Monday, March 28, 2016

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“AND SO IT IS” by Vincent O’Sullivan (Victoria University Press, $NZ25); “BESIDE HERSELF” by Chris Price (Auckland University Press, $NZ24:99); “COLD WATER CURE” by Claire Orchard (Victoria University Press, $NZ25)

I have been studying how I might compare these three new collections of poetry to musical instruments, for I must have an image on which to hang them. How else can I connect a new volume by a major New Zealand literary figure with another by an established poet in full career and with a third by a newcomer making her debut?
Musical instruments it is.

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Vincent O’Sullivan’s And so it is is a ‘cello.

It is a mellow and civilised and well-tuned instrument to be played in the evening, always thoughtful, often looking back at the past, but neither elegiacally nor nostalgically. Perhaps indulgently and forgivingly.
I gallop through the first 38 pages before going back and re-reading them, and I find poems about older people who have learnt that the small things are the really important things, as when a woman frees a trapped bee (“Knowing what it’s about”); memory proves to be slippery (“The recall factor”); life’s cycles move in slow motion (“Season”); the dead really are dead (“Anzac morning”); some rubbish needs to be burned (“Despatches from the Dead”); and there are so many half-remembered things that one cannot quite place (“Enough, surely?”). And from the perspective of older age, some youthful habits and enthusiasms are no longer to be countenanced (“Each packet comes with a warning”).
My inadequate “synopses” might make it appear that we are in grumpy old man territory, but that is far from the effect of these poems. They celebrate life as it moves from illusions to wisdom. The quality O’Sullivan appears to admire most is the clear-sightedness that comes from experience. Things no longer have to be tarted up. They can be looked at and enjoyed and appreciated for what they are, in all their mortality and limitation.
It is fitting that the title poem “And so it is” is sheer description of an Otago morning and ends thus: “Everything is clear as if pared on light’s sharpest knife edge, / I don’t want to make too much of this morning, but there it is.” Reality is not to be rhapsodised and betrayed by the poet. We shouldn’t “make too much” of it. But seen as it is, it is still beautiful and “there it is”. Physical reality can be enjoyed and relished, but without illusions.
The past is not an obsession with this poet. In a lovely poem about Milton’s daughter taking her blind father’s dictation, O’Sullivan gently mocks the way past ages regarded women (“Think of the girl, for once”) and he enjoys snatches of pure topicality. His quirky poem “Neighbour”, about a guy whose hobby is flags, takes a swipe at the fact that New Zealand’s flag “may not be our flag for much longer / if the Parnell huckster finds a new logo / for his golf shirt.”
Yet the past is not to be ignored. Displaying his habit of letting a title comment ironically on the poem that follows, the poet gives us “Talk about old hat”, which is about recognising the truth that is buried in old art. On the other hand, “Life writing, 4 to 5, in the Leisure Lounge” considers the awkwardness of writing love poems in old age.
Thus for the first 38 pages only of this 96 page collection.
I have been warned against reading too much into the breaks which divide this collection into three sections. They have no thematic significance. But while the second section continues with ruminations on the past and some childhood memories (“Mr Newman’s Tooth”, “Special Delivery”, “Westmere on my mind”), I think I detect more poems which question the way reality is perceived and interpreted – our encounters with phenomena rather than noumena – as in the poems “The Reality Problem” and “I so like the man who wrote”. There are certainly more poems about how art transforms reality such as “Formal”, “By way of later chapters” and “One version of the telling which is all we’re allowed”. Photography being one of the arts, it too transforms reality, as in the poem on a photographic portrait of Wallace Stevens (“Cigars, pinpricks, beasts of all description”) and the charming and sad one about a photograph of Mayakovsky and his pet, “Mayakovsky’s Dog”. I am not a dog-lover, though I can live with the beasts (cats are more my thing), but I’d almost want to cuddle the dog as Mayakovsky cuddles him, or at least as described by O’Sullivan:
He cradles the dog

in the white billow of his sleeve
which may be a schnauzer, which
I didn’t know – how could we? –
was ever a breed favoured in Russia.

