Monday, March 26, 2012

Something New

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

“BEAUTIES OF THE OCTAGONAL POOL” by Gregory O’Brien (Auckland University Press, $NZ 27:99 )
“DEAR HEART – 150 New Zealand Love Poems” Edited by Paula Green (Godwit Press/ Random House $NZ 36:99)

First an interesting word about something that is on-line only – thus compromising my claims to be concerned solely with books. The Poets and Poetry Archive UK at http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/home.do  is a wonderful resource which allows users of the internet to listen to recordings of English-language poets reading selections of their own work. This includes Modernist classics (tune in to the recorded voice of T.S.Eliot) as well as established living poets.

As of February this year, and under the direction of Jan Kemp, 25 New Zealand poets are in the process of being added to this prestigious sound archive. The first six, a mixture of the living and the dead, are  M.K.Joseph, Anna Jackson, Charles Brasch, Briar Wood, Alistair Paterson and Siobhan Harvey. Others will follow.

I have already had the pleasure of accessing the site and listening to Alistair Paterson reading his “Poem” and “Pas de Deux” and four other selections; and M.K.Joseph reading six poems including his classic “Drunken Gunners”.

I’m engaged here in drawing your attention to books, but if you think poetry should first be accessed through the ear, this is a good place to start.

Now for the books.

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In October of last year I had the pleasure of attending, in Auckland, an illustrated lecture given by Gregory O’Brien and some of his fellow artists and poets. It was billed as Encounters and it showcased the work they had done on a sponsored trip to Raoul Island and the Kermadecs. Aucklander by birth but Wellingtonian by adoption, O’Brien is both graphic artist and poet. His latest collection (his first in seven years) Beauties of the Octagonal Pool, shows off his skills in both fields. Cover, end-papers and title pages of each of the collection’s eight sections are all illustrated with O’Brien’s distinctive line decorations. Their effect is generally playful and celebratory, but sometimes an analytic inspiration is evident as O’Brien fills the page with numbers and geometric shapes.

As in the decorations, so in the poetry.

Playfulness is one of O’Brien’s major keys. I cannot help but see the poem “Ceiling fan, Villefranche” as an extension of the sort of drift-into-dreams that James Joyce has at the end of Ulysses – a string of images connected by the lazy fan twirling above. Coherent? Not exactly. But musical and enjoyable, like the beginning of a dream. In similar fashion, a poem like “Solidarity with the anchovy”, solemnly addressing the fish as brothers and contemplating their fate, reminds me of the eighteenth century poet (was it William Cowper? I cannot readily find it in the Collected Poems of Cowper on my shelf) who wrote a solemn ode to the fish he was about to consume for breakfast.

These are pure jeux d’esprit.

The poems of Beauties of the Octagonal Pool cover much geographical ground and some of the eight sections into which the collection is divided seem designed to recall specific trips (to the Kermadecs, to Moscow, to France etc.).

However, I found myself more interested in the collection’s thematic preoccupations than in its specific landscapes.

Fittingly for one who is artist as well as poet, O’Brien is interested in an appreciation of the arts themselves. A sequence of  poems deals with encounters with New Zealand by early European explorers. One is a celebration of the first ting-tang-tong of the guitar as it would have sounded when a Spanish expedition made landfall here in 1793. The trip to Moscow has a set built around the Russian Modernist painting “Black Square” with O’Brien astutely noting (as is true of so many art-works) that the admired painting “appears much less absolute in real life than it does in reproduction”.

Another major preoccupation is physical nature as observed on his various travels. The poem “An artist’s guide to the layers of an ocean” is marvellous proof of the fact that O’Brien is both poet and graphic artist, as it is exactly what its title says it is – and includes visually precise lines such as “diving birds like brushes/ or pencils plumbing/ the depths”. Yes!! to that, as any viewer of wildlife documentaries on the hunting habits of gannets can confirm. O’Brien views nature as basically benign, even if a poem like “A mule, Raoul Island” incidentally reminds us of “the shark-hungry bay” and “Rangitahua” recalls the massive destruction nature can wreak.

Human beings are now inevitable features of even the wildest places. The punning title of “A naval exercise (for two hands)” refers to the two naval hands it takes to rescue a man who has fallen overboard, and the poem’s imagery makes it absolutely clear that O’Brien respects the skill of the trained naval rescuers as much as he respects the skill of a fine piece of music. This is art in practical work.

Perhaps closer to what is in his heart are the poems of childhood and adolescent memory. Some are wistful in tone. “The lake of first girlfriends” uses swimming as a metaphor for the tentativeness of first amorous contact. In “Whangaparoa 1975”, in their relations with adolescent girls “the boys, for the most part, were/ a few years behind/ but catching up.

Male adoration of, or obeisance to, the female carries over into the poems of marriage and heterosexual love. Sometimes, as in “A consort of flower parts” addressed to “Jen” (O’Brien’s wife Jenny Bornholdt) I have that awful sense that I am not picking up a code that means a lot to this married couple – marriage depicted as punctuation, or a musical score.

