Monday, June 20, 2016

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“THOUGHT HORSES” by Rachel Bush (Victoria University Press, $NZ25); “MEMORANDUM OF UNDERSTANDING” by Bill Nelson (Victoria University Press, $NZ25); “RABBIT RABBIT” by Kerrin P. Sharpe (Victoria University Press, $NZ25)

            Reviewing collections of poetry is the pons asinorum of short-form reviewers.  Unless you are going to give a detailed exegesis of each individual poem, which would exceed the length available, the best the reviewer can do is to indicate the general nature of the collection’s contents, and quote some things that seem effective. I make no apology for, in the following, quoting in full a poem from each of the three new collections being discussed. This seemed an economical way to indicate what was best in each. There is no real reason to yoke these three collections of poetry together, except that they all happen to have been published recently by Victoria University press. So here they are:

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            As soon as I read the opening poem – also the title poem – of Rachel Bush’s Thought Horses, I knew I was going to enjoy the book and was completely prejudiced in its favour. “Thought Horses” is about insomnia. As a long-term insomniac I identified immediately with the free-form poem in which the poet declares:

You think of the poem you wrote about leaving a house, and how houses we have owned will come back to us in dreams.

You think about taking your computer into the next room.

You think maybe you ought to try to sleep.

You think you should just think about your breathing. You do this for several breaths until the thought horses ride over and look at you and you turn to them with their big protruding eyes and you forget about the movement of your breath

“Yes, yes, yes and check, check, check!” I thought, as I both remembered and recognised those sleepless nights when the overstocked, overstimulated brain goes chickety-boom chickety-boom with all those thought horses, and resistance is impossible. This is the best insomnia poem I have encountered since the piquant (and painfully funny) “Sleep-Talking” in Emma Neale’s fine collection Tender Machines.

When she wrote these poems, Rachel Bush (who died a few months ago) was a woman of mature years and of settled domestic habits and observation. And as soon as a male reviewer says that sort of thing about a woman who is a poet, you almost expect some following patronising slap at poems about domesticity.

Not a bit of it.

I found Thought Horses a stimulating and enjoyable collection.

There are recurrent images in these poems of beds, sleep, noises in the night and the creaking of a new house. There is recurrent imagery of gardens (feeding sparrows in “In My Garden”) and the annoying-ness of being taken over by home appliances (“All my feelings would have been of common things”). And there are birds singing at dawn.

The delicacy of Rachel Bush’s approach to the last theme is found in the poem  “Early”, which I quote in full:

The darkness wears a quiet sound

of tires died down and people who stir

in sleep. Soon they will slip on

their daily selves, button them up.

A rooster knows the time, says

it out loud when day is less

than a light line above the hills.

A car hitches its shoulders,

decides to keep going.

Its lights make holes in the night.

One ruru calls

its own name.

Its wings are invisible.

They make no sound.

There are also many recalls to childhood. “It Ends with Forever” recreates the lost cosiness of being a child. “Not Seeing the Lady from Spain” conveys a sense of disappointment at a lost childhood opportunity – the type of small thing that still looms large in adult dreams. “Four Elephants”, a somewhat whimsical poem about a stuffed elephant, resonates with children of my own baby-boomer generation with its reference to Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia. I wonder if Rachel Bush was thinking of Mumfie?

This might suggest that the world Rachel Bush conjures up is altogether too comfy and ladylike. And indeed I did find one poem, “Made of Myrrh”, with its series of fantasticated images, to be verging on the precious.

But there is a hard edge to Rachel Bush’s domestic view. Check out the pair of poems “Anne Carson Until I Fall Asleep” and “Five Answers for Anne Carson”, and you find an acute intellectual querying of clichés. There are always the unsettling intimations of ageing and mortality, with a blunt poem about a medical procedure (“After ORIF”) for a fractured leg. The cycles of poems “Seven Visions” and “Hands and Birds” show the careful plotting of particular lines of thought. And under much of the collection is the determinism of the unconscious mind, nudging us along in sleep and in unbidden dreams and butting in, in the most unexpected places. Read the daytime poem “Quick and Good” and those nightmarish thought horses (night mares?) intrude in the form of Ovid’s line (later filched by Christopher Marlowe) “Lente, lente currite noctis equi”.

