Monday, September 7, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“GENERATION KITCHEN” by Richard Reeve (Otago University Press, $NZ25); “SOME OF US EAT THE SEEDS” by Morgan Bach (Victoria University Press, $NZ25)); “FAILED LOVE POEMS” by Joan Fleming (Victoria University Press, $NZ 25); “JERUSALEM SONNETS, LOVE, WELLINGTON ZOO” by David Beach (Victoria University Press, $NZ25)
According to a quotation prefacing Generation Kitchen, Richard Reeve’s fifth collection of poetry, oil company geologists have referred to basins far below the surface of the earth as “kitchens” generating oil. Reeve’s choice of title at once signals some of his chief concerns – ecology and the preservation of the environment in the face of its commercial exploitation. But there is a degree of irony in the title too.
The volume’s proem “Generation Kitchen” declares clearly the man we are dealing with. It is written in iambic pentameters, true to Reeve’s care for, and interest in, metrical form. But the opening line’s assertion that “the cooking rock divulges secret blood” suggests intense feeling. The Earth is a feeling, bleeding being. So we have irony, an intense concern for the Earth and quite a bit of passion. The passion is a rational and adult passion, not an adolescent’s mewling. Nor is it the yelp of the eco-propagandist. The structure keeps it in the realm of the rational and the adult. And in the realm of poetry rather than slogans.
Generation Kitchen is at least an arresting volume of poetry.
Reading new collections of poetry, I’ve often indulged my old habit of trying to work out why the poet has decided to divide his individual poems into sections. Sometimes this quest is fruitless. An Elder Statesman of NZ Lit. once told me that he divided poetry collection into sections solely to give readers a break, and that was all there was to it.
In Generation Kitchen, however, I think I see the ghost of a reason for Richard Reeve’s arrangement of his poems into four sections.
First, there are there are the intensely personal ones, which question human identity. The first-person confessional “Movers and Shakers” could be taken as a photographic realistic view of digging into earth, but raises the possibility of life absorbed into earth with “far-off, ancient teacups / sailing heavy under the imprint of earth. There might have been / an imprint of held-down faces…” This conceit is developed in full in “Not a Soul”, essentially an account of a corpse absorbed into the earth and becoming part of it, with a parting ironical and self-deprecating glance at the narrowness of living perception (“Winters trod my poetry / till no one could read it. My lies became sand, / great dunes of euphemism.”). But then, having raised the question of human consciousness being absorbed into something bigger, Reeve considers the consciousness of creatures which are hunted by us, but which might one day supplant us (“Octopus”); and creatures whose instinctive predatory behaviour mirrors our own behaviour (sharks in “Fish for Dinner”)
The second section seems to focus on discrete things in nature that give us joy. There are two poems about cats. “Sunshed” is a discursive poem on moods of sun and sea as markers of life and death. Though it might have a dismissive title, “Beer and Chips” is an affirmative poem on the small things that remind us we are part of something greater. And though “Into the Compost” is about decay, it manages to be jocular with its insistent repetitions. Decay, the transformation of one form of energy into another, is a life-force too (“Bring out your dead hearts, feeble flesh, sloppy or flank, / leftover catfood, onion skin, mushroom gone rank, / put your coffee-grist, orange peel, rhubarb hake in the bank, / into the compost.”)
The mood becomes more confrontational and satirical in the third section, where Reeve celebrates a man ripping out exotic pines from the New Zealand landscape (“Wilding Pines, Southland”); curses destructive rural development (“Meeting in a Field”); and curses monetarist mindsets (“Bailout”) where “Metaphysics has Systemic Worth for Economy, say Senators. / At the monetarist e-chapel this morning, my mouse poised / to watch the iron lung wheezing….” The assured use of form, not to mention the complex imagery, prevent all these forays from tipping over into propaganda. “Mahinerangi” gives us crossed rhymes (“roads, cowshit and plastic / where the small houses cringe. / Little quaint or rustic, / just a mouldering fringe.”) More impressively, crossed rhymes sustain “District”, a long (about 150 measured lines) savage and witty sort of dialogue between an exploiter and one he denounces as a hypocrite for enjoying modern amenities but blocking “progress”.
If this is where Reeve attacks most, then in the last section the tone is more detached, at times almost serene. “Westport” is a grim and dour realist portrait of the West Coast settlement (“Town muzzled by the Care of Children Act,/…. The world doesn’t give a fuck about Westport. / The world, being all about itself, is the Buller River, / gathering its poetry in an irrepressible surge.”). “Evening Walk” is a confessional autobiographic view of Dunedin. “Winter Storm” is pure pictorial. “The Old Breed” is poem in honour of the “ecologist-irritant to the corporates”. A sign of eco-hope.
Satire and irony do not have the last word in this thoughtful volume, which is felt keenly and crafted carefully.
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Comparisons are odious, so you get none here, but Morgan Bach’s capacious (c.80 pages) debut collection of poetry Some of Us Eat the Seeds is a very different bucket of berries from the foregoing.
Bach’s forte is the confessional. A very high proportion of her poems are in the first-person, being memories of travel (Central America and Japan) linked with impressions of living near an airport; memories of old loves; memories of an (apparently) rural childhood and of a memorable father, who makes more of an impression in this collection than a mother does. There is a poem about thinking of her father dying in various melodramatic ways (“In pictures”). There is a poem of a father vanishing from the landscape (“His binding land”). And there are recurrent images of dreams – many of them suggestive of a young woman or girl falling helplessly into life. The title poem “Some of Us Eat the Seeds” is a reference to Persephone dragged off to (or falling into) the underworld. For Bach the eye itself is a portal of the infernal. In “Study in eyes” she describes the eye as “An illuminated planet / of fire and light / and the pale oval, / dormant entry to the underworld / via optic nerve.”
