Margaret Bradstock Reviews Possession by Anna Kerdijk Nicholson
by Anna Kerdijk Nicholson
Five Islands Press, 2010
ISBN 978 0 7340 4111 1
Reviewed by MARGARET BRADSTOCK
Following on from her poetic achievements of The Bundanon Cantos (FIP, 2003), and co-editorship of the journal Five Bells from 2000-2003, comes Anna Kerdijk Nicholson’s immaculately presented collection, Possession.
There are as many interpretations of Captain Cook as there are writers about him, each version taking on something of the personality and vision of the individual biographer. A tradition arises. As a Yorkshire-born woman herself, Kerdijk Nicholson is well positioned to grasp the underlying forces that went towards creating James Cook, navigator, and to express them through poetry:
From the first you knew it –
at Aireyholme Farm you knew. Out the door, up the hill,
you weren’t like the other lads…………………………
…………………………..You’d wind your scarf
across your chest and be out, round the curtain, through
the door, off into the wilding wicked stuff
and all the time your eyes were gathered to the coast
for you could smell it, touch it in your mind, that
which would let you leave this filthy soil and muck
behind and take your breath, your muscle, take
your lily-white body and brown arms off-shore
So long as you are let to live
you will mimic it: others stream before it,
shelter, or break, or are lifted up and carried away;
but you have let it into your bones so it flutes you.
You are, for this life’s breath, one,
and you take on its traits: you are whimsical,
caressing, cruel, strong, each of these things;
but above all, you are never wrong.
Three storylines interweave in this book – the literal journey undertaken by Cook; the philosophical or emotional response of protagonists, as represented in poems from the “lost manuscript”; and, finally, the poet/persona’s own voyage of self-discovery.
Like the chronicler Vanessa Collingridge, but at a deeper level of metaphysical apprehension, Kerdijk Nicholson follows Cook on his personal odyssey, experiencing and retrieving each stage of the journey :
Anchored: the time before dark is reflective. Candles
are lit in the Great Cabin, but the great black
is still visible and noises come from without
– which Banks’ dogs bark at – things
move at the corner of the eye. There’s enough light
inside for your standing apart to be shown
in the glass and for you to see the vastness outside.
You watch for the showing of unfamiliar stars.
The gentlemen work on. With daylight gone,
your time for charting’s done. You make your way
to the quarter-deck and wait for the track of a meteor,
once-only-given, and your unstoppable breath in:
A postcolonial slant on events allows us to go beyond recorded history, to subvert the chronological account with contemporary awareness:
You take possession of islands every day: every
thing within range of your eye seems capable of
dissolution and reconstitution at the tip of your pen.
It is ‘all for the Glory of God and for your King’,
they say; but only the sons of bitches could say that:
in this phosphorescent age, you are footprints on the moon.
The “lost manuscript” provides closer identification with the subject, a rendering of imagined thought processes and philosophical reflection, as in “You, the one who stands for us”:
What you started to measure, we have measured.
We have counted the words
of the world.
We have catalogued ourselves,
the outcomes of your dreams. (20)
or “Ambition is such a small thing”:
It is like the pip in the haw, hard
nor is there much flesh on it.
How is it that such a small thing
once it takes hold, hedges acres in?
If hacked at the base, slit
and laid, it still binds on,
thorny covetous bugger. (36)
“Today the distance between the threads of the net” enters into an imaginative re-creation of Cook’s state of mind after completion of his appointed tasks, the gap between intention and outcome:
Let us imagine it is the width of a chink of light
falling near her foot as she passes her husband’s door;
the worn dip in a butcher’s block on the Mile End Road;
the width of a carriage rut in the mud in York;
the fatness of folded secret orders from the Admiralty;
or perhaps as thin as a quill in an ink pot
on the St. Lawrence River; but how shall it be measured
now, and how will we know when it is done? (51)
The poet/persona’s own voyage of discovery parallels Cook’s, and is seamlessly interwoven into the narrative. Again it is about possession, the desire for appropriation, and the need to come to terms with these ambitions in some cognitive way. Like its namesake, A.S. Byatt’s Possession, the juxtaposed text reveals that research can, in the end, bring to light as much about the persona’s own story as it does about the subject. This progression emerges in the series of poems at Kangaroo Valley, and several in England and Torrox, Andalucia in the early 21st century, disturbing certainties and rearranging chronological ‘truths’ to create new meaning.