The scene might often be the settled house, but the thoughts are grown-up ones. This is a very satisfying collection.

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Do men think and write differently from women? Or is it just a matter of the things men like to write about?

The world of Bill Nelson, presented in his debut volume Memorandum of Understanding is very different from the world of Rachel Bush. Nelson’s poems are sometimes shorter and more abrupt, allusive rather than contemplative, and frequently drawing on the public life rather than the private one.

He imagines he is the ageing body of the great jazzman John Coltrane (“Giant Steps”). He witnesses a public suicide (“Battersea Bridge”). He creates a biting satire on rich money-movers and their toys (“The race plan”). And, most spectacularly, he creates a sequence of poems with an incredibly long time-frame. The five-part sequence is called, with clear irony, “The pigeon history of New Zealand”. Its vision goes from the prehistoric to the settled and almost blasé, taking a glance at the origin of religion en route. In poems with a clearly New Zealand setting, Nelson’s imagery is equally of Wellington (rain, Brooklyn) and Auckland (Victoria Park, the Harbour Bridge). We are looking at the big outside world, not the private dawn-chorus garden.

But there is an intimate emotional life suggested. Sometimes with hesitation and qualifications, Bill Nelson writes of love of a sort. There is an aching for somebody else at the end of a rainy walk (“Pronoun rain”). A carnal love is apparently preluded in the poem “Pins and Needles”, with its physical account of the uneasy movements of intertwined bodies as they get tired and cramped. Nelson sometimes writes in large blocks of prose-like print, with diagonal slash breaks (thus: / ) to separate the “lines”, as if this were signalling breath pauses. This is the technique he uses in “All the love poems”, “In geological time” and “Pattern #176”, all of which constitute a slightly sardonic take on love poems. They are dissections, rather than declarations, of erotic love. In the title poem “Memorandum of understanding”, this same technique presents us with a very tentative declaration of love as set in the context and idiom of legalistic business negotiations. Perhaps this is the love of a young man not quite sure of himself.

The collection ends with a very long (22-page) sequence “How to do just about anything”, mainly conveyed in active verbs, partly based on “found” text, and providing a surreal mix of activity with dreamed impossibility.

From everything I’ve said, then, this is clearly a book with a very male sensibility. And in this vein, I find one poem a real treasure. I love the dead-pan maleness of the poem “Charlie’s shed”, especially with its wonderfully contrived final lines, speaking eloquently of what endues and what is ephemeral. I quote the poem in full:

He hoarded screws

in peanut butter jars,

slotted oars and fishing rods

into the rafters, walked every day

on the beach. He told me

he couldn’t see my face

any more. I spent three months

in his tiny house of photographs,

bundled with rubber bands,

potato sacks stuffed

with potato sacks,

Time magazines

in unlabelled boxes.

I drank red wine

and listened to the clock

click its thin metal parts

into place, each second

finding its home

and then leaving it.

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Then again, the domestic and the public are neither of them the provinces of only female and only male. They cohabit in any of us, and they certainly cohabit in the bouncy poetry of Kerrin P. Sharpe. She deals with both the private or intimate; and the public world as seen in her poems of travel.

The title poem of Rabbit Rabbit is the first poem of the book – sixteen succinct lines of a fantasy about a woman keeping a frisky rabbit, which could easily be read as making comment on the organising woman and the adventuring male. A theriomorphic impulse leads Sharpe to give human beings animal shapes (“rabbit rabbit”, “I never asked to be a reindeer”). Hares run meaningfully in a number of poems late in the collection.

There are no organised “sequences” of poems in this book, but there is persistent imagery. A mother is the heroine of the first four poems. There is much medical imagery (brain surgery; gynaecology). Poems reference family and funerals, sometimes suggesting a Catholic background (“talk about Knocknagree”, “the morning of my mother’s funeral her cup is sober-minded”, “in any language we think of him” and “what was going on was the Cross”). Later poems appear to reference trips to Poland, Russia and Scandinavia with some side-glances at Ireland. One or two reference the New Zealand seashore. There is also the occasion mention of a son, in poems which may (or may not) allude to a private tragedy.

