Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Something New

[NOTICE TO READERS: For over four years, Reid's Reader has been presenting an entirely free service to readers with commentary on books new and old. Reid's Reader receives no grants or subsidies and is produced each week in many hours of unpaid work. If you wish to contribute, on an entirely voluntary basis, to the upkeep of this blog, we would be very grateful if you made a donation via the PayPal "DONATE" button that now appears at the top of the index at right. Thank you.]
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THERE ARE NO HORSES IN HEAVEN” by Frankie McMillan (Canterbury University Press, $NZ25); “THIS PAPER BOAT” by Gregory Kan (Auckland University Press, $NZ24:99); “THE LIVES OF COAT HANGERS” by Sudesh Mishra (Otago University Press, $NZ25); “THUDS UNDERNEATH” by Brent Kininmont (Victoria University Press, $25)

This week I look at four separate and distinct new volumes of poetry. The four volumes have little in common except that they were all published by university presses and that I am reviewing them.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *
There have at various times been controversies over the concept of a poet’s “voice”. What – if anything – is it that makes a poet unique, or distinctive from other poets? When we are reading this poet, how do we know that this was written uniquely by him / her and not by somebody else?
In reading the Christchurch-based Frankie McMillan’s There Are No Horses in Heaven, I find two very distinctive things. The first is the way McMillan likes to centre each poem on an individual character. The second is the quality of her imagery. In poem after poem, Frankie McMillan’s imagery is very nineteenth century. In her world we encounter a pointless treadmill in a prison, evoking all sorts of grim woodcuts depicting barbarous Victorian penal conditions; men standing in whales they have stripped of blubber; a glass-blower, then a corset-maker making whale-bone corset; and a cathedral and its steeple keeper. Granted, the cathedral in one poem may be Gaudi’s modernistic masterpiece, but to read many of the poems in this volume is still like seeing annotated sepia photographs from long ago.
The poems do not stand single but fold into one another, comment upon one another, and much of the volume is like a commentary on a former century. Images of a past age are more likely to take on an iconic (perhaps mythic or fairy-tale) quality than imagery drawn from our own times. It is surely intentional that when we read a poem like “He reads the welcome of swans” (p.39) we are meant to feel the mythic weight of the ferryman crossing the Styx (or Lethe) to the land of the dead:
He reads the welcome of swans
the ferryman knows his own life
is rich with incident
his paper boat, creased and folded
and he at the helm
cockeyed from staring at lovers
their haul of picnic baskets
his own palms worn thin
with the exchange of coins
his oar all dip and pull, the sweet
drag of water and  always
returning, the bare- footed ones
who miss nothing
who no longer expect
the arrival of others
the ferryman rubs his eyes
a penny for each of them 
the swan unfolds
the huge breathing of water
Many of the themes of this collection do coalesce in the title poem “There are no horses in heaven” (p.45) which has bits of Catholicism (a nun as the focus), children in a classroom, a child’s view of animals and the will to escape from the constraints of adult reason.
A new strain of imagery emerges in the volume’s third section, which moves into medical and biological terminology as we are introduced to optometrists, taxidermists, heart surgeons and (possibly) an obstetrician – yet again the imagery is of yesterday and largely of European cities. These are exercises in squaring humanity with its physicality, connected with poems about the travails of animals (horses, deer, mistreated gorillas, elephants on the Titanic). Once again, it is rare to find images of the present, such as in poem “Fowl, announcing an egg” (p.63) where is “their cry shrill / enough to interrupt the radio waves - / ad men with cut-throat deals on cars.”
Given the self-contained characters who dominate each poem, and given the retro imagery, there emerges as a subtext a certain alienation from intimate personal relationships. People are on their own and locked in the past. The prose-poem “In the nick of time, a deer” is a piece of childhood confessionalism, which suggests some real or imagined domestic violence. The irrational behaviour of adults emerges in “The perpetual visitor”; the two-page story “The year I lived with Lucky” gives us a couple in a derelict house scraping by on drugs; the barely-punctuated page “We three” could be a nightmare of, or fantasia of, attempted rape. The most intense feeling between two human beings is recorded in “Observing the ankles of a stranger”, being the momentary encounter of two strangers during the Christchurch earthquake. Of course there are poems about father and forebears, but they are framed in the past, icon-ised, capable of being seen somewhat ironically.
The term “whimsical” is demeaning and I would not wish to burden Frankie McMillan with it. Perhaps quirky or eccentric would be more accurate terms. The vision of There Are No Horses in Heaven is a very personal one and yet opening onto a world that is alien both to the poet’s experience and to ours.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  *   *   *   *   *   *   *
Charon steers “his paper boat” in one of Frankie McMillan’s poems in There Are No Horses in Heaven, and it is a strong image of something fragile where sturdiness is required. Apart from its title, however, Gregory Kan’s This Paper Boat has little in common with McMillan’s work.
