs into a bird.

From ‘Spider lily’:

The base of the calyx is all autumn.

Bone-thinned limbs twist and splay over

dribbles of string: a last-ditch calligraphy


Fish Stories by Mary Cresswell, edited by Emma Neale, came out in May last year and is Cresswell’s fourth book. It has been beautifully produced by Canterbury University Press, with excellent art direction by Aaron Beehre and design by Jose Sanchez and Gemma Banks at the Ilam School of Fine Arts Graphic Design programme. I particularly liked the bronze gloss on the cover, which was echoed throughout the book by the orange-coloured font of each poem’s title. Unfortunately, the book’s physical form turned out to be the thing I liked best about it.

Cresswell’s poems, on the whole, just didn’t connect with me, and I think this is at least partly due to the poetic forms she has chosen. Many of her poems are glosas, a form that starts with a few lines of someone else’s poem and then incorporates these into a new poem. I invariably found the few lines of other poets’ work more interesting than Cresswell’s own.

In her foreword Cresswell writes: ‘This collection is built from my various experiments with the ghazal form in English, which themselves grew from wondering how far it can be pushed before it is no longer “a ghazal” … These poems do not trace narratives. Rather, they present the general state of mind and spirit from which individual verses develop and, in so doing, come closer than cold reason can to saying the unsayable.’ (In case you – like me – are unfamiliar with the term ‘ghazal’, according to Wikipedia it is an ancient poetic form originating in Arabic poetry comprising rhyming couplets and a refrain, with each line sharing the same metre.)

Cresswell is interested in ecology and has worked as a science editor. Many of her poems are about natural disasters. Lesley Wheeler says in her puff quote for Fish Stories that ‘Sometimes [Cresswell’s] slant-rhymed poems mimic an environment gone haywire, its patterns fragmenting.’ And it’s certainly true that confusion often reigns.

From ‘Grey ghazal’:

We built up the levees again and again

but it came: a hellish forever of rain,

from May through maybe December the flood.

The publisher’s blurb for Fish Stories says Cresswell ‘combines humour with serious comment to engage and connect with her reader’, which, even allowing for the publisher’s natural partiality, I found to be a genuinely surprising claim. I didn’t spot any funny bits.

From ‘Aftermath’:

Your nouns all rot and turn to verbs. Your useless syntax rocks

on its edge. Your least ejaculations are spilling lies.

From ‘Waiting room’:

I assume I’m exempt because I sit around all day,

reading thrillers, writing predictable ghazals.

It’s interesting that Cresswell describes her work as ‘predictable’ because she does indeed rely heavily on repetition.

From ‘Earthquake Weather’:

Search for your roots, they said back in the day.

No one mentioned how ghosts slip back in the day.


Daisies and dahlias inhabit bright fields.

Night-blooming jasmine falls slack in the day.


We bloom in the evening, diamante and dreams

but don’t always get the knack of the day.

And so on for three more couplets – you get the idea. By the end of this poem, which is near the end of the book, these kinds of rhymes were driving me mad with irritation. I find it interesting too that in her foreword Cresswell explicitly distances her work from reason, because, even though the language she uses is pretty straightforward, I often felt I didn’t understand what she was trying to tell me. I could have used a bit more rationality, more rigour.

Natasha Dennerstein is a formerly Wellington-based poet, and her first collection of poetry, Anatomize, was published last October in San Francisco by Norfolk Press. It is an absolute delight (although slightly let down by the publisher’s low production values, including the frequent misuse of hyphens where there should be en dashes).


As the title suggests, Anatomize is a collection of poems written in a variety of forms about the human body: bones, blood, organs, skin, hair, teeth, flesh. The poems bounce with energetic creativity and vivid images, featuring scientific terminology mixed in with inventive neologisms.

From ‘Alimentary’:

And even if the digested nectarine

does its devilish catfish wriggle

across your transverse colon and through

your treacherous jungles of bowels

it will not lose its nectarinity.

Although Dennerstein’s poems are wonderfully alive, and about physical human life, they also consider death and decay.

From ‘Body of work’:

Your body brought elation till it was

ready for cremation. All that remains

returned to me, rattling rectangular


plastic box of you, your skin

and muscle ashes, but bony bits

intact. I play bones with your knuckles,


knuckles with your bones.

I love Dennerstein’s repeated use of alliteration and rhyme in this poem; it brings the poem together and holds it to itself, mirroring the way the corpse in the poem has been condensed into a casket.

From ‘Choreography of skeletonism’:

You have a strong desire

to sashay around in your bones, to

see them work it in X-ray vision –


neon ultramarine in an on-screen

regime. You want to digitally film

yourself and play it back on You

tube. Be humerus: do the splits.

This was another of my favourites. I really like the way Dennerstein takes the image of the skeleton, which could be macabre, and makes it lively and funny – and I particularly love the play on ‘humerus’.

Although Dennerstein’s language is riotous, she maintains a control of form. Villanelles are one of my favourite kinds of poems, and in ‘Voodoo villanelle’ Dennerstein absolutely nails it. The repetition, rhyme and sly variation build to a creepy climax of black magic and obsession.

Of the three poets, I found Dennerstein the most entertaining, and Bridge the most illuminating. As the latter says in the poem ‘Composing by colour’: ‘Madam, I took you for a barge steered towards illumination.’ I am inclined, then, to let Bridge have the last word.

From ‘Vase in the Chinese style’:

Do you see there a forest of separate notes?

An underworld of souls? I have searched

everywhere but further than this I cannot go.