Mary Cresswell’s exceptional poetic and scientific background come together in the technical and environmental orientations of her latest poetry collection, Fish Stories. Cresswell herself denotes the origin of Fish Stories as primarily based on one poetic style: the ghazal. Such poems are usually composed of at least five couplets and no more than fifteen, with a recurring rhyme scheme. However, Cresswell’s project assesses how these limitations can be pushed and manipulated, critiquing at which point the ghazal style ceases to exist in such cases. Fish Stories is intrinsically linked with this notion of restriction and resistance, growth in the case of adversity, and a lingering focus on survival.
Numerous animals, birds and environmental areas feature across the collection. Psychology and sociology are comfortably linked, and the overall impact is lively, engaging, and overflowing with imagery. It is difficult to select a few key poems to feature; there is so much going on, and on so many levels, across Fish Stories. However, an excellent example of Cresswell’s critical and creative playfulness can be found in the poem “Eine Kleine Kammermusik”:
Yes, I’ve heard about the vacant chambers of my mind.
Are you here because you hope to fill the vacant chambers of my mind?
Perhaps it’s love that brings us here tonight. Destiny, perhaps,
not just a cultivated chance to fill and limber up my mind.
I’ve spoken long with Professor Freud. He knows of course the most
efficient way those pesky little chambers should be mined.
But nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. I find it handy, though,
when I wish to riddle through the embers of my mind.
Absent and alone, I read – I write – I tap my foot and listen
as sonatas and fugues still the quaking tremors of my mind.
Each dawn a raven returns from the trackless deeps
with a feather to thrill the vacant chambers of my mind.
Or must it be you alone, dear sir, you and only you to enter
and fill my vacant chambers? Did you think I wouldn’t mind?
I trill and chortle from a vacuum – I sing from unseen branches –
call it what you will, dear boy, and keep your vacant chambers.
My space is mine. (23)
Cresswell venomously engages with Otto Jesperson’s theory that women’s minds have “vacant chambers” in which they can accommodate new information swiftly, while men’s minds are already full of information and therefore slower. Critical wordplay meshes well with the restraint of the ghazal structure, as the speaker cleanly displaces and dismisses the weight of such a theory. As with much of Fish Stories, references to birds and more natural environmental spaces feature as means for escape and self-control, as well as reassessment of oppressive exterior forces and ideas.
However, Cresswell simultaneously demonstrates a strong sense of respect for natural settings and features, beyond what they can offer her poetic speakers and personae. Poems such as “Timberline”, “Magnetic North”, and “Escape to the Southern Ocean”, for example, all highlight more ominous or uncertain human relationships with the world around. Layers of human thought and means of making meaning recur throughout Fish Stories, as Cresswell plays references off one another. Poems frequently demand further reading and research to more thoroughly unpack their implications, but at the same time the language used is accessible and vibrant. There is a broader desire for understanding and collaboration with the natural world, especially in poems such as “We are the Ocean”:
The tide drags out as the moon demands,
anemones close, disguised as rubble.
The shore is too rocky for walking
so the children wait on the beach.
Satellites count down: ten, nine, eight…
high-altitude contrails quiver and swerve.
Drones meander through layers of sky
marking the spot marking the time.
We cluster and wait in the thinness of darkness.
The children’s footprints lead into the surf. (103)
Human engagements occupy a liminal position in this setting, yet are intent on creating access points. Technology and nature do not clash, but surround and circle one another, waiting for an opportune moment to unite. The process is ambiguous and has a hint of foreboding to it, but at the same time is a clear necessity.
Cresswell’s interest critiquing barriers and delineations, as well as the danger of assumptions recurs thematically throughout much of Fish Stories. The poet’s playful tone frequently takes on sharper edges as her speaking personae shift between wry frustration and keen observation. The structural demands of the ghazal style are not there to be railed against or to skew each poem to follow a set path, but instead bolster the speaker’s engagements. Fish Stories is both immersive and deeply critical, attached to the natural and human worlds, and constantly looking for passage into new modes of thought.
Mary Cresswell, Fish Stories. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2015.