Thursday, May 22, 2008

Michele Leggott Seminar

by Anna Leclercq

[Michele Leggott, "Micromelismata." DIA (Auckland: AUP, 1994) 7].


I am going to talk about two of Michele Leggott’s poems, WHERE EXACTLY ARE WE?’ and ‘Micromelismata’. My main focus is on ‘WHERE EXACTLY ARE WE?’, followed by a short commentary on ‘Micromelismata’.

Half way through the preparation of this seminar I had thought of ditching the subject and finding another one which would be less difficult, more straightforward, where I could quote from learned critiques which would give us all a firm understanding of what the poems were about. I found none such critiques in my research for these two poems, but they would not let me go. Like an abstract painting, their very unintelligibility kept pulling me back to have another look in an endeavour to find a meaning, any kind of meaning, to them.

What a person viewing an abstract painting sees in the finished painting is not necessarily what the painter has in mind whilst he is completing the work. Nevertheless, who is to say the viewer’s interpretation is any the less valid. It is on this premise, therefore, that I gave myself license to indulge my own imagination, delve into these two ‘abstract’ poems and ‘make my own connections’.

Michele Leggott’s book entitled DIA, published in 1994, is her third book of poems, the first two being Like This published in 1988 and Swimmers, Dancers in 1991. It comes in a red and white cover with a Minoan* mural done as a Maori weaving, the latter stamping the collection with a New Zealand imprint, however faint or unrecognised.

Like Susan Howe, Leggott has achieved a name for being an intellectual poet, and in her first poem in DIA, namely ‘WHERE EXACTLY ARE WE? she makes no apologies for that. She demonstrates her intellect by the use of Greek, French and Latin references, and of abundant use of polysyllabic and Latinate diction; her carefully chosen words are used as much for their beauty of sound and structure as for their meaning. Exactly what Leggott is telling us in this poem is obscure, yet the poem, I would like to think, does tell a story, and, as far as I can see, (which incidentally is another poem title of Leggott’s), on many levels.

"WHERE EXACTLY ARE WE?" was originally a "ribbon text," which first appeared on the walls of the Wellington City Art Gallery, who had commissioned the work in the 70s. In its original form it was interactive in that the reader had to walk to read the poem, and the strung-together words from various discourses invited viewers and readers to make their own connections. I next found ‘WHERE EXACTLY ARE WE?” in a March 1991 edition of Landfall 45(1):3-24 where again it appeared as a ribbon beginning at the bottom of page 3 and continuing on through the pages to its end.

Now, in another incarnation, it has appeared as the first poem in DIA and keeps company with four other pieces, Micromelismata, which I will discuss briefly later, Blue Irises, Circle and Keeping Warm, all of which Leggott calls ‘heart poems, the ones that take one’s breath away or make tears and laughter come’. Blue Irises, Circle and Keeping Warm could well be described as less obscure in their meaning than the first two; but all challenge conventional lyric reading.

Douglas Barbour, in his ‘Essays on Contemporary Poetry’ states that ‘like Leggott’s poem, "Micromelismata,", ‘WHERE EXACTLY ARE WE?’ focuses on its materiality and on the fact of its production, encouraging us to "see" poetry in different frames from those in which we usually receive it’.

The word DIA comes from the Greek and means Goddess; it also means ‘through’ and it means two, couples; lovers, partners. Leggott, faithful to these interpretations, has chosen to display both ‘WHERE EXACTLY ARE WE?’ and Micromelismata in two parts being spread over two pages, and the voices, although both male and female, show a predominance for the female voices.

For ‘WHERE EXACTLY ARE WE?’ Leggott uses large unsophisticated capital letters, some bold, some in outline, some shadowed in parts or in whole, which compel us to view the words and phrases at the same time both ‘as advertising and art’, while requiring us to read them in what Douglas Barbour calls ‘their fragmented engagement with various discourses of power’.

For a number of years now Leggott has been suffering from two diseases of the eyes. Although she was not diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa until 1985, and then macular degeneration in the mid 1990s – long after ‘WHERE EXACTLY ARE WE?’ first appeared – it occurred to me that the unevenness in the density of each typed letter could be a representation of the dawning on Leggott’s subconscious of the fact that her eyesight was already showing signs of the onset of eye disease, and perhaps this was a way of displaying, in poetry, the changes in her vision. This is only a stab in the dark (sorry about the cruel pun), but I could find no other way of explaining this phenomenon .except for emphasis; and this I felt would be too transparent for Leggott. I would be interested to hear what others have to say on this point.

