Monday, October 6, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“THE LAND BALLOT” by Fleur Adcock (Victoria University Press, $NZ30); “SLEEPING ON HORSEBACK” by Frances Samuel (Victoria University Press, $NZ25)
To place together these two volumes of poetry is a little unfair. One is written by a well-established, much-anthologised and much-awarded poet, the expatriate New Zealander Fleur Adcock. The other is the debut collection of a young New Zealand poet, Frances Samuel. Their styles and themes are quite different and they have little in common but their publishing house. Yet here I am placing them side-by-side. So that’s that.
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Fleur Adcock’s The Land Ballot sits approximately in the same position relative to her oeuvre as Early Days Yet does to Allen Curnow’s oeuvre. It is an older person’s sequence of poems, going back to the poet’s roots. Just as Curnow set aside some of his typical preoccupations to recall his clergyman father as he remembered him in the 1930s, so does Adcock forsake her usual preoccupations to reconstruct the lives of her grandparents and her father in an earlier rural New Zealand.
Grandfather Sam Adcock and grandmother Eva, from Britain, struggled, from 1919 to the 1930s, to break in and make profitable a most unpromising farm on Mount Pirongia in the King Country. A “land ballot” was the process through which men who wanted to create farms out of wild bushland were allocated property just after the First World War. Grandfather Sam appears to have been a rather half-hearted farmer and when things got tough he found it preferable to earn a living as a barber in Te Awamutu. That meant that often the hard practical farming matters – such as milking the cows – fell to teenaged Cyril, the poet’s father.
The Land Ballot, a collection of generous length (82 pages of poems), traces the lives of these people, and of other members of the family, with a faintly elegiac sense which become quite explicit the nearer we reach the collection’s conclusion. For it is clear that ultimately the Adcocks weren’t able to make a go of the farm and the enterprise gradually fell apart. The last poem in the book, “State Highway 31”, depicts the poet revisiting the land where the farm once was. It opens with the words:
The owners of the land round here
haven’t spent their time preserving
obsolete structures for potential
grandfather-chasers to post on Facebook.
The poet’s memories and recorded family legend and lore and remembered conversations are ultimately all that remain of the life the earlier Adcocks led. As recorded in these poems, that life was pinched and rather austere, but not without its colourful spots. Poems broach such topics as fencing the farm and being an immigrant family far from England and being taught at a tiny primary school and reading the School Journal by the light of a kerosene lamp and the incidence of TB and infant mortality then and the presence of household articles such as “washboard, washing dolly, Reckitt’s bluebag, scrubbing brush, sandstone, bar of Sunlight soap” (as listed in the poem “Settlers’ Museum” at p.46) and family scandals involving the farming out of children and cousins and repercussions of the recent Great War and one historical incident - not involving one of the poet’s forebears – of sheep-shagging (in the poem “The Kea Gun” pp.73-75). Ragwort takes over the farmland in later poems as the farm falls into decline and as a suitable road is never built in to the small farming community.
There is also an interesting recurring theme of cultural dislocation, most pertinent to a New Zealand poet of English parentage who has spent most of her adult life in England. This is the condition of sometimes realizing that British and storybook cultural markers don’t really fit the New Zealand scene, and yet still having a dual identity as both British and New Zealander. To quote in full one of the best poems in this vein, “Bedtime Story” (p.18), where the child realizes that tales like Little Black Sambo don’t fit our flora and anyway real butter isn’t made in the way the storybook says:
But there are no tigers in this forest
to run round and round a tree until they
turn into butter; this is not jungle
but unbroached New Zealand bush, and it is
the trees themselves – rimu, hinau, tawa,
totara – that because they cannot run
will be turned step by step first into ash
then grass, then milk, then, yes, into butter.
I trust no one has any objections?
(Hang around as the century scrolls by.)
This theme of cultural dislocation is taken up in the poem “A Manchester Child” (pp.24-25) about the teasing the poet’s English father at first got at primary school; and in “The Family Bible” (pp.42-43)
Fleur Adcock adopts many different voices for these poems. Some are “found” poems, quoting from the local newspaper of the 1920s, the Waipa Post, in ways that can’t help but be ironical from the perspective of our changed social attitudes. Sometimes the poet goes first-person and speaks for herself, commenting on her own poetic methods in poems that are printed in italics such as the introductory poem “Where the Farm Was” (p.11), “Settlers’ Museum” (p.46), “The Sensational” (p.72) and “Jubilee Booklet 1989” (p.92). What is noticeable is how dominant the perspective of her father is. There are many poems presented in Cyril’s voice and many which deal with things that would most have affected Cyril, such as his teenage enthusiasm for scientific things and later his training as a teacher and his sense of relief when finally he was posted somewhere far from the farm so that he could no longer reasonably be expected to run it.
