Monday, November 21, 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.

“NIGHT FISHING” by Brian Turner (Victoria University Press, $25); “GETTING IT RIGHT – Poems 1968-2015” by Alan Roddick (Otago University Press, $25)

When I was less experienced at reviewing volumes of poetry than I am now, I often tried to detect changes of theme or tone between the different sections into which a poet had chosen to divide a collection. I was swiftly advised, by a Senior Poet, that this was pointless. The Senior Poet told me that when a collection of poetry is divided into sections, it usually means that the poet is simply giving the reader a break, and suggesting the reader pause before reading on.

I am reviewing two new volumes of poetry this week, both written by men of advanced years. Brian Turner (born 1944) is in his early 70s. Alan Roddick (born 1937) is nearly 80. I can see some similarities in the preoccupations of these two very different men. Of course both ruminate on the past a bit. Both appear to be agnostics, or at least not to have any particular religious sense, so both find consolations in the lyrical delight that nature gives them. Both have their moments of satire.

But in the matter of how each volume is divided up, Brian Turner’s Night Fishing is very different from Alan Roddick’s Getting It Right.

To begin with Brian Turner’s Night Fishing. On the whole, I believe Turner divides his text into three parts simply to give the reader a break. Even if there is a gathering of protest poems about the environment in one section, and some political satire in another, Turner’s preoccupations are consistent throughout.

There is a gnomic verse on both the cover and the opening page:

            “Let us live long enough to say

we have seen eternity

through the window of our time,

and that we believe it will stick.”

This is essentially an anti-metaphysical poem, saying that “eternity” is this-worldly and to be appreciated in terms of the physical universe. Fittingly, the title poem of the volume “Night Fishing” (p.43) is a simple lyric of things seen in darkness, its entirety going thus:

Just on dark

and for hours after

the trout rose

to the fluorescence

of the moon

and the shimmering

luminosity of the stars

In the non-ideal world, then, nature can be beautiful. But perhaps the non-ideal world can also be a disappointment. In the loose sequence “Poetry and Poets”, Brian Turner seems to express his poetic credo:

A poem is one way

of trying to make sense

when inconsolable,

of emerging

from the underworld

unmarked by

self-pity’s eczema

and envy’s ulcers.”(p.55)

The “underworld”, I take it, is a sort of idealisation or reverie into which one falls, where the hard parts of the real world can be forgotten. So there is this interesting tension in Turner’s work – a desire to celebrate the physical, concrete, non-metaphysical world, but an acute sense of its imperfections, one of the greatest of which is the fact of death. Within the first pages, there is frequently a twilit melancholy tone where poems tell us that snow melts, that painful surgery can be performed when death is near, that birds (pheasants) have to be protected from death by predators, that birdsong evokes thoughts of people who are sad, and that it is a burden to receive kindness from other people (“Do Unto Others”, p.22). There is the deadness of “Seminar” (p.33) which seems to be about “how to slander people nicely” and the first section ends with “The End of the World’ (p.34), about being at the very mouth of death. Later comes “Second Thoughts” (p.40), on the inexplicability of suicide.

Brian Turner often favours the brief, the pithy, the epigrammatic and the aphoristic – short verses, in short. “So There” (pp.24-25) is a collection of epigrams. Later there is the series called “Inside Out” (pp.46-51), though its parts are more like Auden’s “shorts” than any wit La Rochefoucault might have penned. One part made me wonder if Turner wasn’t aspiring to write a pop song. It reads thus:

In dreams I walk with you

by streams that talk of you.

Wherever and whenever

whenever and wherever

in ways that ring true

I still remember you.”

To which I am inclined to say “sha-na-na-na-na-na-do-wop-do-wop” and wonder when the dreamy string section is going to kick in. There are looser, dream-like shorts in “In Flight to San Francisco” (pp.79-81)

            In many of Turner’s poems, the thought is not particularly profound, but there is a compensating exuberance in the way the details are presented. The poem “All You Know” (p.21) is basically an acknowledgement of the limitations of human knowledge, and therefore a desire to enjoy smaller things – but the enjoyment of those small things is palpable:

            “…right now a noisy wind’s

harassing the poplars,

ruffling my cat’s long fluffy

ginger and white fur

and sunshine’s piquancy’s

alighted on every flower,

every leaf, every stone,

every thing known to….”

            Something similar happens in “Truths” (p.38), where Turner’s consolation for a godless universe is simply to look at things as they are (which begs a lot of philosophical questions, but works well enough in the poem). And the volume’s sign-off poem “Just Possibly” (p.94) again suggests that in an uncertain universe, home comforts might just suffice. Joy is very circumscribed and qualified. The one poem of unqualified joy in the collection’s first section is “Blackbird” (p.29) where the poet is assumed into the bird’s song (“part / longing, part fulfilment, near / unadulterated joy”). And the most unbuttoned effusion in the last section is “Late Spring, Ida Valley” (p.89), where the blooming of flowers outdoes the pomp of cities (with a final phrase suggesting “Solomon in all his glory…”).