This Paper Boat is the type of volume I am inclined to call a collage – or perhaps a collation. It mixes poetry with prose and with generous quotations from, and extracts from, another writer. Gregory Kan, Chinese, New Zealand-resident, immigrant from Singapore, weaves together in this diverse book childhood memories, stories told by his forebears and extended family, stories of his parents’ courtship and early marriage, stories of his own adjustment to New Zealand and memories of his compulsory military service in Singapore. In a central section, he incorporates private correspondence about looking for a missing, and apparently psychologically damaged, friend in Wellington. There is a10-page sequence called “The Sea of Cora”, which seems to draw on memories of childhood dreams with its references to bed and pyjamas and a caring female hand. Most appropriately, as the volume ends, there are details of traditional Chinese festivals for the dead, including “releasing paper / boats and lanterns on water / to ensure / that the ghosts find their way / back” (p.77). The book’s title is thus explained, for the book itself is a “paper boat”, an offering to the spirits of the dead. When writing of his father’s cultural dislocation, the poet invokes “Yuan Gui – a ghost who has died a wrongful death. He roams the world of the living, waiting for his grievances to be redressed.” (p.26) This seems to be very much the role of the poet himself, as is “Wu Tou Gui – a headless ghost who roams / aimlessly, who has gone missing for himself / in the way of missing something / he has never known.” (p.50) Other traditional figures are conjured up.
One of the ghosts haunting this book is Iris Wilkinson (aka “Robin Hyde”), the New Zealand author who flourished in the 1930s. Her writings are sampled in the text, juxtaposed with Kan’s own observations. The samplings are signalled by the use of “I.” meaning, presumably, “Iris”. Why should this New Zealand figure interest a young man of Chinese ethnicity? Because Iris Wilkinson travelled in China and wrote about it with an intelligent, but inevitably foreign, eye. Kan is in a way returning the compliment, writing his own comparisons of Chinese culture with New Zealand, but courteously admitting that he too is sometimes an outsider and may be missing some cultural nuances.
There is a tension in this book between the strong sense that the past is the past and will never return; and the awareness that the past shapes us whether we acknowledge it or not. Thus “I don’t know anything about / the past except / for what the past has left me.” (p.3). Thus “All dirt tracks look the same to me, at night. The gradual accumulation of sediment.” (p.5) And thus “I know nothing of death / except for what the dead / have left me.” (p.17) Our forebears did not know exactly where their families would end up, or where exactly their own destinies would lead, as in “My mother used to make up stories in the dark that no one knew the endings to.” (p.13) And yet every movement and decision of our forebears has had an impact on us, and on the wider world, for “The impact of each raindrop creates a small / crater in the soil, ejecting / soil particles up to five feet away.” (p.35)
Kan’s own free verse and prose are deceptively simple and straightforward – one would almost say declarative. But like the sediment on the jungle track, it is the build-up or accumulation of detail in the volume’s different styles that creates the major effect of This Paper Boat.  It echoes the cumulative build-up of detail that the past itself gives us.
I must conclude with a reference that does not strictly belong to this volume. On the website The Pantograph Punch, I read Gregory Kan’s memoir “Borrowed Lungs: My Life as a Conscript” concerning his compulsory military service in Singapore. It explains many things about the imagery deployed in This Paper Boat – the references to his platoon, to pencil-sharpeners, to the insult term “potato-eater” and so forth. Some of these I would not have understood without having read Kan’s brief memoir. I would, however, have understood the strong sense of the past as a shaping force, the questions about personal cultural identity, and the ambiguous feelings about both Singapore and New Zealand that This Paper Boat so sharply conveys.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Sudesh Mishra is Fiji-born and currently head of humanities at the University of the South Pacific in Suva. When I open his The Lives of Coat Hangers, my eye at once tells me that this is a radically different sort of collection from either Frankie McMillan’s There Are No Horses in Heaven or Gregory Kan’s This Paper Boat. One obvious difference is that there are no outbreaks of prose in The Lives of Coat Hangers. The 90 odd pages of text carry 77 poems, most of them no longer than one page in length and some much shorter than that. Further, we are invited to read them as individual poems. There is no division of the collection into separate parts, and it takes careful reading to see any thematic collections between “runs” of poems. Even so, such “runs” are there.
The opening five poems of the collection amount to a poetic manifesto. The very opening poem “The Capacious Muse” tells us “The muse of poetry will not prescribe” (p.8) and proceeds to list all the things poetry should allow – anachronisms, illogicalities, apostrophes [i.e. directed declamations], odd juxtapositions, matter-of-fact statements and of course metaphor. But then the poem “A Rose is a Rose” (p.11) has an inbuilt ambiguity. On the surface it is lauding the poetry of simple factual statement, but a second look at its opening lines reveal that this is only true “in the simple poem composed simply” – and who ever said that all poems should be that? The same ambiguity (i.e. a questioning of apparently matter-of-fact statements) is found in “The Secret of Tautologies”(p.13) and in the beautifully satirical “The Government Gazette” (p.21) where “Miracles, irony, lightning rods, starvation, the easy laughter of children” are forbidden and “All news must aspire to the condition of spindrift found on Facebook or Twitter.”
In this book, therefore, there is a tension between a hard and rational adult intelligence, aware of the material reality of the world and the respect we should pay to literal truth; and the poet aware of the power of imagination and the necessity of the non-literal, the fantastic and the metaphorical to the life of poetry. The poem “This Life” (p.76) is like an admission of the limitations of poetry. In its entirety it reads:
Let the gift not to write
Be the greatest of gifts;