This uncertainty points to a little difficulty I had in reading many of these poems. While they are always pithy and lively, their frame of reference is often obscure. It is fun to read a surreal narrative like “whenever I pass the woods a wolf fastens my coat”, but even after repeated readings I am not sure what it means and I am left wondering if it means anything at all – apart from slightly nightmarish random images.

Yet I unreservedly admire two very accomplished poems. “A language goes silent” conjures up in very few words the early Chinese-New Zealand experience. And there is a wonderful war (or is it anti-war?) poem presented in the same surreal images Sharpe deploys elsewhere. It is called “on this day the hawk in battle-dress”. This is the poem I choose to quote in full:

on this day the hawk in battle dress

praises the textile of fields

where soldiers fall

he shadows their boots

their gas capes their Lewis guns

and fills their eyes with his

it no longer matters

if they gambled if they

forgot themselves if they

spent money like fire

here on linen snow

the hawk demonstrates

the fellowship of death

how it is dimly lit

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

SELECTED SHORT STORIES by Honore de Balzac (all published originally between 1830 and 1840). (edited by A.W.Raitt, Clarendon Press, 1964)

Twice on this blog I have pointed out that we are misjudging Guy de Maupassant if we see him only as a writer of short stories, great as he was in that genre (look up the postings on Pierre et Jean and Fort Comme La Mort). Guy de Maupassant was also a novelist. Four times on this blog, I have dealt with some of the best novels of Honore de Balzac (1799-1850), viz. Le Pere Goriot, LaRabouilleuse, La Cousine Bette and Le Cousin Pons. But here I must perform the manoeuvre in reverse. Great as Balzac was as a novelist, he was also an accomplished writer of short stories. So as with Guy de Maupassant, we can appreciate him in both genres.
As a signed-up Balzacian, I must, however, issue a warning. Not all of Balzac’s shorter fiction is of a piece or is of equal merit. Once he had conceived of his interlocking series of novels La Comedie Humaine, he often wrote short pieces simply to connect characters in one novel with characters in another. Indeed he often worked-over short stories he had already written, adding incidental details and names to fit them into this grand scheme. It is hard even for me to read these as stand-alone pieces. They are best read as adjuncts to specific Comedie Humaine novels. There is also the fact that his concept of the short story was a very loose one. Some of his shorter fictions are of the length of novellas, like his story of the money-lender Gobseck (1830) or his sad tale, one of his best, of the returned Napoleonic soldier Le Colonel Chabert (1832).
To find my way through Balzac’s real short fiction (that is, stories all of which are no longer than 40 pages) I turned to a very good selection, published by Clarendon Press back in 1964 and edited by A.W.Raitt, who also supplied (in English, of course) detailed and helpful notes to the French texts of the ten stories he had chosen. It does not bother me in the least that this publication was obviously prepared for students. All of the stories were written between 1830 and 1840, and most have a simple anecdote wrapped inside them. Balzac is able to observe character well, though the plots are often melodramatic.
What I found is as follows:
Un Episode sous la Terreur. During the most violent and anti-clerical phase of the French Revolution, a small group of Catholic worshippers in Paris meet to celebrate mass in secret. They are joined by a man whom they do not know and whose motives seem suspect. Is he a police spy? The denouement is that he was the executioner of the king, who is somehow now doing penance for his crime. While the structure smells of sensation, the story is still excellently evocative in its sense of terror, oppression and fear.
Le Requisitionnaire (=”conscript”) is more of an ingenious anecdote, even if it too has a specific historical setting. It has to do with a woman having an ESP experience about the death of her son who is fighting for the Chouans (the Catholic peasantry in rebellion against the new secular republic) at the time of the revolution.
Far and away the greatest story in this selection, and one of Balzac’s real masterpieces, is Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu (The Unknown Masterpiece). It is set in the seventeenth century, and has as one of its subordinate characters the historical painter Nicolas Poussin. A brilliant art critic is able to explain cogently and in detail why an artist’s painting is mediocre. He himself has been working for years on a great work of art. Finally the time comes when others are able to look at his great work of art. It turns out to be an incoherent daub, which obviously began as something interesting, but which he has worked and re-worked over so often that he has killed whatever inspiration it originally had. This is a story about the difference between criticism and art; and between inspiration and rationality. It is also about the truth that a certain point comes when the artist must abandon his work of art for fear of killing it. In his own commentary, and through his characters, Balzac gets to express some other important ideas about the arts, such as   “Il ne suffit pas pour etre un grand poete de savoir a fond la syntaxe et de ne pas faire de fautes de langue.” (“To be a great poet, there’s more to it than knowing grammar well and not slipping up in your language”). There is his famous aphorism “La mission de l’art n’est pas de copier la nature, mais de l’exprimer.” (“The mission of art is not to copy nature but to express it.”) And there is his analysis of the despairing artist: “Il a profondement medite sur les couleurs, sur la verite absolue de la ligne; mais, a force de recherches, il est arrive a douter de l’objet meme de ses recherches. Dans ses moments de desespoir, il pretend que le dessin n’existe et qu’on ne peut rendre avec des traits que des figures geometriques.” (“He had thought deeply about the colours and the absolute truth of the line; but because of all his research, he ended up doubting the very purpose of his research. In his moments of despair, he claimed that no general design existed and that all an artist could create by sketching was geometric shapes.”)
Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu is generally regarded as one of the great short stories in the French language. At a film festival in the early 1990s, I recall seeing Jacques Rivette’s modernised version of some elements from the story, La Belle Noiseuse (1991 – the title is the name, in the original Balzac story, of the painting the artist is trying to create). For what it’s worth, Wikipedia tells me that Picasso was a great admirer of Balzac’s tale
Le Message. After a fellow passenger dies in a coaching accident, a man has to carry a message of love to the dead man’s married mistress. The focus of the story is the way in which the married woman receives the news. Though clearly choking with emotion, she retains her dignity by not showing this in front of her husband.
Something of the same womanly stoicism is found in the story that follows.
La Grande Breteche (the title refers to a place) is basically a brilliant melodrama, which begins by setting up the mystery of why a certain noble provincial house is in such a dilapidated state. It turns out that the wife of a nobleman was having an affair with a Spanish prisoner of war who was out on parole. Then the prisoner escaped. But hearing noises in the closet, the husband suspected that the Spaniard had not really escaped but was being hidden by his wife. Husband got wife to swear a solemn oath that there was nobody in the closet. She swore the oath. Then he had the closet bricked up. And after the husband died, years later, the wife insisted that the property be left exactly as it was. Hence its dilapidation. The story is told by three successive narrators, and manages to come to a brilliant punchline ending with husband and wife both hearing a noise from the bricked-up closet and the husband blandly saying “But you swore on the cross that there was nobody there.” This is one that could have been written by E.T.A.Hoffmann if he had had Balzac’s psychological insight. Or Edgar Allan Poe if he had been able to restrain his pompous polysyllabic prolixity.
Un Drame au bord de la mer. For me, as a native English-speaker, this was the most difficult story to read because of all its description of the maritime country and its provincial words. Basically it is about a peasant father who does penance as a hermit in a grotto in recompense for killing his good-for-nothing son in a rage when the two of them were arguing.
La Messe de l’athee is, I judge, the most disappointing story in the book and the least persuasive as character study. A convinced atheist and rationalist, who scorns religion, is seen regularly attending mass and lighting candles at a shrine. Why? Because, it turns out, he is honouring the memory of the impoverished and devoutly Catholic water-carrier who encouraged him and materially helped him when he himself was an impoverished medical student. While I do not think this story adds up to much, it does make one pungent comment on transience: “La Gloire des chirurgiens ressemble a celle des acteurs, qui n’existent que de leur vivant et dont le talent n’est plus appreciable des qu’ils ont disparu.” (“The Glory of surgeons is like that of actors – it exists only when they are alive and nobody can appreciate their talents once they are dead.”) Obviously Balzac was writing long before cinema was invented!
Facino Cane. The first-person narrator sees a clearly intelligent, and blind, Italian musician playing in a group of three blind musicians at a wedding in a really poor quarter of Paris. Asking him about his life, he discovers he was formerly a wealthy nobleman who was ruined in youth by an inopportune love affair and then became obsessed with gold and still has mad plan to recover a hidden cache of gold in his native Venice. In other words, he is Balzac’s monomaniacal obsessives, like Goriot and Gobseck. The set-up is more interesting than this pay-off.
Finally, Pierre Grassou, which is one of the best in the volume because of its light touch. It is the funny and touching portrait of an absolutely mediocre painter who is able to parlay his lack-of-talent into a lucrative career as a portrait painter among the bourgeoisie, who have as little artistic taste as he does. In his portraits “tout denotait la vie meticuleuse des petits esprits” (“everything suggested the meticulous lives of small minds”). Like Le Chef-d-oeuvre inconnu, this allows Balzac to give a lot of his ideas on art, especially on the way real artists do not prosper materially. The story partly has Pierre Grassou slavishly copying old masters, for which copies he receives only modest payment from the art dealer Elias Magus – and he later discovers that Elias Magus has on-sold his mediocre copies for exorbitant sums as if they were the genuine article.
From this volume you can get a taste of the range of Balzac’s style. Certainly there is melodrama here and sensationalism – the type of things that lead fastidious critics to damn Balzac. But there is also real wit, real human insight, a tour de force of studied nastiness in La Grande Breteche; a palpable sense of menace in Un Episode sous la Terreur ; and in both Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu and Pierre Grassou, some of the best ideas that a prose writer ever put on paper about the arts. Balzac deserves to be seen as a master of the short-story form.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.  