Andrew Johnston, in his work Entertaining Possibilities: Six Contemporary New Zealand Poets, states that Leggott’s poetry ‘explores the power of language to enact experience, rather than to formulate abstractions from experience’. He goes on to say that Leggott’s poetry is a ‘torrent of sounds, sentiments, situations and sensory detail (great alliteration there); it is the most colourful poetry being written in New Zealand.’ Mark Williams said of her earlier work: ‘Leggott is a sensualist of the word. Her poems enact sound, colour, taste, smell, movement’. I have to say I would agree with that, and the poems contained in DIA certainly reflect that point of view.

WHERE EXACTLY ARE WE?’ contains no punctuation; the whole poem runs like a river and, were it not to begin with the word IN and end with the word OUT, it could equally appear circular, running back in on itself, like a river returning to its source, a snake wreathed in its own coils, a torque, a helix.

The work crafts wonderful sound pictures achieved by alliteration, assonance and repetition. ‘ALMOND ABEILLE AMYGDALA AH; COELENTERATE SOUP SIP SUP FOLLOW HER UP SPIRULA SPIRULA’. It also has great movement particularly when describing water, e.g. HYDROPHILE PURLING. You will see later what I mean when I give my interpretation of this word coupling.

Leggott appears to be having a good time playing with sound and rhythm, yet the meanings of the words are mysterious, hard to pin down. Once she has finished writing the poem she appears to have finished speaking. She then surrenders the poem, handing it over into the care of the reader who is charged with giving it its new life form.

A number of words written in bold type which, if linked together, read ‘IN DESIRE DESIRE ORAL DELIGHT DELIGHT OUT’ immediately stand out as though they should have some attention., and, like Jane Stafford in her article entitled ‘The panic of O’ (New Zealand Books Journal, Volume 4, number 3 (Issue 15) 1994), I saw them as a reinforcement of love and desire to underline eroticism in the poem. Stafford commented that these words would be ‘enough to get anyone’s hydrophile purling!’.

I wanted to find out if the poem as a whole did have any understandable meaning or message running through it, or whether it was just words strung together to create a sensuality of sound. What could I make of its meaning now that I, as a reader, was charged with giving it its new life form. A Latin dictionary, hardly used since school days, proved invaluable when tackling the Latinate diction. There did appear to be words that could be interpreted as signposts which might lead me to a coherent understanding of the poem. For example, ONTO LOGICAL = ONTOLOGICAL=the study of existence. PELAGIC = sediments deposited beneath deep ocean waters that are rich in the remains of microscopic organisms; INCUNABULA = the early stages of becoming something. Could she be speaking about the beginning of life?

Many complex English word couplings, such as ‘HYDROPHILE PURLING’ added to the poem’s complexity. ‘Hydrophile’, I discovered, is derived from ‘hydrophilic’, a chemical term meaning having a strong affinity for water or being able to dissolve in, or be absorbed or mixed easily with, water. ‘Purling’ has, as one of its meanings , flowing with a curling or rippling motion, and a soft murmuring sound, as a shallow stream over stones.

INCANDESCENT LACUNAE FLUORESCE AT A TOUCH DESIRE TORQUES DILOQUENT PEARL CURVES LUMENS CON BRIO ALIGHT. Doesn’t it sound wonderful? It is a torrent of sound, it is sensual, it has an atmosphere of love. But does it actually mean anything? A loose translation created the following:


I won’t go through the meaning of every word here, but if my amateur translation is correct, this poem appears to describe, the process of attraction, copulation and fertilization from the moment the male sets eyes on the female to the end of the process where fertilization takes place. The poem is layered: that is to say the story is told not just on one level, the human level, but also on a botanic level (DELIQUESCENCE describing the release of the spores from the mushroom, for example), and from a marine level ‘FISHTAILS DEEP TROPES SQUIRT SQUID SUCH OCTOPI PULL ANEMONES GULP; eroticism over Latinate structure over biology, over botany over storytelling of beginning of life (life as we know it having its origins in the creatures that crawled out of the sea on to land).

The unconventional presentation of the poem and the complexity of the words did hinder a smooth reading; and instances of words such as ‘sanglots’ (sobs – French), for example, refused to allow me to tease out the reason for being there. Perhaps they were there for their sound as much as their meaning. The lack of a smooth reading and difficulties with some of the words did take away a little of the poem’s magic. Not being able to find an official interpretation of it is also unsatisfactory.

