Monday, December 4, 2017

Something New


We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“HOARD” by Fleur Adcock (Victoria University Press, $NZ 25); “ SURRENDER” by Janet Charman (Otago University Press, NZ$27:50); “ORDINARY TIME” by Anna Livesey (Victoria University Press, $NZ 25); “FLOODS ANOTHER CHAMBER” by James Brown (Victoria University Press, $NZ 25)

I begin this post with an apology.

Recently I had to suspend producing Reid’s Reader for some months due to illness (hospitalisation and then weeks of recuperation). In that time, publishers continued to send me books to review, so that a formidable pile had accumulated by the time I got back to this work. The greatest casualty were collections of poetry which, as you know, get very little notice in the media outside specialist publications and websites.

So my apology is, that in catching up with four recent collections of poetry in this one posting, I am going to have to deal with them more briefly and rather summarily than I would otherwise do. Beg pardon.

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Fleur Adcock (born 1934) may be our best-known living literary expatriate. England has been her home since 1963, but she has made a number of return visits here in recent years. A prolific poet, her last volume The Land Ballot (reviewed on this blog) concerned her family background in rural New Zealand. The publisher’s blurb for Hoard tells us helpfully that this book is made up of things that didn’t fit the themes of the poet’s last two collections. I will not call it a pot-pourri, because its four sections do each have a common theme. But it is clear that these are things which, on their own, wouldn’t have made a complete book. Not that it worries me. I find that too many new collections of poetry tend to be “concept albums”. I prefer the older style of collection where we read each poem as an individual entity, even if thus we often work out a poet’s general preoccupations.

So to Hoard.

The first section comprises poems about Adcock’s younger life, from schooldays to young adulthood. Thus to poems about learning Latin declensions at school; the degeneration of her handwriting since she was a child; her use of typewriters (which she has now spurned for computers); witnessing a Caesarean delivery when she was a young woman (at the sight of which a woman called "Mrs Campbell" apparently fainted); three rather bitter poems about her short marriage to Barry Crump; and poems about getting used to working and raising a son in England. Adcock’s imagery can be as sharp as cut metal, as in her very opening poem about coin-collecting as a child. One ancient worn coin, she writes, has been “sucked in the mouth of history / for so long that its outer edges / are smoothed away, gone down time’s gullet / with a slow wince of dissolving copper.”


In the second section, the focus is history before the author’s time. This includes forebears, as in “Anne Jane’s Husband” (a brutal poem about conjugal sex, presumably in the 19th century) and two poems on family tales that were passed on by mothers. But more arresting are two longer poems – or cycles of shorter poems – about the very left-wing British Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson, famous in the 1930s and 1940s for being a bit of a firebrand, leading the Jarrow march against unemployment, organising shelter in London during the Blitz and later being Minister of Education. Adcock clearly admires her as a feminist figure from an earlier age, and goes very protective in poems on Wilkinson’s private life, including one which condemns the rumour that Wilkinson eventually committed suicide.

Thus much for the past. The last two sections of Hoard deal with Adcock’s impressions of England now and of New Zealand now.

Her poems about English landscape are indeed very English, like the sequence “A Spinney” about foliage around her English home. Take the section “Horse-Chestnut” which I quote in full: “The squirrels want me to grow a forest. /  They plant acorns on my lawn; / I haul them out by the stems, like minims. /  / They plant a conker. A green hand shoots up, / and lo, I’ve stabled it in a pot: / a fistful of sticky buds for next spring”. It couldn’t be anywhere but England. Nor could the poem about foxes roving in the suburbs by moonlight. One poem is an extended intellectual game. This is “Albatross”, ostensibly about Coleridge gaining his inspiration for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but segueing into a lament for birds strangled by plastic out in our modern oceans.

I hate using this term, because I have often used it for poems by older people, but Adcock’s tone is often elegaic. In England bookshops are disappearing as books get sold on line; people suggest (in the poem poem “Real Estate”) that she should sell the old-fashioned home she loves and buy a flat (she refuses). In “Pacifiers” she mocks young people clutching their phones in the way her generation used to suck on cigarettes. Fings Ain’t Wot They Used Ta Be.

When, in the last section, she gets to modern New Zealand (observations based on a trip here in 2015), I feared at first that her tone would be dismissive. In “Helensville”, she declares “small-town New Zealand’s doing its thing / of channelling the 1930s.” In a way the funniest poem in the collection is the regretful “Blue Stars” in which Adcock declares “my New Zealand nationality / is a part-time thing – a bit of nostalgia” and goes on to discourse on New Zealand’s lack of indigenous flowers, and hence our need to import exotics which, annoyingly, often run wild. But her general take on modern EnZed is more rueful than dismissive, for in the remaining poems, old age attempts to reconstruct what Mercer and Drury and Thames and Raglan and (especially) Wellington were like when she was young.