In other poems, such as “Line”, are covert references to the female pudenda. So too in “Ode to fashion” an invitation to strip off clothes which ends with “that/quiet seam/beside which I sit/ awaiting further/ instructions”. Yes, we men are all ruled by that seam. Most greatly to my taste is the plainly-titled “Love Poem”, a prose poem which ends a series of linguistic paradoxes with the punchline “I dream about you but you are not a dream”. I guess this is as near as we will get to “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” in the present age - an assertion of the fact that the woman who is loved is a real woman and not merely a literary device.

Art and nature and the wistfulness of childhood and adolescent recall and places seen and married and sexual love. And to this I would have to add the religious strain, feeding in from O’Brien’s Catholic background. “Ode to Futuna Chapel”, the Marist chapel in Karori  where the angles of an/ unsquare world/ are made/ square.” “A small ode to faith” may ironically endorse fishing as worship, but the religious tone is still there; and “The Surfer’s Mass” appears to be a literal teenage memory of mass being celebrated on Waiheke Island. “The non-singing seats” is in memory of Maxwell Fernie, who for so many years led the music in  St Mary of the Angels in Wellington. Even the poem “Marseilles Fish Market” has playful Catholic-derived imagery of “Our lady of this/ and that, were we to lose faith/ we would find you on your throne/ of salad leaves, in every alcove/ of the citrus church.”

As you can see, in this poor excuse for a review I have done little more than wander through the collection cherry-picking things that interested me or caught my attention. I hope I make it plain that I find O’Brien a companionable poet. The personality that comes through Beauties of the Octagonal Pool is observant, calm, thoughtful, friendly, forgiving, in love.

This leads to much enjoyment, but there is really only one poem that bowls me over. This is the brilliant “Ode to Thought”, a marvellously connected series of images related to the processes of thought, beginning and ending with the extended metaphor of thought as the play of wind on a pond with toy boats. The title may be ironical – mocking those solemn odes Augustan poets once penned – but the poem lives up to it.

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Anthologies of New Zealand love poems are no new thing. It seems only yesterday that I enjoyed reading my way through My Heart Goes Swimming – New Zealand Love Poems, edited by Jenny Bornholdt  and Gregory O’Brien. Actually it was 16 years ago, way back in 1996.

My Heart Goes Swimming was produced by the same Godwit Press that has now produced Paula Green’s Dear Heart – 150 New Zealand Love Poems. For the record, the Bornholdt/O’Brien anthology contained 73 poems, so the most basic thing one can say of the new anthology is that it is more expansive. Over twice as expansive, to be precise. There is, however, a connection between Dear Heart and My Heart Goes Swimming in that Dear Heart contains poems by Bornholdt and O’Brien (including some that appear in Beauties of the Octagonal Pool) ; and O’Brien is one of the nine artists who have contributed decorations through the book that spell out the words “Dear Heart”.

As they do not, by definition, represent one poet’s voice, anthologies are notoriously difficult to criticise. Dear Heart confines itself to New Zealand poems since the 1930s, so it is mainly Modernist or Postmodernist.

Green’s introduction notes that poems on love are not necessarily on the love between grown man and grown woman. Therefore this anthology contains Angela Andrews and Anna Jackson  and Mary Stanley each writing about love for a young son, Harry Ricketts and Fleur Adcock on adult sons, Ingrid Horrocks on her mother, Jeffrey Paparoa Holman on his father and others on whole families. Sometimes love for the non-human is celebrated - Airini Beautrais on the Tauherenikau river, Peter Bland’s “The Gift” on love of land, and Ursula Bethell’s lustrous “Homage” to roses (unless its parade of floral beauties has an oblique lesbian significance).

Having noted all this, though, most of this selection of love poems is indeed on the love between men and women, even if a few deploy the non-specific “you” and “me” or “we” and could refer to gay couples.

Three or four poems were written in celebration of weddings. None of them seems to get beyond the sentiment that life will be an adventurous journey for the marrying couple. (Let me not to the marriage of true love admit impediment, but no modern writer of epithalamia dares mention the possibility of children that marriage brings. This would once have been the chief point of celebration.)

While admitting the diversity of love poems, I am hesitant to call some of the selected poems love poems. Janet Frame’s “Child” seems to me more a painful memory of the dawning of childhood awareness – either that or the love of a coat.

Is a frank poetic celebration of love a little passé? Possibly. So many of the more recent “love” poems here seem less words of delight than sly, ironic or resigned observations. Poets no longer say frankly “I love you”. They are more likely to say “Look at this funny little thing or memory we share.” Which is quite nice but does not make the heart go pitter-pat. Love as trinket or keepsake. Not love as full-on passion or adoration (not the same thing).

In fact you have to look at some of the older voices represented to find the frankly sexual. James K Baxter’s “The Beach House” written to the woman who is asleep in a nearby bed. Fiona Farrell’s “The Castle” on yielding to expert male seduction. The most old-fashioned (and rhymed) poems in the book are A.R.D. Fairburn’s “Change” and Eileen Duggan’s “The Tides Run Up the Wairau”. A dyspeptic prof of Eng Lit once dismissed the latter as Mills-and-Boon but it holds up quite well. And a few pages after the Duggan comes the most modern imagery in the anthology, in a poem by Serie Barford “Our love is a tracking device/ more sure than any global/ positioning system”.

I’ll say no more. I think Paula Green has taken the temperature of current New Zealand love poetry accurately. It is for individual readers to decide which plums they will pick.

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