Michele Seminara. Engraft. Woodford NSW: Island Press Co-operative, 2016. 9780909771935 p/b 72
The poems in this collection are energetic – engaging – and most definitely engrafted, sometimes literally.The poet gives us found poems from Kafka, Dickinson, Joyce; there are remix poems using Shakespeare and Robert Lowell; Solzhenitsyn, Djuna Barnes are the source of erasure poems. Take the title poem, a remix based on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 15:
Man is conceived upon this sullied stage
and like a seedling grows, but then decreases.
He vaunts his youthful sap in brave conceit,
till wasteful time decays his day to night.
Everything holds but a little moment –
even your perfection cannot stay.
So I’ll make war with time and as he takes you
make love, and with my pen engraft you new. (19)
Only about half the words appear in the original, but we are definitely in the world of Renaissance English, its language and its carefully engrafted imagery. You can hear both poets talking, and the poem acts as a bridge from 1600 to 2016.
The poem ‘Masque’ gives us quite a different experience. It is an erasure poem using Djuna Barnes’ novel ‘Nightwood’:
as if abuse was
happiness and I
were a game
she raised and dropped against my lap
gutted on a dagger (23)
We are balancing an entire novel against 24 words here, and I am not sure where to go with it. Quite on its own, the poem is an exercise in projective verse style and can be looked at entirely on these grounds. But where do I put the original now? Or should I stop thinking about it? Is its shape the result of the erasure, or is this quite separate? Should I expect to hear the voice of Djuna Barnes – or has she simply contributed her genes and disappeared? For the purposes of the book here and now, it may not matter – but these are interesting questions.
These questions reflect the disconnected nature of Seminara’s images throughout the book, images which show us the turbulence and disconnectedness around us. Many refer to motherhood: “When fixing the bedclothes / I always remember to pause / by the fighting fish’s tank” (‘Mother’, 33), “When I called for help / your father was unreachable / (and is even more distant now)” (‘Happy Birthday’, 45). Many connect with the ongoing and universal pain of living and our attempts to control it:
I retreat to this land whenever I need healing –
to ingest its molecules in my lungs
its light-waves into my pupils,
black-holed mainlines into the suffering brain. (52)
The collection is divided into four: Mammoth, Lover, Mother, and Snail. They roughly – very roughly! – indicate buried thoughts and dark possibilities, passion for another, motherhood, and the gradual slowing down of action (though not of feelings) as death comes closer. It’s interesting that the ‘Lover’ section contains more engrafted poems than the others. Is the poet looking to the outside world for support? Or is she telling us that love is always different for each of us, no matter how many poems we write or what past experience our present love draws upon?
Her distance from her sources varies: I suspect catching just the right bit for her own use is as delicate and as crucial as a trapeze artist’s catching the right part of the bar. After reading this collection, I am looking at engrafted poems in a totally different way, and I can’t begin to guess at the answers I’ll get down the track.
The poet looks outward, then inward. ‘On Reading Bishop’ (Bishop’s ‘Giant Snail’), she says:
Reading Bishop, a distinctive stillness comes.
Like her giant snail I too inch forward
my own amorphous, unguarded
foot absorbing sharp barbs of gravel
avoiding rough spears of grass
as I push, bull-headed, to gain a crack
in God’s sanctuary before sunrise.
Seminara’s foot may be amorphous and unguarded, but her poetry is certainly neither. It’s worth reading on all sorts of levels, both in what she’s saying deliberately and also in what she is demonstrating about different styles of poetry.
 I don’t know the generic term for poems which bodily incorporate the words of other poets, so ‘engrafted’ will have to do here for remix, found, erasure/redacted/blackout poems, centos, glosas, sonnenizios, and all their kith and kin.
Mary Cresswell is from Los Angeles and lives on New Zealand’s Kapiti Coast. Her collection of ghazals and glosas, Fish Stories, was published by Canterbury University Press in 2015. When she is not reading or writing, she volunteers at a bird sanctuary. See also: http://www.bookcouncil.org.nz/writers/cresswellmary.html