Stand, poet, on the verge of grasping
What you shall never grasp –

This life, evening light,
Falling leaves in their fury.”
Similarly, “Ant Poem” (p.42) asserts that there are some things poetry shouldn’t try to do. It reads:
An ant is not a poem
and neither is a bee.
So let the ant ant along
And let the bee be.
 “Butterfly” (p.43) is an exercise in onomatopoeia, reducing the butterfly to noise and movement, and implying that words are not sufficient to the task. Similarly  “Perspective” (p.72) implies that much poetic description is mere fiddle.
Yet in contradistinction to all this, the title poem “The Lives of Coat Hangers” (p.15) works as a celebration of the anthropomorphic imagination. It reads:

Unable to shake off the chill in their shoulders
They walk into closets and shut the door on us.

Some wait in the still-dark for days, ages.

They wait for a latch to raise an eyebrow,
For a shadow to step in from the light.

They long to be held in the arms of a coat:

Coarsely, hotly, and ever so falsely.

            So anthropomorphism is allowed by Sudesh Mishra’s capacious (and non-literal!) muse. But it is not the anthropomorphism so often attached to animals. It is the far more powerful anthropomorphism of inanimate objects, resonant of childhood, whose chief practitioner was Hans Christian Andersen. Thus there is a poem on a scarecrow and another on an armchair. “Winter Theology”(p.20) has as its central image a claw-footed bath. In “A High Court Judge” (p.18) the judge is reduced to his wig. In “Chimneys” (p.30), the chimney from the story of the Three Little Pigs transmutes into a chimney at Auschwitz. Later come poems about a primus stove, an old-fashioned sewing machine and a “gust-proof’ door
            Sudesh Mishra digs sometimes into ancient texts. The poems “The Half-wit” and “The Last Supper” reference New Testament imagery but what they have to say is far from clear. A clutch of poems is based on Homer. A very reductionist “Odysseus”(p.27) – apparently narrated by Telemachus - reduces the wanderer’s story to modern demotic. In similar vein, the poem “The Sibyl”(p.35) is about the pointlessness – or perhaps impossibility – of prophecy. Other thematic “runs” are poems referencing Indian mythology and poems referencing the sea (although always in such a way that the sea might as well be a metaphor) and, late in the volume, poems of personal regret and reminiscence. “Elegy” (pp.53-55) is the second longest poem in book and appears to be for poet’s sister, although perhaps much of its meaning is simply inaccessible to outsiders.
            These, then, are the main concerns of Sudesh Mishra – the status and nature of poetry itself, and the admission of the fantastic.
In quite a different key, however, is the volume’s longest poem, the second-to-last in the book. “Page” is eight pages of quatrains in protest at colonialism, seen through the lens of slavery and exploitation in South America and elsewhere. Its control and richness of imagery make it the special treasure of The Lives of Coat Hangers.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *
Brent Kininmont’s Thuds Underneath is also a volume of separate poems unmixed with prose, although the poems are divided discreetly into three section, each signalled by a forward slash, thus /. And in each section there is a change of emphasis and locale. Geographical space is important to Brent Kininmont, as is travel.
The volume’s title comes from the opening poem “Spotter”:

