Small Stories of Devotion, by Dinah Hawken
Reviewed by Andrew Johnston
The path she's on is deserted. So is
It's tempting to use these lines as a way of describing the experience of reading Dinah Hawken's second book of poems. The fresh, starkly honest, eerily calm voice that relates to us the book's tiny narratives of dream, myth, everyday observations, can be a disorienting voice; it is new and, at first, unfamiliar; to meet it half-way one must leave behind a few expectations; old maps of poetry don't serve much purpose. But the foliage isn't so dense, really: it's a light, airy sort of walk, and there's plenty more to see than vines and ferns and mosses—the bush is full of ghosts, gods, friends and family (and other "wild-life") acting out some ordinary and extraordinary scenes. And from the outset we're offered some directions, some clues as to method and motive. Or are we?
I'll stop shuffling under my New Zealand
cool, I'll come out
I did think of using a new language but
What interests me most about Hawken's opening lines is their particular brand of self-consciousness. They amount to a carefully thought-out, self-reflexive statement of position that nevertheless deliberately subverts its own desire for lucidity: by the time we get to the fourth line, the pronouns "I", "she" and "you" have all become thoroughly shifty.
Several things are important here. It's obviously Hawken who wants "to talk simply and to reach" us, but the shifty pronouns signal that she doesn't want to use an unproblematic, "sincere" poetic subject as her primary vehicle for talking about the self. Instead she will use (and mix) fiction, dream, myth to "tell" the self (or should that be selves) by showing some of its (their) adventures and relationships—internal and external, conscious and unconscious. In doing so she covers a vast amount of territory, and visits a huge range of emotions and psychological states, from rapturous celebration to grief, from anger to wry humour, from arousal to triumph.
That she can do so without relying on some of the more brittle, over-used poetic modes—shaky lyric sincerity, windy discursiveness, taciturn objectivism—is only part of her achievement, which is as refreshing in its matter as in its method. Hawken's overriding concern, I think, is to enact the self's never-ending struggle towards some sort of reconciliation (or at least a viable co-existence) among its conflicting impulses. It's a spiritual concern that borders on the religious, but in the same way that she eschews simple lyric stances, Hawken is not satisfied with striking transcendental notes. What is sought is a kind of grace, but the way to get it is not by transcending, momentarily, the tribulations of earthly life, but to face them squarely, to work through them. The epigraph to the book points the way:
We will have to live within
that we have
The project is a Jungian one, especially in its use of Jungian symbolism, of dream and of myth. "Myth is more individual and expresses life more precisely than does science," Jung says in the prologue to Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Like other significant contemporary poets, Hawken takes risks in order to "express life more precisely", to enact more truthfully the struggle to live within our limits. And it seems to me she is one of the few—here or anywhere—who have realised the importance of a thorough-going self-consciousness to such a mimetic endeavour. Her poetry is very different from that of American poet John Ashbery, but her name could almost be substituted for his in this passage from Charles Altieri's book Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry (Cambridge University Press, 1984):
"For Ashbery, mimesis entails multiplicity, entails capturing the many levels of diction and explanatory possibilities (each involving a different modality of self-consciousness) that 'reflect the maximum of my experience when I'm writing.' The motive here is not to represent confusion but to dramatise qualities of mind, shifts of emotional levels, and possible structures of coherence among dispersed particulars and interpretive codes." (p137)
That last sentence, especially, describes accurately what Hawken also aims for and achieves. But whereas Ashbery (with whom Hawken has studied) often prices himself out of a job, as the saying goes, by the demands his high-octane rush of metaphor places on his readers, Hawken (like Adrienne Rich) "is asking to be under/stood". We're lucky to have a poet of her stature working in this country.
© Andrew Johnston