The different strands are interlinked by recurrent themes, motifs and references, which reverberate throughout the collection as a whole – preoccupations such as codes, maps, recording, measurement, even the reassuring barking of dogs. Pre-eminent is the cultural significance of naming, as though the act of naming might pin down an object/concept, allow ownership and prevent loss. This is exemplified in the poem “How strange to have a name, any name…”:
These huge blank territories are down to you to name.
Will those going where you have come before
touch the maps, lick their fingers and know you –
or just your salty aftertaste? (39)
Words themselves are signifiers, value laden, time and culture-specific, as in “Their words what the beads say”:
Do words have a price? Do they change
in value according to place or day? What does
with the Consent of the Natives mean?
Beads meaning ‘friendship’ or perhaps ‘no war’ are not
‘take our beads and you give informed consent’.
As language has no plumage or scent, how do you
reach the code-breaker for intent? (41)
This is one of the very few poems to register an Indigenous perspective, indirectly, via situational irony. The poem on p.42 is another. The overall lack of such representation is perhaps intentional, given that the collection is directed through the subjectivity of Cook.
Words can be obfuscating, hiding meaning, as in “Each word is a failure”:
Spills of madeira and wax
record events; words let you down.
You make a fair copy. Nor it nor your journal
get you where you were; not how you are,
or where you’d like to be…………………….
You are sick, of obfuscating lexicology. (46)
Naming is seen as no protection against loss:
When you’d got to the Cape, de Bougainville’s name
everywhere: how he gave Tahiti the Name
Cypre. Naming issued no protection.
Baptism didn’t stop your two being taken –
fragile life, one jolt and the future’s out,
bleeding at its parents’ feet. You press your eyes,
succumb to leaden Yorkshire skies.
She says, What’s the name of the place
We’ve just been through? You say you can’t recall
but does she think perhaps it will rain?
The ephemerality of words and their link to meaning, yet the need to pin down the unnameable, is encapsulated in the poem “It is difficult to live so long without words”:
There is a space on the table for a bowl
but that is all. The air is thick with words
breathed in, breathed out, read, some uttered;
some of them hooked up with meaning, carrying it
like a rosella’s tail; others still in their state of code,
There are books in the cabin with lists of meanings and uses:
attempts, laughable, made by one or a committee:
what do we know of words’ origins and where they might go? (49)
As a paradox to this questioning, Kerdijk Nicholson’s own linguistic pyrotechnics control the voyage of discovery and its meditations:
a celestial map, up is the flat black, fat black
glittering, not the stuff for feet and dirt.
then there’s trees and clouds and neighbours’ lights:
I’m not getting it at all, I’d lose myself if I had to navigate
back to the front door. Would I keep my eyes on
one constellation or its feature, follow it for all
I’m worth – but what about its pace, if I’m a liner or a dhow,
does it make a difference how I keep a grip on the pin pricks?
I start to muse on the same old stuff – we’re made from
the dust of stars, every bit of me’s recycled, I’m drinking
water which passed through other beings
many times before. What profound need or compulsion
would get me out there spotting Magellanic clouds?
Both narrative lines end with a sense of dubiety and loss, the ongoing futility and importance of human endeavour. In the wake of such iconic texts as James McAuley’s Captain Quiros and Kenneth Slessor’s Five Visions of Captain Cook, Kerdijk Nicholson’s Possession is an impressive contribution to the poetic reinterpretation of history.
Byatt, A.S. Chatto & Windus Ltd: London, 1990. Collingridge, Vanessa. Captain Cook: Obsession and Betrayal in the New World (Ebury: London, 2002). McAuley, James. Collected Poems (Angus & Robertson: Sydney, 1971). Slessor, Kenneth. Poems (Angus & Robertson: Sydney, 1957)
Byatt, A.S. Chatto & Windus Ltd: London, 1990.
Collingridge, Vanessa. Captain Cook: Obsession and Betrayal in the New World (Ebury: London, 2002).
McAuley, James. Collected Poems (Angus & Robertson: Sydney, 1971).
Slessor, Kenneth. Poems (Angus & Robertson: Sydney, 1957)