Auckland, New Zealand
On Catherine Mair's Incoming Tide
Incoming Tide: collected works by Catherine Mair. Katikati, New Zealand: Quail Press (2016) RRP: $25. Pb, 75pp. ISBN: 978-0-473-35061-1.
A good title. Incoming Tide is a substantial collection of Catherine Mair's poetry. This handsomely produced book is an astonishing weaving of a writing life with an intensely personal one. It is a well-published book, with a glossy finish and a striking cover photograph of Mair and her siblings in a small boat. It's only when a poet tackles the painstaking task of assembling a lifetime of achievements, failures, thoughts and deeds that we realise how much goes into sharing a life.
The aesthetic pleasure continues inside with the contents divided into three sections: haiku, haibun and tanka. In the haiku section, the haiku range from three to four haiku per page and lots of white space to let the haiku speak. For the most part, the haiku are in the traditional three-line form, with one or two one or two-line poems. They are divided into six sections: "shared breath," "tick tock," "retriever's eye," "yellow daisies," "launching ramp" and "legacy."
"shared breath" concentrates mainly on family—a new baby, cousins, a wedding day, a son's lover and an elderly couple among them:
an elderly couple raids
the crab-apple tree
"tick tock" rings true with felt moments and/or original observations about retirement, ageing, her mother's declining health, the rest home and her father's death:
beyond the coffin
the red noses
of his grand-daughters
In "retriever's eye" there's a freshness, surprised awareness and observations about the farm, its animals and the lives of family pets. Here we see pets—cat and dog, the farm animals—steaming cows, humpbacked cows, geese, lambs, beehives and a scarecrow:
around the scarecrow
the flock finds
With yellow daisies Mair is engaged with nature: oak trees, daisies, butterflies, a moth, a frog, a duck, plants and wetlands:
of pied stilts
As we begin to see in the haiku, being in tune with nature involves a certain state of innocence. But the fact that nature's harshness in the section launching ramp, steers the poet away from naivety. The following two haiku have a different kind of feeling:
he traces the names
of the drowned
beside the memorial
There are several haiku in legacy which go beyond innocence to a kind of self-acceptance. In each haiku there's a thirst to discover some of the subtlety of what state of mind the poems are coming from, as in the following two haiku:
he looks up the meaning
her safety belt
The haibun section contains sixteen poems, varying in length from half a page to three pages. The emotions are conveyed with powerful evocations of images, memories and feelings. Their power comes at times from delicate understatement and at other times from knowing exactly how much can be stated. "Mould" is a haibun about slipping on a mouldy step:
he forgot what a trap the black mould is. how dark & slippery on the wooden steps. luxuriant ferns disguise the threat, never hinting at the danger they overlap. His startled eyes when he lands on his back
a mallard drake
drops from the sky
"Rueben's Flowers" concerns a grandson. This is the first prose paragraph:
I can't imagine a more welcome face smilingbehind the glass. His hand holding the straggly bunch of garden flowers is mauve with cold and he looks slightly sheepish but committed to his act of gallantry— flowers for my birthday
"Towards her Wedding Day" focuses on her daughter's long drive to her parent's home before her wedding. This is the first paragraph and haiku:
Dropping down from Lake Taupo and the volcanic plateau the road risks its way through shades of violet and umber tussock land, deeper into dark, forested ravines
mist clinging to ridges
veiling great rimu, totara
The longer haibun "Home for Lunch" is about a trip Mair made to Eastern Europe for a haiku conference and encapsulates much of Mair's experience of a foreign country in its prose and haiku. In the following excerpt she writes about communism:
Despite years of grey communism, and now the razzamatazz of the market economy, that history is not forgotten
In "The Fledgling," we see the poet beside the lake's edge, preparing to go kayaking, when they see a fledgling heron:
. . . it stands
hunched in its not fully feathered cloak.
We watch from the jetty until it seems to
despair and wanders off to the base of a very large tree.
"The Park" is an idyllic picture of spring beside the river: "It's one of those perfect mornings that often follow a heavy frost." Here we see the Sea Scouts and their proud mothers, a couple pedalling their tricycles and the whitebaiters fishing in the river: "A toddler on a tiny plastic trike trails his family along the path. Everyone seems at peace with the world."
Towards the end of the book there are fifteen tanka. Here we see various perspectives on Mair's life, her family, her cat and the way she copes with Parkinson's.
he isn't James Bond
this singular man
surfboard under his arm—
how he strides up the sand
my first born child
was he a lover
in a previous life
this cat who waits
to leap on my stomach
when I stretch out
Chuang Tzu said
a twisted tree is useless
it survives for a thousand years—
why then have I tried to stand
so tall and straight
Mair has woven some of the work she has written over the years together with skill and patience. She has shown where her poems come from, surprising us with her insights. She has written clearly and with style. Her poems are full of life and love, and a wonderfully readable book.