Yes, older men think of death, not only because it is approaching but because by old age, it has already carried away valued friends and relations. Turner gives us a number of valedictory poems like “Mountains We Climb” (p.44), where death approaches a climber; and three or four poems related to the death of his father: “Remembering Alf” (p.55), “Too Late” (p.59) and “In London Again” (p.75)

As an environmental activist, Turner’s crusading side is indicated in this volume’s Dedication “To my invaluable friends and environmental groups everywhere”. Translated into poetry, however, Turner’s environmental concerns can become soap-box rhetoric, as in “Dry River” (p.60) with its lines “When I see a dry riverbed / where clean, clear water used to be / bare stone is testimony / to turpitude, abuse, and chronic / intergenerational theft.” (p.60). “Bees” (p.61), about the worldwide threat to honey bees, is a much stronger poem for not indulging in such rhetoric. Overt political satire is presented in the sardonic “Candidate” (p.68) and “Minister of the Crown” (p.69) and politics is mocked in comparison with nature’s eternities in “Beyond Dead Horse Pinch and Red Cutting” (pp.73-74) and “Singapore 9 August 2013” (pp.84-85).

I closed Night Fishing with the sense that I had been listening to a man who wants to celebrate the world, but is feeling rather burdened as the chimes at midnight sound.

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

How Alan Roddick’s Getting It Right, Poems 1968-2015 is divided up is quite a different story.

Roddick is an odd figure in New Zealand’s small literary community. A dentist by profession, he is a well-known name in academic literary circles (there is a long endorsement of him by C.K.Stead, printed on the back cover of Getting It Right). Roddick may be best known for his editorship and curatorship of Charles Brasch’s work [see this blog’s review of Charles Brasch –Selected Poems, which Roddick edited]. He himself has published little. Getting It Right is only Roddick’s second collection of poems, the first, The Eye Corrects, having been published nearly 50 years ago.

The three parts of Getting It Right therefore divide things up chronologically.

Knowing that The Eye Corrects (1967) is now out of print, Roddick opens this collection with six poems from the earlier volume. In terms of imagery, they are poems of their age, dealing with situations that were then popular in verse. “Naming a Child” has the approaching birth of a child related to rainfall (fecundity, the renewal of the earth etc.). “Festival Race Day” unfolds in that most suburban of activities – mowing a lawn – and reads cosmic disaster in the accidental death of a nestling. “A Patient” is the best and most finely-crafted of Roddick’s earlier poems re-presented here. Set in the poet’s professional milieu, it presents a crisis of non-faith in a dental surgery.

The second part of Getting It Right consists of 14 poems written between 1968 and 1980. Some of them are whimsies (“Notes on Balloon Trees”, “Yes – But”) often being adult observations of children’s perceptions and activities. Some are bucolic (“First Frost”, “Winter Pruning”). While taking a philosophical turn, others of Roddick’s poems from this era have the “quiet, sharp wit” for which C.K.Stead praised him. “And the Swan?” takes the story of Leda and the Swan (the one Willie Yeats wrote about) and makes it in effect a colloquy of body and soul, or a discussion of how much the body actually is the soul. “Tidying My Garage in Hutt IVA” might not have the most original of concept – it simply reflects that one day our suburban clutter and junk will be middens and detritus for archaeologists to sift. But it is carried off with great style.

And finally we come to the third section, comprising over half the volume - the poems from 2007 to 2015. Roddick does tell us in his preface that his muse deserted him for quite a few years, so there are no poems between 1980 and 2007.

In his older age, Alan Roddick is concerned with two things – reconstructing the historical past and reconstructing his own past, but often in the context of confronting the more daunting aspects of nature.

Much of the very accessible sequence “Six Fiordland Poems’ is concerned with a mildly ironical look at Captain Cook’s Resolution voyage as it encountered New Zealand. But before the irony kicks in, there is the opening poem of the sequence, “Seeing Things”, giving the mad rush of the sea as it batters the South Island’s west coast:

Reared on the south-west fetch

three-metre swells come on

  at a rising run

to lift us weightlessly.

I watch their muscular

shoulders hunker down

 to surge away

landwards one last sea-mile…

The next wave hides Tasman’s

land uplifted high: the mist

  parts – and at once

I see what I’m looking at:

rock soaring from breakers

to cloud, and the clambering

  surf in pursuit now


The eight-part sequence “Farthest South with Dr Sparrman” celebrates the Swedish naturalist who sailed with Cook, but here there is irony of a different order. It is the irony of a foreigner observing the English crew as an outsider, nowhere more quizzically that when observing the savage British sailors boxing in “Christmas Day 1772” (pp.52-53).

Some of Roddick’s later poems are jeux d’esprit, like “A Musical Incident” (pp.59-60) which recreates the idle chatter going on inside a cultured mind as an orchestra plays.

Then the real theme of Roddick’s old age begins to be felt - early family memories, such as “A Friendly at the Beach” (p.62) about a family game of footie.

There is a whole clutch of poems in which Roddick relives his Northern Irish (Scots-Irish Protestant) childhood.  “Paying My Debts” (pp.64-65) concerns childhood memories of his parents’ religious beliefs. “Teachers” (p.66) mimics the things said in a 1940s Belfast classroom. “The Slieve Donard Expedition” (p.68) relives an earnest ramble in the Ulster hills. “The LDV Belt” (p.78) recalls that his father had the habit of chastising him with his Local Defence Volunteers belt. And there is a sequence on a childhood holiday in Scotland. These poems are vivid, wry, funny, revealing, and of course “babbling of green fields” as old men’s poems do.

But Roddick has the perspective (and inbuilt irony) to see that there is more to this than nostalgia. The volume’s title poem “Getting It Right” (p.72) is dedicated “in gratitude to Seamus Heaney”, a poet who came from the opposing (Irish Catholic) tribe in Northern Ireland. In it, Roddick admits that there was a quite different perspective on the world in which he spent his childhood, and that accepted things could be looked at very differently. This perspective prevents Roddick from being sentimental about his past, and shows that the perspective of age can bring wisdom.

No comments:

Post a Comment