By Angela Andrews
VUP, NZ$25 | Reviewed by Andy Armitage

Echolocation is an apt title for Angela Andrew’s impressive first book in that her quiet poems demand patient attention to detect their deeply held resonances. These modest poems reward re-reading and soon reverberate outside their specificity.

Echolocation revolves around family relationships; charting the speaker’s pregnancy, the birth of her son, and her relationship with her parents and grandparents. Frequently the poems struggle with dislocation and estrangement. The past and the future complicate relationships and identities. A mother articulates the presence of her unborn son; a daughter comes to terms with the separation of her parents; a granddaughter attempts to experience the foreign past of her Dutch grandparents; a family move out of their beloved home. The speaker’s role in these poems is to negotiate with and attempt to make sense of these breaches. In the title poem, which opens the collection, the unborn child is glimpsed for the first time through echolocation:

        We find you there
        in the dark.
        We’re listening
        in real time.

The son has not yet entered ‘real time’, he is outside history and exists only in a strange future tense. In ‘13 weeks’ he is “misplaced” until the baby scan print is found hidden among some shop receipts:

        A book of poems,
        soup on special,

        bamboo blinds,
        an embryo.

As the pregnancy develops through the later poems, the mother begins to feel the “Chinese whisper” of the child’s physicality, and by ‘36 Weeks’ the rumour of this new life has become more wilful:

        He moves now and you know
        he’s shifting down to the pelvis
        head-first, knocking

        bone against bone – like clicks and scatters
        or dice in a cup, locking
        like a lattice of antlers.

‘New Parents’ is a vivid portrayal of the parents and their newborn, and carries the pregnant detail characteristic of Jenny Bornholdt’s poetry:

        We drink our tea in
        half-cups. We have

        learned to do everything one-
        handed. The meals

        are frozen,
        the phone

        is switched off, and
        we rise to the creak

        of laundry cane
        in the sun.

The speaker’s adjustment to motherhood is not resolved with the birth of the child. In ‘White Saris’ she pushes a pram past a funeral cortege and senses the echoes of a future that awaits her son:

        I was thinking of you. How you
        will find out. The black suit
        you will wear. How the feel
        of your best white shirt could hurt.

        How silk might hang
        in a cold wardrobe. I pushed
        you past those people.
        I pushed you along the road.

While the child of Echolocation emerges from and resides in a strange future tense, the author’s Dutch grandparents seem somehow partially estranged in the past. Although Oma and Opa (Dutch for ‘Nana’ and ‘Grandpa’) have successfully integrated into New Zealand society many years ago, they are unable to disentangle themselves completely from this past.

In ‘Opa’ we learn that the speaker’s grandparents would ice-skate on frozen canals between villages in Holland. New Zealand has changed Opa in many ways but in some respect he is still frozen in the past. Describing the room opa has inhabited all these years, Andrews notices:

        Your skates
        hang on the wall.

        Blond varnished wood.
        Braided laces.

        Those blades, sweeping,
        never shook off the ice.

The grandparents’ world is haunted by echoes of the past in the same way that the child is haunted by the mother’s future hopes and fears. In ‘Grandparents’ the past can be discerned on the edges of Oma and Opa’s speech. The poem is reproduced in full below:

        Their language
        Has the intimacy
        Of a chronic cough.
        Birth and birthplace
        Are said from the chest.

        They are words you know
        But can’t speak, sounds
        Your throat won’t make.

Here Andrews, in describing the grandparents’ speech as having “the intimacy / of a chronic cough”, chooses an odd simile. This intimacy is slightly uncomfortable, perhaps because it echoes a past that the granddaughter cannot participate in. The words can be heard and understood but are made up of “sounds / Your throat won’t make.”

In ‘Ice Skating’ the speaker ice-skates in Avondale and recalls how her grandparents did the same many years ago on a frozen lake in Amsterdam. Perhaps she is recalling a story she has heard or g a photograph she has seen. Whatever the explanation for this impossible memory, the echo allows Andrews to participate in a fascinating past that she cannot otherwise experience.

The meeting of past and present is not always as comforting. In ‘Oma’s Trip Home’ we get a sense of the grandmother’s sense of dislocation on returning to Holland after many years absence. Oma is shocked and confused by how what she remembers has changed so radically. This conflation of past and present, of countries and currencies, again manifests itself again in her speech: (“She sends word / jumbling languages.”)

In ‘Howick Colonial Village’, Andrews’ describes the dislocation associated with the separation of her parents. Looking at a novelty sepia photograph she posed for with her father and his girlfriend, in Victorian costume, she addresses her younger self and ruminates on her childish innocence with a tinge of guilt for her complicity in a façade of happiness (reproduced in full below):

        At your insistence, everybody
        dressed up, pulling on corsets
        and braces, to hold things
        where they ought to be.

        You were disappointed
        with the green-striped maid’s hat
        and all the elastic
        where there should have been bones.

        In sepia reprint, you see your dad,
        His girlfriend, your brother.
        Everyone straight-backed,
        Hands careful on cane, on thigh,

        And you, aged nine, the baby
        By a mile, unfamiliar with the rules,
        The only one to smile.

In ‘Leaving Glenview Road’ the past and future are wrenched apart when the speaker’s house is emptied for its new occupants:

        Our lives are left as hollows
        in the carpet, and heavy dark spaces
        on the walls. I can name them.

        Wool pressed together, gradually built
        into flowers. Three little boats floating
        on the sea. And here, Vincent’s
        peasant is bent to the ground.

This is another example of the specificity of Andrews’ detail. Throughout Echolocation the speaker’s memories are connected to, or triggered by, something tangible – such as the hollow marks of where furniture once stood, or her grandfather’s ice-skates. This sentimental materialism values objects for their connection to what cannot be held on to. ‘Garage Sale’, one of the most pleasing poems in Echolocation, gives the reader an unexpected jolt of recognition in terms of the speaker’s attitude to material objects. As the poem opens, the buyers as intrusive and disrespectful:

        The newspaper slip
        says eight o’clock
        but there are people
        down the drive
        At seven.

As the poem closes it is clear that the buyers’ are intrusiveness and disrespectful, not because of their premature appearance but because of their intimacy with the beloved objects being sold:

        You don’t like it,
        everybody touching
        their hands
        in everything.

Like the objects placed before the buyers in ‘Garage Sale’ Echolocation’s sets its poems before the reader to pore over in order to find something useful and rare. There are a few instantly devastating lines here that will catch the reader’s eye, but many of the poems require a purveyor with patience. This is an assured debut for a new and gifted voice in New Zealand poetry. It will be interesting to see if Andrews can realise the promise of Echolocation.

See also:
» A Chat with Angela Andrews