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French, Anne

FRENCH, Anne


Nationality: New Zealander. Born: Wellington, New Zealand, 5 March 1956. Education: Victoria University of Wellington, 1973–79,B.A. 1976, B.A. (honors) 1976; M.A. 1980; Auckland Secondary Teachers' College, Diploma in Teaching 1977. Family: Married to Gary Alfred James Boire; one son. Career: Teaching assistant, Victoria University of Wellington, 1979; editor, 1980–82, Oxford University Press, Wellington, managing editor, 1982–89, and publisher, 1990–93, Oxford University Press, Auckland. Since 1995 managing editor, Museums of New Zealand, Wellington. Since 1994 managing editor, New Zealand Strategic Management, Auckland. Writer-in-residence, Massey University, 1993. Awards: New Zealand Book award for poetry, 1988; PEN Best First Book of Poetry, 1988. Address: P.O. Box 1799, Wellington, New Zealand.

Publications

Poetry

All Cretans Are Liars. Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1987.

The Male As Evader. Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1988.

Cabin Fever. Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1990.

Seven Days on Mykonos. Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1993.

Boys' Night Out. Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1998.

Other

Editor, Elsdon Best-Maori Religion and Mythology, Part II. Wellington, Government Printing Office, 1980.

*

Critical Study: "French Fishes: Evasions and Tensions in the Poetry of Anne French" by Jane Stafford, in CRNLE Reviews Journal, 1, 1993.

*  *  *

One of the feminist writers who emerged in the 1980s, Anne French won the 1988 New Zealand Book award for poetry with her collection All Cretans Are Liars (1987). Its three parts move from personal disclosures to relationships with a lover to a nationalistic emphasis. The poetic comprehends both a modernist emphasis on form and diction and an intertextuality that verges on the postmodern, as in the pivotal "Eucalypts Greenlane," with its references to James Baxter, Allen Curnow, Ian Wedde, and T.S. Eliot. The earlier poems tend to be occasional, building a sense of immediacy as the narrator records an incident and then reflects on it. "Cricket," for example, begins with glimpses of a wet, desolate weekend, but by the second verse it moves to something more abstract:

   That was how it appeared. The difference
   between inventing something, and not
   is imperceptible …

French's second collection, The Male as Evader (1988), pursues this relatively simple poetic in a vigorous series of poems about men's relationships to women. Many of the poems' titles, as well as the titles of the first two of the book's three sections ("A catalogue of evaders," "The language and literature of evasion"), reflect the collection's interest in males' possession of language and the problem of women in achieving some kind of status in relation to it. "The Dangers of Literature" begins,

   So I ended up in your book? That's
   Marvellous to see myself undressed
   and systematically examined in the clear
 
 
   unblinking light of your malice.

Most of the poems maintain this tone and directness, but they have difficulty in solving the problem of female subjugation by language, which is at the center of the collection, as well as in dealing with the more basic entrapment by language that is represented by the traditional paradox of the title of her first collection. Only the last of the forty-four poems, "Catullus's answer book," deals with the problem and gestures beyond itself at a possibility of seeing a face reflected back that is "not, necessarily, a man."

The claustrophobic feel of the second collection provides the title of French's third, Cabin Fever (1990), and its theme of journeying by sea. "In a North Harbour" begins,

                          There's no room
 
 
   for attitudes of renunciation or despair—not here,
   not today, while sky waits to be filled with spinnaker …

In general the collection proceeds away from the earlier aggression. In fact, the collection is informed by the imagery of a male writer, Stéphane Mallarmé. Like him, French identifies with the voyager and sailor in order to escape constriction by exploring possible identities. In "The Words" the narrator learns the masculine world of sailing terms ("The leading edge of a sail is called the luff"), and more generally in the collection the boat represents some kind of continuing entrapment in male constructions, as well, paradoxically, as offering a dexterous maneuverability. But French's narrator, as a woman, must leave the boat and enter the traditionally female element around it: "I—who have always been / incautious—swim out into the deep water" ("Motaketekete").

Seven Days on Mykonos (1993) gives a sense that the journey is completed, that territories have been mapped and boundaries fixed. The first section, "Postcards from Hamilton," represents a journey in poetry throughout the world. But there is also a sense of uncertainty once the boundaries have been reached. The remaining sections, "Stories from the Blue Chair" and "The Anthropology of New Zealand Literature," hark back to the themes of the earlier collections rather than pushing forward. In some of these poems French's customarily ironic tone is revealed as limited, particularly in those referring to the world of New Zealand literature, in which the tone may become edgy or even paranoiac, as in "New Zealanders at Home":

   … while above their heads the admonitory
   pohutukawa points its blood-red stameans
   at nobody in particular.

—Anna Smith

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