The man on the wing is looking for holes
where the rivets should be.
He doesn’t lift his gaze
from lines of ellipses, from spotting
what might be omitted.
How can he keep an eye out for me
and not see my face
filling the window seat?
When he climbs down the ladder
I am grateful for thuds
where someone is stacking
all those theories about ourselves
and what we need to rise.
            This is a complex and interesting poem, and of course it plays with ambiguity. The man on the wing of the aircraft is presumably a spot welder, but the poem’s first-person voice belongs to somebody who spots the welder and is therefore also a “spotter”. This is a poem about perception and subjectivity. But then nobody would be seated in a window seat when maintenance (or construction) work was being done on an aircraft – so perhaps the welder is being imagined by the passenger. Or perhaps the passenger is reconstructing (as we sometimes all do when flying at many thousands of feet) how the aircraft was put together. Being “grateful for thuds underneath” could be a literal statement of confidence in the ground-crew who keep our aircraft safe by their diligent work. But it could reference the subconscious jolts and thuds out of which poetry is born. Also “theories about ourselves / and what we need to rise” suggests more than literal flight, even if it is (literally) the shape of the wing that makes the aircraft rise. We “rise” when our consciousness grows, when our imagination is exercised, when we become fully human. So the whole poem could be read as a metaphor. “I”, as an individual, am grateful for the cumulative work of others, which allows me to develop. This is a statement about human solidarity.
            That this poem should be chosen both as the opening of Thuds Underneath, and is the source of its title, is very apt. Brent Kininmont is indeed concerned with perception, solidarity and the extraction of metaphor from literal experience. But “Spotter” also introduces a strain of aviation imagery that runs through a number of the poems of Thuds Underneath, such as “The Crop Duster’s Daughter” (p.12), “Superphosphate” (p.30), “Nineteen” (p.13) which references an illegal flight which a young German aviator made into the Soviet Union, “Small Revolutions” (p.22) and especially one of Brent Kininmont’s best “Sweet Talk” (p.29), an ironical commentary on the unease passengers feel as they fly at high altitude over the most inhospitable places of the earth. In “Sweet Talk”, as in “Spotter”, “trust is the best flotation device” and again we have the theme of human solidarity and the extent to which we have to put ourselves in the hands of others.
Kininmont is not fixated on aviation, however. The first section of Thuds Underneath is as generous with images of sea voyages and of the remains of classical antiquity, perhaps as seen by a tourist. As for the second section, it moves into imagery drawn from a farming childhood in Canterbury, together with the (benign) influence of parents, the movement of the stars and comets, and the mountains. But over such large country distances the noise of aircraft is still heard. “What Boys Who Sleep Near Airports Know” (p.48) cheekily applies the different sounds made by propellers to human behaviour “Some don’t stop roaring / till their motions are carried… /…Some whine like bandsaws / when they talk of revolutions…”)
Finally, the third section takes us far from New Zealand to Japan, Kininmont’s current place of residence, and adopts a more pithy style as the poet cover distances in that other triad of islands. The collection ends with ten “Speech Balloons” – short poems reflecting on domestic life in Japan and the oddities of language.
There is a strong tone of irony in many of these poems, but the overall effect is of delight in what can be literally seen in the many places recalled.

No comments:

Post a Comment