I would call Fleur Adcock’s poetic style a rather old-fashioned one. A poem like “Telegraphese” (p.41) – a piece of family history written in the clipped style of a telegram which misses out articles such as “the” and “a” – might have been considered experimental in the 1950s, but now seems a product of the 1950s. This, however, is a pointlessly bitchy thing for me to say, inasmuch as these are, after all, poems of recall written by a woman who is now aged 80. I make it clear that I thoroughly enjoyed this collection and my spirits leapt when I met well-turned phrases, such as the line (in the poem “Armistice Day p.57) about Cyril having seen fireworks “his retina stencilled / with their acidic blaze”.
In terms of both subject matter and style, it is absolutely right that VUP have chosen a 1950 drawing by Eric Lee-Johnson as this book’s cover design.
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I am annoyed by the way in which the term “surreal” is misused. Often it is thrown into articles and conversation as if it is no more than a synonym for “odd” or “freaky” or “arresting”. Properly speaking, if something is surreal it has the solid qualities of a literal, material object, but it has been placed in an unreal or ideal or dreamlike setting. And because of this disjunction of the literal and the dreamlike, it has an inbuilt ironic quality. Think Salvador Dali’s recognizably real watches melting; or the recognizably literal attributes of a redesigned human person being torn apart in his “Premonition of Civil War”.
I’m saying all this because many of the poems in Frances Samuel’s debut collection Sleeping on Horseback are surreal in the most precise way. Take the lovely poem “Light and Shade”, which I quote here in its entirety:
On one side of the tree
Lightning never struck.
Ancient birds sat on the branches
No wind could lift their feathers.
On the other side
Black leaves smoked.
Birds flew close, perched
Then fell to the ground like fruit.
Now this tree is described precisely, yet obviously there is no such tree, just as there are no such things as “ancient birds” whose feathers cannot be lifted by the wind. So this literally-described tree is a dream tree – a surreal tree – and implicitly it becomes a statement about human perception or the human condition.
Many of Frances Samuel’s poems work in this way – the externalization of states of consciousness by means of literal and objective things. The poem “Firework Festival”, for example, is explicitly about somebody in an unhappy frame of mind attending a fireworks display, but the fireworks become “angry gods / spitting from the sky”. Or again the long poem “Vending Machine”, which chronicles a series of improbable events and sights before, eventually, literally declaring itself to be a dream. And another long poem “The forest of things”, which pushes surreal images so far that it becomes one long conceit.
None of this is to say that all of Frances Samuel’s poems have a dreamlike or surreal quality, but enough of them do to suggest a poetic technique of finding wildly-imaginative correlatives for mundane states of mind. The colour is in the dreamwork and the dream landscapes.
I am wary of describing collections of poetry in terms of their section headings. I remember once on this blog agonising over why a certain collection of poetry had been divided into four or five sections, and spending much of my review trying to find thematic rationales for this division. My ingenious explanations were deflated by a private missive from the poet in question, who pointed out that he had simply divided his individual poems into sections to provide breaks and breathing spaces for readers.
Bearing this in mind, then, I note tentatively that Frances Samuel’s collection is divided into four sections. The first, “In The Very Earliest Time” seems to comprise poems about perception and representation, and references paintings and drawings. The second, “Traveller’s Luck” is partly about foreign parts, but is more frequently about imaginative states of mind. The third, “The Hundred Year Picnic”, after its genuinely weird title poem, deals mainly with beasts – caterpillars, mountain goats, zoo animals, ducks, penguins. The fourth, “Moon walking” jumps into specifically surreal territory, where a banana becomes a ramp or a slide (in the poems “Bananas”), but finally grounds itself in domestic realities, with a long poem, “The gardeners”, which is apparently an elegy for the poet’s father, and also poems about babies and birth. This, at any rate, is how the collection reads to me – but I could be rationalising what are simply arbitrary breaks.
It is hard to comment at length on the poet’s versification. Most poems are as free form as one now expects of younger poets. But there are odd breaks into stressed alliteration and assonance, as in a stanza of the poem “Qualifying for the ark” where “As
the sun dries up that perilous,/ preposterous puddle, / blink away your bifocal gaze, / safe in the knowledge / you survived the storm alone.”
I find in this volume one perfect love poem. It’s the one that references penguins. It is called “Stones” and in its entirety goes thus:
I am selecting stones
To place in front of you
Penguins do this
To express their desire
& since my message
has not reached you
I drop these smooth weights
warm from discovery
& leave them arranged
like a miniature henge
ready to capture the sun.
This is a very good first collection.