'A few years from now
a huge wind will claim back the carefully sculpted scoops of
p.16 'Nature Reversed' in
Digging Holes to Another Continent Isabelle Kenyon Clare Songs Publishing House, May 2018.
I first encountered ‘Digging Holes to Another Continent’ last year during the chapbook submissions for our first iddy-bitty step into publishing. It was a wonderful collection and it hurt me to turn it down. I had set forth to only publish three chapbooks and at the time I was very concerned whether we would be able to raise enough funds for printing, so I couldn’t take on a fourth. So it gives me great pleasure not only to share in this little book’s success but actively promote the work of Isabelle Kenyon. I was set a free digital copy in exchange for an honest review.
While visiting New Zealand for a wedding, Isabelle Kenyon wrote first about death, then a little later about life. And if life is kind, death will be followed by joy, which Kenyon illustrates through her poems as she loses herself in a foreign country. A wedding is a stitching together of lives, the opposite of a splitting blow, and while a wedding cannot erase the pain of death, it is the first stitch in the wound: ‘it took a trip / on the other side of the world / to heal’ (The Journey, 7). In ‘Wave Meditation’, Kenyon feels like ‘a washed up plastic bottle’ and ‘an awakening animal instinct / to find a way back to shore’ (8), in these words she displays a ferocious need to survive grief.
Kenyon’s poems are short and simplistic in their language, yet powerful in their imagery and emotional charge. For me as a reader, ‘Digging Holes to Another Continent’ hit the right balance between confessional poetry and geographical exploration. I do not tend to enjoy works that are overly self-focused and passionate, I feel the poet’s voice drowns out all other possibilities if the work is too internal and begins to read more like a diary than a poetry collection. Personal politics. So here I was refreshed to find a happy medium. Kenyon’s language might be simplistic, yet there is never any question that this is anything but the intentional technique of a blossoming poet. The language works as an all-purpose base for the heavier ideas she conveys, those of loss, love and landscape which would weigh too heavily on thicker language.
Landscape is a central theme to this collection, both in terms of the physical splendour of New Zealand and how Kenyon’s own internal landscape is reflected in this new unknown territory. In ‘Cathedral Cove’ she writes of ‘a jungle without Rousseau’s tiger / a sea / of tree trampolines / a silence / gentle on blushing ears’ (10). Rousseau’s Tiger refers to a 1891 painting of a tiger preparing to pounce through the jungle to escape a terrible storm. The absence of the tiger together with the fact tigers do not inhabit New Zealand, suggests that the turmoil Kenyon was experiencing is over or at least out of place in such an environment. Trampolines and gentle silences suggest fun as well a soothing calm, as opposed to storms and the sudden fury of waves depicted in ‘Wave Meditation’. One of my favourite poems is ‘I Drift. I Swim’ where Kenyon’s body reacts to New Zealand in an alien and personified way that Kenyon separates from her emotional side, preferring to focus on ‘the body as other’. Lines such as ‘hair so English it shrivels to the roots in disgust’ and ‘and freckles / sprout in domino trails / chemical reaction to the sun – blushed dreams / a magenta reality’ (12) injects a dose of humour into this collection and transported me as a reader to think about my body as a separate entity, a body that was also suffering from the summer heat.
As the collection progresses, the poems focus on other topics such as romance, wedding guests, the future, but Kenyon always manages to craft a self-reflective, self-meditative line, where the effects of these outside influences dance and burn within. The cultural differences are made clear in Kenyon’s last few poems ‘Alternative Christmas (23) and ‘Did You Hear the Possum Last Night?’ (25), here for the first time England and its traditions are mentioned with a cocktail of bitterness and fondness. In ‘Alternative Christmas’, there is a coming together of ‘Chinese, Indian, Asian and Maori’ who have ‘no thoughts for baby Jesus’ (23), for me this suggests the removal of the religious focus has allowed different cultures to merge and celebrate. Kenyon writes there is ‘no Queen’s speech / in the land of the free’ (23) and if she intends to question the freedom of the English, I will wholeheartedly agree that this question is needed. We are often too caught up in our own traditions and rigid structures, where we forget what it means to be free and celebrate on a beach without the preoccupation of altars, tinsel and the alienation of others.
In ‘Did You Hear the Possum Last Night?’ Kenyon seems to suggest there is an absence of primal New Zealand in its unseen possums and Kiwis, and how ‘the smell of cow manure was sprinkled specifically / for English noses / to make us feel at home’ (25). Here the English familiarity is taking over, yet it is still a base hot smell, a primal pong that anyone who lives even remotely near the countryside would recognize. It is only in these last two poems Kenyon’s attentions turn towards her homeland, as her journey draws to a close and she compares the environments, the cultures. I enjoyed these brief moments, as it finished off the collection beautifully and kept it light-hearted but questioning. I think many readers can identify with these moments of reflection and comparison, where we are bound to home but at the same time wish stray and stay in the new landscapes we have discovered.