new zealand electronic poetry centre

Paula Green



Review of Cookhouse by Paula Green

first published Listener (21 March 1998): 46.

Gerry Webb


The poem titles in Cookhouse, a sequence of some seventy short poems that is the core of Paula Green’s first book, are often mouth-watering: oven baked salmon, carrot soup with coriander, cherry pie, dried apricots soaked in brandy or cognac. As befits an Italian scholar, Green cooks Italian – how about minestrone or pizza alle quattro stagione? Kiwi fare is there too, not forgetting the little ones: scrambled eggs, peanut butter sandwiches, homemade ginger beer, pureed apple for a daughter’s baby belly. The poems, though, are about a lot more than food; they chase ‘sweet morsels of whole worlds.’ In fact, they often barely relate to the food titles, which act as whiffs or emblems of life situations, of intimate moments ‘from fiction to daily grind.’

Green’s writing is musical, sensuous, tender, quick-witted, ‘a ripple box,’ eminently quotable, and it is supported by the inclusion of Michael Hight’s subtle, Hotere-like drawings. Afternoon tea poems with Virginia Woolf, Michele Leggott, Dinah Hawken, Susan Howe and Anne Kennedy give some idea of where Green places herself. Leggott is an obvious model for the sequence called ‘A Configuration of Love’ and it is she and Howe, an American Language poet, who are the most helpful references to suggest Green’s poetics and language-feel. Green’s are avowedly women’s poems, both in their genealogy (‘we who have sat bolt upright / down dark avenues of dream and diary’) and focus. A sequence of nine poems is called ‘Listing the breathless women.’

Green sings the body domestic. She dedicates her book to her daughters and certainly this poet is very much a mother. The theme of a daughter lost and found, of ‘mother missing / missing mother,’ is the emotional hot spot of Cookhouse. The title ‘Fish with my daughter and her parents’ suggests the nature of that loss. So, ‘life fumbles its latch / now strong now weak.’

Some of these poems are not easy to get a handle on (‘this poem / with its blinds drawn’); they dart from image to image to abstraction, and the effort required to second-guess referents and significance is not always rewarded. Some read like ‘banks of private phrases’ where intelligibility is given a back seat. There is no punctuation and resulting ambiguities are not always a plus. Mostly, though, Green is a whiz; her idiosyncratic lines are animated intuitive and memorable. She sketches subtle emotional shapes that only real writing talent can bring to light.

©Gerry Webb

Last updated 24 August, 2005