Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Transport, by Riemke Ensing


Top of Form
Bottom of Form

(photographs from the past)
for James

The edge is important
and the focus. Where
to lead the eye
without blurring
the terror of passing trains,
the ground all wasteland and boots,
fear splintered like glass.

Years fold in
and the track runs on
beyond reason.

In the dark room
wounds are developed.
Chaos is exposed
and fixed. The pictures
are silent and speak of winter.
too dark to resolve.

Negatives disintegrate
old and weary
with too much sight.

A shatter of dust.


(photo credit: James Ensing-Trussell)

I first met Riemke Ensing, I think, at a poetry reading.  I remember being amazed when she came over to talk to me.  We’d studied her poetry at school, I’d seen her name in anthologies, I knew her as a prominent Kiwi writer. Why would she be interested in a baby poet like me?  

But that was before I knew Riemke as a generous friend and mentor, as she is to many. I’ve been welcomed into her home and had the pleasure of long lunches chatting about writing, poetry and the NZ literary landscape. (Riemke is an excellent cook.) I’ve learnt, too, to be wary of the wicked glint in her eye – she says what she thinks and loves to get a reaction. But the intent is always kind.

‘Transport’ is a visceral poem, touching on the nerve endings many of us have as migrants or the children of migrants. It superimposes the clinical process of taking a photograph (“where/to lead the eye”) over the raw wounds of forced exit from a homeland (“fear splintered like glass.”). Short though the poem is, it spans more than a generation. It says just enough to suggest the hidden pain that survivors of war must live with and try not to pass down to their children.  It also offers commentary on how photographs perpetuate, but inadequately describe, the horrors of conflict (“Shadows/too dark to resolve.”)

I feel Riemke’s poetry has such immediacy. There is the sense of the person behind it. Even where the subject matter is dark, as in this poem, there is also a feeling of life, of the importance of being alive to feel, to sense, to think.  Whether she’s describing the events of history or a morning shower, she has the ability to pull the reader in, to include them in the frame.

Riemke has been very busy in the past few years, writing and keeping up a busy timetable of poetry readings and writer’s talks. She was recently honoured for her lifelong work as a writer, editor and mentor by being given the Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for Poetry.  This year she also won the NZ Society of Authors Kevin Ireland Poetry Competition, coming top of the field over more than a hundred entries.  Her work has been included in the UK-based Poetry Archive, a repository of some of the most significant works in poetry. In between running around fulfilling all her obligations Riemke also found the time to answer some questions from me for this week’s post.

When did you first realise you were a poet?

I always feel reluctant and even somewhat embarrassed to think of myself as a 'poet'. I write, and some of my output is poetry, but if I compare myself to Yeats or Eliot , Wallace Stevens, Lorca -  in fact any of the myriad of wonderful poets all over the world over the many centuries, my attempts are pretty minimal and insignificant.

I started writing 'poetry' when I first came to NZ at the age of about twelve. I had no models at that stage, other than church hymns, so you can imagine the rather dismal attempts to improve on Wesley and Co. 
All rhyme, of course, and written in red ink. 
Our Presbyterian minister wouldn't have a bar of them and declined my suggestion he put them to music and have them sung in church. I couldn't see why he was so unsupportive, but it took the gloss off it for a while and I concentrated on painting instead. 

I started writing again at Ardmore Teachers' Training College  and continued through 'varsity  as a student. By then I suppose it had become a 'habit'. I had a few poems published now and then but was never very avid about sending things away. 
Ian Wedde used a couple in the New Zealand Universities Arts Festival Yearbook 1968  and that was a thrill, and Karl Stead sent me a congratulatory 'cheering on' note when I had some poems published in Arena, which was then a handset and printed labour of love and dedication by Noel Hoggard at The Handcraft Press. When I think of all the work and time that went into that publication it was astonishing, really. 

What is your favourite place and time of day for writing?

I am not at all systematic or organized or 'timetabled'. I note things down and keep a notebook handy. Sometimes the scraps become poems. It depends. If I feel a particular idea or concept is worth pursuing, I keep at it, but I'm just as likely to leave it as a note to myself.  Sometimes I write for particular occasions or people, and that is usually an impetus to put something together and mostly works quite well for me. 

People have written of the visual, focussed nature of your poems. For you, is writing a poem like taking a photograph?

For me, a poem is not at all like taking a photograph. Not 'taking a photograph' as I know it, which is taking a sight and clicking a button. The writing of a poem for me is very exacting and exhausting. That's probably why I don't write a lot. 
When I finish a poem, I'm usually 'washed out'. I don't know why that should be. Some poets speak of the thrill, the excitement and joy of writing, but for me it is mostly the opposite. I do at times have a sense of achievement or accomplishment, but it seems to come at a price.

‘Transport’ reads like a very intimate, personal poem, and you dedicate it to your son James. Did you ever experience the displacement voiced in the poem?

I dedicated 'Transport' to James because he was (if I remember correctly) just starting his career as a photographer, having been a teacher of the violin for many years. He of course, thinks the poem is 'very dark'. 
In fact, like my mother, who would have preferred poems about flowers and the more lighthearted aspects of life, he think most of my poems are rather too sombre.  And I suppose it has to do with the age. I was born just before the war in Europe began.
My parents had experienced the First World War and the Depression of the thirties. My first years were war and all the anxieties afterwards. Then there was the migration to NZ and the subsequent sense of being other and different - but no, the 'displacement' I write of in the poem is not something I personally experienced other than through other people's stories, books, films, etc. One lives in the imagination and in that sense the 'experience' can be as 'real' as the actual.  

What are you working on at the moment?

Presently I am still trying to come to terms with ongoing 'presence' of death. Bill died 3 and a half years ago and although he was considerably older than myself, I still can't quite reconcile myself to the idea of his no longer being here. 
My brother died a short while ago, as did a cousin of my age, and there seem to be constant, almost daily reminders, of mortality. So my present work concerns itself primarily with loss. Perhaps that's somewhat depressing, but I think it has produced some good poems - one of which won the recent 2012 NZSA Kevin Ireland Poetry Competition. 

This week's editor is Renee Liang,usually from Auckland, NZ, although this week she is posting from Kalgoorlie, Western Australia where she is doing a paediatric locum. Renee writes poetry, plays, fiction and non-fiction, blogs for The Big Idea, and organises community arts initiatives.  In her spare time she works as a doctor and is mum to Sofia (nearly 4 months.)


Emma said...

I really love Riemke Ensing and I'm so glad to see this poem and interview. Thanks Renee!

Ajax said...

This poem is incredible and stirring and captivating. Thank you for sharing her work. I'm an instant fan.

Kathleen Jones said...

This is a fascinating and moving poem. As I read it I kept seeing those train tracks that took so many of my parents' generation, not just into exile, but to Auschwitz and beyond. Good interview too.

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