How distant the man seems, how
the black dog lying against the famous
chest. Whole towns were named
after the poet. A tyrant wanted
to cry as he read him. The poet
must have loved the dog, you can tell
by the kindness of his wrist, his
spread hand across his friend’s back.”

I am in danger of swamping comment and criticism with a list of titles. It is not my intention to name-check every poem in this volume, but I enjoyed the way, in the third section, that Auden is mildly rebuked, Graham Greene criticised by proxy and Anna Akhmatova properly lamented.
If I were to choose one poem that sums up the mood of this collection, it would be “Most mornings, sort of”, where the hopes of adults are shown to be not as naïve as the hopes of children, but they are still valid hopes. Essentially, this is what And so it is is about. Not a “chimes at midnight” lament for the lost past, but an enjoyment of the present as marinated in long experience. A cello plays.

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Chris Price’s Beside Herself is quite a different musical instrument.
Probably a drum.
Unlike the volume reviewed above, Beside Herself’s four sections are quite clearly arranged thematically.
At least in the first section of this collection, Chris Price prefers the shorter, staccato and more insistent line, sometimes with wild rhyme that might be kin to rap (see “Trick or Treat” and “Entangled Epigram”). There is a degree of confessionalism about the erotic appeal to girls of books about horses (“My Friend Flicka”) or the unrecoverability of a life not lived (“Tango with Mute Button”). There is an awareness of the crudity of the fabled past, in poems about Hamlet and the decayed corpse of Richard III, recovered recently under a car-park. There is also a sharp awareness of cliché and how it should be avoided, such as the overkill of music in film or liturgy (“Coda”) or the poetic cliché about silent graceful dancers being more fulfilled than the poet who contemplates them. “Well fuck it”, says Price with crude but effective abruptness, “some of us / are destined    to sit on our arses and / rotate   and if the lives we didn’t lead / remain more beautiful   than those / we did   then we have fulfilled that / destiny impeccably.” (“Tango with Mute Button” again).    
Quite different in tone and style is the second section, “The Book of Churl” a 23-part sequence figuring an unlettered and possibly outlaw peasant in a medieval setting. It is almost like a fairy-tale and yet harder and more brutal, for Churl is brutalised, scrabbling for life, beastly. Yet Churl survives and Churl looks at the stars and Churl does sometimes wonder what is beyond his immediate material circumstances and (in his finale at least) Churl does have a sort of meaningful encounter with another human being. So Churl is more than a brute-beast if not quite the polished poet of a troubadour.
Is “The Book of Churl’ more than a literary exercise – than the impulse that so many poets have to create a creature of legend? I think so. It is in this section that Chris Price is most “beside herself”, not with rage but with the capacity to step inside another character’s skin.
Rage does, however, open the third section, with two poems whose imagery is extreme. “Wrecker’s Song” has visions of car crashes, and posits poetry as accident and chance. “Paternity Test”, apparently echoing some imagined domestic incident, speaks of violence and murder at the same time as it discusses parenthood. Even the third poem in the section, “Three Readers in the Jardin du Palais Luxembourg”, is a very dyspeptic reflection on the relationship of writers and readers – not so much raging as being sullen and grumpy. Rage abates somewhat in the nine poems called “Museum Pieces” – reflexions on art found in European galleries and museums, with the distant enquiring tone that such sequences often have, and a view of religion balanced between resignation and nihilism. Rage rises again in the poem “Whip / Lash” - is it about a horse being lashed or a sadistic jockey doing the lashing? Either way, it is not about a soul at rest, no more than the sardonic reflexion on canonical poets (“A Pinch of Salt”) that follows.
And where do this rage, dyspepsia and awareness of mortality lead in the drumbeat of this collection? They lead to the finest thing in Beside Herself, the 12-page self-defining poem “Beside Yourself”, which talks of the otherness of any persona a writer produces on the page (“Je est un autre” etc.), but in the context of decay and remembrance. Where is this “me” when my body dies? Can this “me” be corralled by the grammatical first, second or third person? Do I exist more clearly in the minds of others than in my own mind? As always, reducing a complex poem to such questions ignores the nature of the poem itself, in its verbal dexterity, its images of seasons, its tone of a problem not quite solved. It is a work of fruitful uncertainty.
And what follows in the fourth section? A tone of despair or disillusionment or maybe just heavy irony? Consider a poem called “To the Future” which begins “O future, platform for untethered ego,  / favoured holiday destination of dictators….” and goes on to suggest inevitable disappointment at the envisaged futures that have passed into imperfect history. Or consider “The New Cuisine”, which spits at the over-hyped nonsense of haute cuisine and longs for a simple apple. There’s a sourness, a blasé tone to these poems, though it would be unfair of me to ignore the purely playful poems that also make the cut.
Time, I suppose, to make an inept call on this collection (and I haven’t even mentioned the four delightful drawings by Leo Bensemann, dating from the 1930s, which separate the four sections of the text). Chris Price is a skilful and varied poet, who is at her peak in “Beside Yourself” but whose cracking of the whip at humanity can alienate. I read. I admired. Sometimes I did not enjoy.
Yet in trying to sum up this challenging volume, I find I have omitted mention of the poem I kept coming back to for its comparatively quiet tone. “When I Am Laid in Earth” is traditionalist in its structure and concept, but distinctly the poet’s own. Let me quote the first two stanzas to give a taste of its reflective nature:
When I am laid in earth

