FISH STORIES AND LIVING WEATHER

Reviewed by Holly Jensen

Fish Stories. Mary Cresswell. Canterbury University Press, 2015. 
ISBN 978-1-927145-66-1p/b 131 pp. 

Does it help to be grounded when you're already on shaky ground? New Zealand poet Mary Cresswell's stellar collection, Fish Stores, is built of brink and aftermath. Her poems are concrete and rooted in this (off-kilter) world and our fractured ecosystems. They brace for and recover from calamity. Their constant is change. 

NO. NO NUMBERS. WHAT COUNTS IS WHO AND WHEN AND WHERE/ AND WHEN YOU JOINED THE KING IN MARKING GILDED BUTTERFLIES.

In her crisp introduction, Cresswell stresses that “linked ambiguities" are the “heart of the ghazal." By eschewing narrative in favor of the “state of mind and spirit," she rightly asserts that her ghazals “come closer than cold reason can to saying the unsayable." As one of her tercet ghazals states, “Logical thinking rarely helps much." 

You may recognize Cresswell from her contributions to this journal, both verse and prose. Her confidence with the form is clear. The collection includes experimental, free verse, tercet, Arabic, and traditional Persian ghazals united by structure, wordplay, extraordinary images, and an exigent sense of disaster and wonder. 

WE FLUTTER WE SCRAMBLE WE LOVE THE NIGHT

Present-tense tensions include storm clouds, “screaming again/ through night-crawling fingers," “shocked, shaken, soaked" flood survivors, peasants in revolt, hostages in peril, and “blood-bloated dragons" that lurk while the “traveller's compass explodes."  

The ghazal form (a study in contrastscapricious yet mannered, structured and wild, balancing freedom and precision) suits Cresswell perfectly. Autonomous, aphoristic stanzas read as warnings and dispatchesa comfortable fit in the age of Twitter. Their brevity prevents you from quite getting your footing. These shards “quiver and swerve" like the satellites and drones of the free verse ghazal “We are the Ocean." Concision unbalances. Form intensifies urgency. The poems are also concerned with borders and distinctions, which, again, reflects the ghazal tradition and its stubbornly individualistic stanzas. Therefore, “the border is awake beneath us" and “the island breathes out against its skin." Independent stanzas “flutter" and “scramble" and jockey for impact, each grasping for attention while withholding traditional narrative resolution.  

The free verse “Three Ghazals for the Dervish" gives a nod to the ghazal's Muslim roots. The dervish here, however, is not a Sufi mystic but an anemometer, a tool for measuring wind speed. (“Their splash of discovery will follow the rain.") The poems are thick with loss, as ghazals are predisposed to longing and erosion. It's no surprise, then, that “When your lips move, I think you are talking" and that “No signals come from the drowned city." The saving grace is the resolve to inhabit the changing world and our changing selves despite disaster and disconnection.

I embrace silence embracing me. 
Quiet comes quickly and turns into my skin.

And from Cresswell's own “Waste Lands," structured around the reoccurring rhyme of “-eeding" and refrain of “them:"

The rain runs in runnels, and the pastures are drowned.
Fears rule the world. Shall we choose to stop feeding them?

NIRVANA DESIGNED BY DOGS
-MARY CRESSWELL

Late in the collection, a poem confesses, “I sit around all day,/ reading thrillers, writing predictable ghazals." Luckily for us, like the internal and external transformations it contains, Mary Cresswell's splendid Fish Stories is anything but predictable.