Nevertheless, if I had to describe this poem I would say it is a celebration of words, rhythms, sounds which all relate to the process of procreation and the rhythm of life/death in the natural world. Whether I am correct or not in my interpretation we shall probably never know. My interpretation could be dismissed as pure whimsy; I can only say in defense of my conclusions that it does have a certain validity because Michele Leggott herself states, as I mentioned above, that we must ‘find our own meanings’.

‘Micromelismata’ .

Taking the words ‘BEE DESIDERATE MOUTH’ from ‘WHERE EXACTLY ARE WE?’ moves me conveniently on to Michele Leggott’s next poem in DIA. "Micromelismata" is an example of ‘concrete’ poetry. ‘Concrete’, historically, is a particular moment, largely in Europe, but extending to Britain and the United States also, within a wider context of shaped poetry, going back to the work of George Herbert (died 1633) in England. Herbert himself knew of at least one predecessor for his work, an edition of The Greek Anthology, Theocriti Idyllia, printed by P. Brubacchius, Frankfurt, 1545. This information comes from an essay entitled Poetics edited by Joel Kuszai.

‘BEE DESIDERATE MOUTH’ reminds me of the Marilyn Monroe type bee stung lips which the type forms within the two poem balls that constitute ‘Micromelismata’. The balls are identical in shape; the first ‘ball’ being made up entirely of Xs and the second made up of words, the letters of which correspond accurately to the placement of the Xs. According to Elizabeth Caffin in issue 4, September 2007 of ‘A New Zealand Journal of Poetry and Poetics’, indentation, spaces between words, use of italics or small caps were all matters affecting meaning and taken with great seriousness by poet and publisher.

There are many voices, many more female voices than male, in this poem: many ‘Is’, Iris is there (Robin Hyde), mother, mama, you, them, her, the female, Isis the Egyptian female deity, the goddess of myths and life. There is dance and music in this poem: Melisma, in music, is the technique of changing the note (pitch) of a single syllable of text while it is being sung. Music sung in this style is referred to as melismatic, as opposed to syllabic, where each syllable of text is matched to a single note; melodiously.

There are kisses, lips, berries, flowers….. This poem is like a reverie, dreams coming in flashes of a single word. It is emotional and reflective; again it celebrates sensuality – reflections on kissing - and nature; the beauty that is around us.

In regard to both WHERE EXACTLY ARE WE? and Melismata - which could be said to be bordering on the unintelligible,- Leggott has been accused of ‘sophism** , elitism and pretension’ (Jane Stafford The panic of O). I would like to be much kinder and put them under heading of experimental. I greatly enjoyed the challenge of delving into these two poems which represent my first experience of works of such unusual construction.

Although I am sure many codes and allusions contained in the poems have eluded me, and not being able to find an official meaning left me somewhat frustrated, as I said earlier, I remain astounded by her mastery of language, captivated by her dexterity of word placement, and seduced by her lyricism.

* Minoan: relating to the Bronze Age civilization on Crete that lasted from around 3000 to 1100 BC.

**An argument or explanation that seems very clever or subtle on the surface but is actually flawed, misleading or intended to deceive.


Allan, Guy. New Zealand Herald 3: 6; 8 Oct 1994.
Barbour, D. Lyric/Anti-lyric: Essays on Contemporary Poetry (Edmonton: NeWest, 2001).

Direen, Bill. Listener 146(2849): 65; 19 Nov 1994.
Jensen, Kai. Printout 9: 88; Autumn 1995.

Leggott, M. DIA. Auckland : Auckland University Press, 1994.
Landfall, 45(1): 3-24, March 1991

Mead, P. Landfall 189: 121-125; Autumn 1995.
Sharp, I. Evening Post p.7; 7 Oct 1994.
Stafford, J. New Zealand Books 4(3): 10-11; Sept 1994.

Weston, Tom. Press Sup.p.14; 17 Dec 1994.
Wilson, Janet. Quote Unquote 24: 31-32; June 1995.

1 comment:

Jack Ross said...

This is a fascinating piece, I think, Anna. One or two of your definitions are a bit debatable, I feel. "Incunabula" seems more likely (to me) to be being used in its bibliographical sense here: books printed before 1500. "Pelagic" might also be a reference to Pelagius, a fourth-century Christian heretic who denied the doctrine of original sin. I like very much your careful spadework and comb through the critical literature to date, though.