Monday, August 29, 2016

Something New

[NOTICE TO READERS: For five 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.

“MISTER HAMILTON” by John Dickson  (Auckland University Press, $24:99);  “NOTHING FOR IT BUT TO SING” by Michael Harlow (Otago University Press, $25).

John Dickson is a poet who takes his time. Now aged 72, he has produced only three slim volumes in the last thirty years. His third collection Mister Hamilton is, says the blurb, his first publication in 18 years. Dickson self-confesses in the poem “Wasp”: “These days, I’m mellow, and far less moral. / I’ve published two slim volumes, and spend all / my time working on the next.”

How to judge this cautious, careful and rather severe poet?

He writes much about his Southland, Invercargill and Dunedin background, often with a tone of disenchanted nostalgia. The opening words of “Plainsong” go:

For many years I lived in Southland.

In fact, I am from Southland.

Some people say my speech is slow

I say it’s deliberate, just

This poem is really about the persistence of memory and childhood, no matter how much one thinks one is past them. “A Short History of rock and roll in Southland” is a melange of teen memories, farm memories and early fumbling sex. Similarly “Do you want to replace the existing Austen-Seven?” is a memory of a first grope in the same milieu. There are scary mountain poems about the tunnels in the power plant on Lake Manapouri and the crushing weight sensed in a tunnel at Doubtful Sound. The five-part “Postcards from Dunedin” seems at first a purely evocative pictorial survey, but ends as a sly critique of the city’s old unco’ dour Calvinism. So the deep South Island scene looms large. But it is seen in retrospect, at a distance and in old age. Presumably the volume is called Mister Hamilton because Dickson was once Writer in Residence at the University of Waikato, when this volume was gestating.

New Zealand’s Deep South was not the only formative influence on John Dickson. He loves his jazz. “Piano time with Monk” is essentially a take-down of the type of jazz-fan who can deconstruct Thelonious Monk without ever really understanding the music. And there is a thin and lean poem called “The fingers of Django Reinhardt” celebrating the French-Gypsy jazz guitarist’s virtuosity even with his maimed hand. I approve of this poem. Anyone who is an admirer of Django must have something good going for him. [See my post Django is God from nearly four years back].

There are some poems that, it seems to me, misfire and go a little glib. “Spinster” and “Two small girls visit ChristChurch Cathedral” are respectively an easy shot at a lonely woman and a piece of obvious out-of-the-mouths-of-babes irony. The “found” poem “Grace Jones” could have been left unfound. “The sound of cash” is a jaded review of The Sound of Music with one or two funny lines.

On the other hand, John Dickson can do excellent poetic documentary, as in the old timer’s first-personal confession “Pensioner” or the emotionally raw “Poem for my father” and “Gravity” (on death of his father). There is also the polished love sonnet “Fourteen lines for Jen”.

And he has the persistence to attempt longer poems. In the 6-and-a-half pages of “The persistence of Football results on Bealey Ave”, he mixes hoon imagery with satiric ridicule of “late postmodern capital…. Enjoying all the freedoms / of our now goebbelised world” and briefly daydreams of  “the promised / worker’s state where we could go on / dreaming of holidays by the Siberian Sea / wearing neither shoes nor coats / while treadmilling a central committee’s / never ending five year plan.” But the daydream is only a daydream and whatever the Hard Left once offered has lost its lustre. For all its verbal exuberance this is essentially a poem of despair.

 “Something Else” is a longish prose poem which faces High Art (Brueghel) against immediately transmuted anguish of Kurdish parents under bombing and says something (but perhaps not much) about the anguished onlooker

Of the longer poems, and even if he’s given it a sardonic title, “Sixties relic surveys his lawn” comes off best, because its apparently disconnected free-form thoughts (of one who mows his tiny lawn) come across as a real expansion of the suburban mind.

Having presented you with a taste of the contents, I conclude with a poem, which I give in full – a very good and succinct variation on the theme that youth never understands while age can only regret. It’s called “My Coat”:

The gabardine overcoat was a gift from my father.

I can’t remember the occasion it was given,

my leaving home, my twenty-first.

What I do remember though is this:

the gabardine overcoat was charcoal black

and lined with silk. And it fitted me

like no other overcoat I’ve owned,

except, it wasn’t then the sort of overcoat

I wanted to wear.”

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

I confess I had a rough time negotiating Mister Hamilton – perhaps I was simply not in synch with the poet. The imagery often seemed contrived. The aged hipster tone sometimes grated against the Hard Left nostalgia.