this half-life in your mind
is my continuance –
not long, or loud, but
intermittent, like the fault
in the machine that can’t
be diagnosed or fixed

by anything but patience
time, or blind chance; a
break in the static, blip
in the daily traffic that allows
a brief transmission through
from our shared history,
whichever part appealed….”

The drum beats solemnly here.
Buy the book and enjoy the rest of this poem.

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Claire Orchard’s debut collection Cold water cure is a flute. It is clear to the ear, like Orchard’s simple and direct vocabulary. It can trill and be shrill. But it can also be tentative and hesitant in the quieter moments.
Again, this is a volume whose sections are clearly thematic.
The first section has three “found” poems (what a rugby player said; what a computer-game tells its players; what a train-spotter wrote) but mainly consists of short poems on the domestic scene, encounters with small children and encounters with pupils in the classroom. The poem “Settling for Action Man” (about two little girls playing with Cindy and Barbie dolls) is, like Chris Price’s “My Friend Flicka”, an adult’s retrospective awareness of the erotic implications – for the children – of child’s play. “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” is a poem about hesitation – about wanting to say that somebody much younger than the narrator is sexually attractive, but realising this could be misconstrued as desire. The poet is establishing an identity as a mature and observant adult woman who is nevertheless fully aware that some impulses from childhood and teenage days still persist.
Thus for the prologue.
The main course of Cold water cure is the central section, taking up over half the book and including the title poem. In 27 poems, this section is a reflexion on, and in a way an annotation of, writings by and about Charles Darwin and evolution and the relationship of Darwin’s theory to human happiness.
Among the 27 poems one, “Voyages”, is itself a mini-epic, having 18 short parts, each beginning with a stanza made out of “found” material from Darwin’s account of the voyage of the Beagle. Darwin’s observations in strange lands are counterpointed by the poet’s (i.e. the persona-adopted-by-the-poet’s) observations of things nearer at hand. Darwin observes a man on horseback dragging a bull with his lasso; the poet kills a blackbird with her speeding car. A gaucho knifes an armadillo to death; the poet knifes a spider that has got into her salad. Darwin notes the violence of South American tribes; the poet sees violence on television at dinnertime. Darwin says Captain FitzRoy speculates on the natives’ beliefs about the afterlife; the poet reads Tennyson’s In Memoriam. Collectively, the comparisons between Darwin’s voyage and the poet’s [persona’s] happenstances add up to a vindication of domestic and everyday life as a site of discovery and enlightening experience. They are not a belittling of Darwin’s great adventure, but an identification with it.
Of all the other poems in this central section of the book, I am puzzled why it is the poem “Dr Gully’s Cold Water Cure” (a description of a quack “cure” which Darwin undertook) which gives this volume its title. Surely the volume itself isn’t throwing cold water on Charles Darwin? Collectively, the poems give a very nuanced impression of the man.
As conveyed by Claire Orchard, Darwin’s encounters with butterflies and birds are straightforward, but his relationships with his fellow human beings are fraught with problems. One poem (“Viewing such men”) demonstrates that he shared the racial prejudices of his age. The poem “The unravelling” reflects on the cruel side of investigative science – in this case, Darwin’s killing of a bird to examine its skeleton. But it is in his relationship with his wife and children that this woman poet sees much for (implicitly) negative comment. “Upon this matter of the heart”, drawing on notes Darwin made to himself