Particular liminal psychic states always tug at the purely physical. Given this perception, then, it is not too much of a jolt when a poem about what is apparently a rainforest trek (“When We Unfurled”) turns into a psychodrama (“I’ve worked myself up to take this journey, / to find out what is in there. / Our mapped minds are too hard to read / without walking into them.”). A poem about travelling on a night bus in a foreign country (“Night Bus”) becomes a memory of being sick in the family car during childhood journeys. A poem about flying over South America (“Symbols”) becomes sickness itself. The big world may be out there, but perception is solipsism. The longest and most ambitious poem in this collection is the seven-part sequence “Performance”, where a journey in Japan is a platform for personal feeling about friendship, sex and alien customs.
When in comes to relationships, there are a number of poems hinting at abandonment. As suggested by this collection, the poet is at the stage of still wanting the ideal, but often being battered by the real.
Picking favourites in a debut anthology is a foolish practice, but Morgan Bach is at her best (and most typical?) with “This is how I write a love poem”. Venus born at sea and returning to reality on the beach does not deflate romantic love in a sardonic tone of voice, but into an acceptance of the distance between the idealised and the immanent.
The mature voice is growing in this strong first collection.
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I said I wouldn’t make comparisons between separate volumes of poetry, but it is hard to move from Morgan Bach’s Some of Us Eat the Seeds to Joan Fleming’s Failed Love Poems without noticing at least some affinities.
Morgan Bach is troubled by the gap between the real and the ideal. Joan Fleming gets stuck in with two fists and damns the ideal. From its title onwards, Failed Love Poems operates as a satirical (sometimes sardonic) deconstruction of romantic love. The search for love is there, but there is a constant awareness of the insufficiency of words to say much that is useful about it. And words are dishonest beasts anyway. So it could be read as love poems that have failed. But then again, the title could signal that this is a collection of poems about failed love.
Epitome of this collection is the poem “The brief life of the love poem”, which treats the love poem itself as a neurotic patient in need of counselling (“The love poem / lays itself down on the couch / it has memories / it does not know how to speak them / aloud / it needs help / How are you feeling? / we ask the love poem / The love poem / shuts its eyes / There is no cure for the love poem.”) In this world love, like anger, can be a short madness. In similar vein “Correspondences” treats a love affair as a series of scripted and predictable poses to be itemised.
When Failed Love Poems reaches its second section, the poetry surrenders to prose – or rather to two sequences of prose poems, which are quizzical and observant about longer-term relationships, but which could by no manner of means be called romantic. One of the two sequences ends with the birth of a baby, but for the mother “Love and exhaustion became the two halves of her blue-fruit heart, which fell apart, and was eaten.” Was this written from the perspective of a tired mother after a long day or after being deserted? Or was it written from the perspective of a young woman arguing herself out of long-term commitment?
Perhaps it is significant that - when we reach the volume’s third section - the most joyful (and purely lyrical) poem in the collection is “Makara”, with the depicted love being like a picturesque (and perhaps brief) holiday romp.
And there are poems about love as stagnation (“Standing Water”). And poems about love as loss (“[found poem from a letter of a gone love]’). And the concluding poems seem to depict a love in a state of dissolution. Which raises the possibility that the whole volume is fired by the ending of a particular love.
Enough of this psychologising and second-guessing.
At their best, I found Joan Fleming’s poems robust and convincing.
I freely confess to finding some of her imagery opaque, some of her lineation puzzling, and the poems written in the form of censored confessions a mere conundrum. But this is still a volume with a strong personal voice.
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Sonnets? I love the beasts. The thrill of making those thoughts move to the Petrarchan octave and sestet, or to Bill Shakespeare’s three-stanzas-and-a-whalloping-rhyming-couplet-punchline. But is a sonnet a sonnet if it doesn’t divide and conquer or move to the form? Is a sonnet a sonnet if it’s just fourteen unrhymed lines of no particular metrical ingenuity?
I mean, is it?
So anyway, here we have David Beach’s Jerusalem Sonnets, Love, Wellington Zoo, and they are 58 pages of 14-line poems. I’ll strain hard and prove my generosity and say you can call them sonnets if you will. The ghosts of Francesco and Bill (and Johnny Keats and Charlie Baudelaire) caution me to be open-minded.
How do they line up?
There are 4 “Jerusalem sonnets” not too gently taking the piss out of James K. Baxter mainly for “boastful piety”.
Then there are 4 “Love sonnets” which are analytical about that wretched thing called love, rather than celebratory
And then the best and the funniest and also the most dour – the raison d’etre for this tome, I’d guess – the 50 “Wellington Zoo sonnets”. And they really are just that. A stroll around the zoo and its caged inmates. Yes, there are giraffes and yes there are cheetahs and yes there are other beasts. But the chimpanzees do take over, for what more engages us than our primate mates and cousins? I liked especially the coprophiliac chimp eating his own poo in silent revenge for a snub. And the chimps moving in a forceful and threatening line as if waiting for the bleeping monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey to give them some intelligent purpose. But here’s where these poems jump from the cages and hit us in the face, jocularly, amusingly, ironically telling us that the caged beasts and we are kin, and hinting at other cages in the wider world with us inside them.
Reader – a confession. I took this one as more light and accessible than the other tomes viewed here, and enjoyed it as a bedside book, a few poems per night.