On the other hand, Michael Harlow’s Nothing For It But to Sing easily captured and then moulded my own moods. Michael Harlow, wildly prolific (so far 10 books of poetry to his credit), is a very different sort of poet from Dickson. He is reflective without being complacent, assured in his use of form (ah! real poetry!), and subtle as a warmed knife in his imagery. I basked in this volume, then went back and read it again more carefully, blushing at the ironies I had missed first time around.

One dominant note is struck in the title poem, which opens the collection. Its three stanzas are framed as advice to a severely depressed man, directing on him how to readjust to the world in small ways. Immediately the second poem in the book, “Short talk on spring with fantails”, strikes another note. It begins “That far but always near place of feeling, / we called childhood. When we grew up / and discovered that it was still there / inside us, still the green song.” It continues as a discourse on pure and simple joys – even when we are, as adults, self-conscious about them.

At first I thought these opening two poems were announcing the volume’s balanced seesaw. Here the bruised psychological condition that needs tending with sane advice. There, the impulse to pure and celebratory joy. Perhaps the poems that followed would go either this way or that?

On the one hand there is suicide (“Forgetting to remember”) and lives lived by superficial appearances (“The family at last”) and the limitations of psycho-therapy cast as gypsy fortune-telling (“Her words”) and the loneliness of the ego-self (“The night-watch, making the rounds”) and sheer nightmares which might have therapeutic value (“Aftershock”) and the difficulty entailed in transcending the ego and finding love in another (“Not in the stars”) and the agnostic’s insomnia of doubt (“No full stops in heaven”) and the lonely woman who wakes from nightmares (“The invitation”). [Why, oh why, when I read such things do I immediately think of Auden’s line “in the burrows of the Nightmare, where Justice naked is”?) And let us say that the six poems following “Post mortem on promises” (p.33) are all like mythologised psychological confessions of regret, loneliness and loss.

On the other there is at least the value and pleasure of old-world courtesy (“Short talk on hats”) and the joy and desire of love despite human imperfection (“Let’s do it”).

But the sad poetic psychodramas do dominate, so that generally joy is a therapeutic thing or the last resort in healing a broken soul, rather than das Ding an sich. You resort to joy – you do not surrender to it. Yet how desperately you want the noumenon, which you can never grasp. What else is John Cage’s composition of silence but such an endeavour? (See the poem “Take five: composition for words and music”.)

Nothing For It But to Sing indeed!

I have, of course, classified and schematised Harlow’s work far more than it deserves, but I think I have conveyed accurately this volume’s guiding mood. Fitting to the psychotherapeutic approach (think “Oedipus complex” etc.) There is in this poetry a strain of imagery taken from classical mythology. Of course it is found in “Hidden things”, which is “after Cavafy”; and as one would expect with such a mindset, one plumbs the fathoms of one’s being by “Arriving at Delphi” and one dreams of being translated into a constellation like a classical hero (“This is your birthday”). There are also psychodrama poems set in a non-specific, almost fairy-tale world, which aches with archetypes (“The holiness of attention”).

Beyond the psychodramas, there are well-crafted poems of philosophical enquiry. “Nor love’s fault nor time’s” is a beautiful balancing of the transitory nature of love and its real joys. “Reflections in the wider world” is a multi-part poem which at first seems a light threnody on love, but which becomes more a discourse on the clash of words with the world – the problem of verbal representation. “The company of mapmakers” could be read as a critique of our tendency to take representations for reality (“In word-struck / lines of optic infatuation you are mapping / the territory to make the invisible, visible.”)

Have I made it clear, then, that this is a volume of thought as much as feeling?

Though in its directness it is not typical of this collection, I close by quoting in full “The late news” – a terse and laconic poem about the death of a child, where Harlow deploys no psycho-mythology:

This little boy

with his new number-one

haircut, his heart full of surprise,

clutching his end-of-the-year report card

to his chest, crossing High Street

for the last time – without looking

both ways

His black and white dog,

her snappy tail on fast forward

waiting for him, ears pricked,

on the other side, the cars

streaming by

Mother at the upstairs

open window, ironing

the family clothes, humming

a familiar tune for company,

just before raising her head

to look down into the street

of the dead

Later, on the late news

someone, a bystander looking

for some lost words – that kid

he said. Not a chance.

You know today is the longest

day of the year, and it’s

going to last forever

No comments:

Post a Comment