about whether he should marry or not, presents a plethora of Victorian attitudes towards the sexes which (I assume) the poet would find either quaintly funny or horrifying (“A wife is a better companion than a dog…. A wife will be a vast help in organising notes” etc.). “Darwin’s first reader” dramatizes the anguish of Darwin’s wife as she considers that her husband’s theory could rob her of the hope of heaven, and the possibility of meeting their dead children there. The Victorian battle of science and religion has its domestic consequences. “Battle of the vegetables” shows Darwin finding his children and their noise a nuisance when he wants to get on with his work in silence. The contrast of mother and father here – the woman has to work at parenthood while the man can get on with his intellectual pursuits – is a familiar feminine complaint. [In a perverse way, “Battle of the vegetables” reminds me of Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem “The Two Parents”, which is in part a male apologia for male grumpiness when children have to be looked after.] Knowingly, “Battle of the vegetables” is followed by an elaborate poem about Darwin’s billiard table. And ironically, the cover of this book is a drawing by one of Darwin’s children. Who said that those noisy children weren’t productive?
And yet if all this is taken to be deconstructive of Darwin, it is only half the picture presented by the poet. “My dearest Emma” consists of “found” material from Darwin’s letters about the illness and death of their young daughter Annie, showing his anguish. Is it insensitive of Darwin to note that nature is prodigal and the death of the young (and much-loved) common? Probably not. He is seeking to place his child’s death in a wider context, just as religious people do. There are other poems about the child’s death. “Early morning on the Sand-walk”, by making a chaplet out of phrases from On the Origin of Species, conveys Darwin’s delight in the natural world, and the grandeur of his vision. And so do the poems “Observations on their habits” and “Bee”, even if one of them shows Darwin’s methods of investigation to have occasionally been dotty. If the negatives of Darwin are suggested in this collection, the image of a great scientist is still maintained and enhanced. The single poem in Cold water cure in which I took most delight, “Condor”, draws heavily on Darwin’s own words to suggest his wonder and awe at nature. I quote it in full:

A cleric’s collar of feathers at his neck,
 black wings fully extended,

surely they span eight feet from tip to tip,
held in perfect stillness,

thermal currents powering his sweep,
he descends, glides down, until

he’s so close I imagine I feel his pulse
throbbing in the displacement of the air.

Holding on to my hat, I tip my head back
and see how his head, neck and tail move much more

than I expected, how his wings seem to act
as a fulcrum. For nearly half an hour

I watch him hunt over mountain and river,
the outlines of his terminal feathers dark

against the sky, until with a single flap, 
he ascends too his for my eyes to follow.”

The last section of Cold water cure returns to the modern domestic scene, but the tone is often harsher and more confrontational than it is in the volume’s opening section. There are poems about the Holocaust (“This way for the gas”), about human beings seen as machines (“First time on the disassembly line”), about the possibility of terrorism (“Bombing the National Gallery of Australia”), about the pains of childbirth (“Delivery Suite”) and two sceptical poems about religion (“Vatican shockwaves”, “Easter 2014”). Is this pure chance or is the poet, like Darwin’s wife, now fearing the nihilism of a world without a rational plan?
My last comment on Cold water cure: What a fine flute this book is, and how well it is played. The flute’s note is always clear, and Claire Orchard’s voice is clarity itself. A very impressive debut.

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