It is like a ghost visiting old haunts and wondering at the impertinence that has made them change.

I hope it goes without saying that Adcock’s poems here, even if very retrospective, display the best elements of the modernist tradition in which she developed. The poems are accessible, clear, not given to rhetoric and – dammit – often great fun.

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Now in her mid-60s, Janet Charman (born 1954) isn’t as senior a poet as Fleur Adcock, but she is firmly established with seven well-received collections behind her. I remember reviewing with pleasure her At the White Coast (2012) in Poetry New Zealand #46 (March 2013). It was a loose, autobiographical collection, written in very free verse, of her OE experiences when working in England in the 1980s.

Her new collection  Surrender is also autobiographical and it is mainly composed of free verse; but its final section “101 Snapshots” consists of 101 pithy statements written in (very loose) haiku form – at least each is three lines, even if they do not adhere to traditional haiku syllabics. As she states in her Acknowledgements, this collection sprang from a writing residency in Hong Kong in 2009 and a guest readership at a literary event in Taipei in 2014; therefore much of it is also an outsider’s response to Chinese culture. No wonder the ghost of Robin Hyde makes an appearance. The poem “explains the Chinese character  in her title (apparently pronounced “ren”), which once stood for specificially masculine human qualities but which now stands for a general range of human characteristics, including compassion. This seems to connect with the many and diffuse allusions Charman’s poetry makes here to gender and sexual identity.

For much of this collection, we are reading what could be taken for loose diary jottings, or at least poems worked up therefrom. We open with the poet settling into an alien hotel room and adjusting to jet-lag  (“your time 3am. / my time my own”). As the settings are polyglot writers’ gatherings, many poems reference words being translated or mistranslated in literary texts; how sexually-explicit moments of some texts are received; personalities met; questions asked by students; and the otherness of Hong Kong (or Taipei). In a number of poems she mentions taking Panadol for headaches or backaches and this seems to say something about the hectic nature of literary conferences, especially when there are students to lecture or be quizzed by.

 In the long multi-part poem “where people are”  the poet declares “i am actually a left margin justified crazy person / who agitating at her map in a crowded concourse / will talk to herself”. In this poem, there is the sense of disorientation in an alien environment and perhaps the disintegration of the self with a long series of statements beginning “i am”. Breathless, composed in short bursts over 17 pages, “where people are” touches on attraction of woman to woman mixed with cultural clash, much reference to the female body (especially genitalia) and the idea that poetry should undermine and liberate a closed or too-rigid a socety, which in this case is China.

Sometimes a poem is simply about the feeling sparked by something seen. In the poem “Wo de tian a!” a visit to an exhibition of dresses arouses jouissance in the poet. Sometimes a visit to a particular location fires up a series of reflections so diverse that it is hard to grasp a unifying theme, as in the very discursive poem “Nan Lian Garden” about a visit to a public garden. “They say you’re Japanese” agonises about cultural assimilation, while “it’s late” is a very personal memory concerning the father of the poet’s children who was unable to give up smoking before cancer already had him. While there is much effervescence and fizz in these poems, some become sombrely preachy. “The Anthology of Women’s Poetry” reads like a literary polemic that might have worked better as an essay. “on the sliding rack” is a rather flat protest poem about how a contaminated milk scandal was handled.

The publisher’s blurb for this volume speaks of “privileged constraints” upon the participants at the Honk Kong gathering. And certainly, in quite another sense, a mood of privilege inflects some of these poems. You are in a privileged environment if you write a poem about swapping your own books with other participants. Or if you write “Banquet” about how to dress at a literary dinner to make the right impression. Or if you write a ten-page poem “some notes on shopping and present giving” on what a bother it is finding and buying the appropriate things to give as presents to other participants. Yet of course Janet Charman is savvy enough to undercut this with self-deprecation and irony, which tell us that she isn’t that self-obsessed. In the poem “of our lucky eight” she remarks “Hong Kong doesn’t seem that foreign to me / though i know after these cocooned weeks / i might be kidding myself”.  The whole of this particular poem is, in fact, about the embarrassment of having to hold the fort when some members of the performing literary troupe have deserted her.

Janet Charman’s poems here never did less than hold my attention. But after their sometimes rambling discursiveness, I found that I enjoyed most the pithy epigrams of the final (loose) haiku section.

Such gems as “trampoline / the stepchild’s / sitting room

Or “listen / that’s a hungry cry / turn up the music

Or “they’ll know / while Earth burned / we fiddled with our nature poems

Or “leaf raking the trees tell me / everything / about winter

Or even “those amber those carnelian wrist beads / cheap beyond belief / live ammunition from the faraway market

As I did when I reviewed At the White Coast, I could at this point rebuke Charman for her rather precious habit of avoiding capital letters, especially in her use of “i” for the first person singular. In the new collection there is a poem “a writing exercise”, about answering students’ questions on her work.  It has a very defensive section on her avoidance of capital letters which equates “I” with male phollocentrality and “i” with the hitherto suppressed female. Ho-de-hum. Interesting, coincidentally, that the poem notes Fleur Adcock is not enthused by Janet Charman’s typographical tic either. But then if I get too reproving about this issue, I will sound like the “teacherly reviewer” Charman rebukes in one of her haiku.