            For no urgent reason, I present to you as this week’s “Something Thoughtful” two poems that appear in my forthcoming collection Mirror World (Steele Roberts, 2016). Winter is now with us, and even though I write this after a blissfully sunny and clear Auckland day, I can feel the chill in the air. So I have decided to present you with two poems dealing with the seasons. “The Pear Tree” will (I hope) resonate with anyone who has admired the blossoms in spring, but has simultaneously sniffled through pollen-charged allergies. As for “Winter Trio”, I hope it (and King Lear) are self-explanatory.


The lesson never learnt, in seems and is,

taught each year when she stands

with witches’ claws against the winter skies

beside the supple, living evergreen,

declaring that she’s ready for the axe.

Then spring, uncalled-for, buds. Always

the unexpected putting-on of gear,

a bridal gown of petals, white

this week and papering the earth

before birds stab her fruit.

An easy lesson, then, in seems and is,

the seasoned allegory, life from death

in cycles of renewal. The dead wood

was hibernating only, waiting for

the vernal equinox and nudge of sun.

But seems and is lack seasons, come

in frost or warmth. She’s living for her kind.

Her springtime brideship has a price

in pollen-spray and spores. For the unkind

her living beauty carries plague.

A fevered, heavy head, wet nose

and sneezes from her blossom

freezing thought and stoking allergy.

She doesn’t die in winter, doesn’t give

her beauty freely; is a tree that answers back


Autumn went out; winter came in. The cat

hid from the night rain under the platform

outside our front door, its green wood dripping,

protesting loud at her rout from behind

warm armchair or under mysterious desk.

We lay in the dark, hearing her trundling

over the tiles, miaowing at the window

when we switched on a light in the small hours.

Her fur was wet, dawn eyes large when we let

her in. “Poor Tom’s a cold!” Our soul outside.

A small blackbird landed in the guttering,

and slipped and was trapped, its leg caught in rust,

fidgeting and crying beyond our grasp.

The cat reached the bird, bit its head and batted,

making its last flight dead-weight and gravity.

We scraped the maimed carcass from the concrete,

feather, bones and muck, a cat’s unwanted sport,

and made a shallow grave in sodden soil.

It rained and dripped. The cat sniffed flowers and weeds

as we worked, indifferent to little death.

Then the rats, or mice. Something scampering

behind the scrim at least in the darkness

when it was raining, sheltering like we,

an alien domestic beast, resented

in our dreams of unsavoury rodents.

The cat, the rat, the bird, a winter trio

driven by foul weather to our closed coat

of wood and tile. We are no benign king

of mercy-madness, wrapping a wet Fool,

but the fourth part of forced winter shelter.