Diana Bridge introduces her second collection of poems, The Girls on the Wall (1999), with a quote from M.M. Bakhtin who remarked that "outsidedness is a most powerful factor in understanding [... since] meaning only reveals its depth once it has encountered and come into contact with another, foreign meaning". It is an apt circumscription of much of the New Zealand poet’s work, which is rich in sensitive and detailed visual observations of Chinese and Indian culture that invite Bridge to the "kind of dialogue, which surmounts the closedness and one-sidedness of these particular meanings, these cultures", as Bakhtin has put it. The fortuitous encounter of a poet’s mind with many facets of Chinese and Indian culture, occasioned by Bridge's studying – and obtaining a Ph.D. in - Chinese literature and her having lived for many years in East Asia and India, has resulted in a singular poetic achievement of a transcultural rather than a New Zealand nature.
The forty-three poems in Landscape with Lines (1996) amply illustrate the poet’s being drawn into capturing in words Indian and Chinese landscapes and urban scenes, the countries’ architectures, their buildings and their art, while cognitively she realizes the experience of outsidedness. In 'Images for sages' the "seen" is complemented – and weighed – with the articulated, observation with meaning: "A [Chinese] character surfaces on West Lake, / its neat bars slotted like / a grave plaque into grass ripples. / I ask the waves to freeze – / only for a moment – / and let meaning through." Yet, later in the poem, "once in a lifetime when the sage / is laughing" ironically suggests the doubtful nature of the quest for meaning. On other occasions, either the sensual or the cognitive may be foregrounded, the latter for example in 'A transparent evening' where spare comments on observations make the evening indeed "transparent".
Bridge’s carefully chosen words, very often arranged paratactically and complemented by parentheses create a narrative effect which at times ends on an epigrammatic note as in the last stanza of 'Chrysanthemum': "All this was water / in the beginning. Between / us are our legends." Such linguistic devices are underpinned by the poet's strong sense of form, influenced perhaps by her knowledge of Chinese verse, and patterned as regular two-line, three-line or eight-line stanzas as in 'The true tourist'; a poem that not only takes us back to Bakhtin’s idea of the revelation of foreign meaning, of which "[o]nly a bit [...] will stay; missing / the thread between knowledge and / memory", but also illustrates one of Bridge’s forte: her choice of suggestive epithets, of images and metaphors: "The drums stand four-square / anchored by some grave dynastic habit / spelling ceremony, / their roundness / harder to embrace than an old man’s / spreading trunk".
The poet’s reading conveys the confident measure of her work and the cadences of the poems’ lines and clarity, both being brought across in Bridge’s slightly New Zealand-accented voice.
2010 Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for Poetry