Besides, I don’t want to end on a sour note after enjoying most of this collection.

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Anna Livesey is of a younger generation than either Fleur Adcock or Janet Charman, but the “corporate strategist”, as the blurb describes her, is no newcomer either. Ordinary Time is her third collection.

As there are one or two religious references in this (short) collection of poems, I am sure the poet is aware that “ordinary time” is the term used by the church for those weeks of the year that are not taken up with the big seasons of Lent, Easter, Advent and Christmas – in other words, the times when life chugs on as life, away from the big public events.

Life chugs on as (domestic) life in these poems, which are candid, personal and – at first – focus on the poet’s experience as the mother of a newborn baby girl and a two-year-old toddler boy. The big world can chug on outside as Anna Livesey looks clearly at her early motherhood.  The opening (title) poem at once tells us that she just brought her new baby home from hospital. The poem “Eleven Days” says the umbilical cord has gone (“The rotten flesh-stump that joined us / has fallen off”). The most gynaecologically-explicit poem is “Privacy” in which, as she is having a Caesarean section, she thinks of her mother – and wishes to have “the dark privacy of the womb restored”. In the poem “America”, she compares her two children with the remembered skittering of fireflies, seen in America… and then rebukes herself for doing so. She does not wish to surrender to the fey or make her language pretentious and pretty. Some poems compare the newborn with the toddler, and there are great insights into toddler behaviour. Any young parent can relate to the lines in the poem “Winter Gardens”: “I watch my two-year-old and think: / I want to bite my hand in rage when I’m given the wrong cup; / shuffle away from strangers, shaking with disgust / at their forgiveness / their unknowledge of myself.” Yes, toddlers’ tantrums can make us want to throw tantrums too.

The poems are realistic about babies and young children but not hard, not cynical. The closeness, warmth and cuddliness of young motherhood is here too.

There’s a subtle shift in the second section of this collection. Motherhood is still the focus, but it widens to take in the poet’s relationship with her own mother and grandmother, as well as shared experience with other women. The past and the present are united. “Artificial Intelligence” is a poem dense with meaning, connecting mourning for the death of her mother with the child growing in the womb and, later, with post-partum depression – a “cycle of life” poem which manages to be neither sententious nor trite. The prose poem “Drowned Church” (I refuse to synopsise it) is a wonderful essay in literal symbolism. “Bay Leaves” comes closest to being Anna Livesey’s manifesto and explanation of poetic technique when she avers: “In my first book I was desperate not to be confessional. / My poems reached out of myself, pushed myself away. / Now that my mother is dead and my children are born / I seem to have nothing else to speak of.” As for the poem “Reading Books About the War” – it is a really bizarre prose poem, its four sections almost like four separable stand-up-comic gigs.

The third section is more generally reflective, moving from the poet’s immediate family circle to reveries of a friend in rural America and a poem set on a New York fire escape. The final poem in the book (“Trimester One”) seems to be about an abortion, but could equally be about something imagined. It is unusually opaque for this poet, who is on the whole clarity itself.

When poems are as personal and intimate as many of these are, making judgments upon them can seem uncomfortably like making judgments on the poet herself. I hope I am not guilty of that here. As a male, I recognised and understood many of the joys and anxieties of young parenthood that resonate in this collection.

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In its issue of 25 November, the NZ Listener produced a list of ten volumes of New Zealand poetry, published in 2017, that were worth reading. Fully eight of the volumes were by women, one was an anthology edited by a woman and a man, and only one of the ten volumes (David Howard’s The Ones Who Keep Quiet – reviewed on this blog) was by a man. Let me confess that reviewing new volumes of New Zealand poetry sometimes seems like a journey through female confessionalism, so much do women poets now dominate the scene. And note how this posting replicates the process. Having looked at three volumes by women, I now give you the token male. Not that James Brown himself (born 1966) can be regarded as marginalised, given that Floods Another Chamber is his sixth collection and given that he is at the heart of the poetic establishment, now running Vic’s poetry-writing courses, having edited Sport etc.

I won’t waste my or your time by trying to explain why this volume is divided into three sections. The arrangement seems to be purely arbitrary. Also, I remember in a review years ago coming up with an ingenious explanation as to why a certain volume was divided into sections, only to be told later by the poet in question that he had arranged his collection that way simply to “give readers a break”. So maybe that’s all that’s happening with the organisation of Floods Another Chamber.

In Floods Another Chamber, James Brown shows that he can write poems in many different forms. Let me list some of them. There’s the alphabetical poem (“The A to Z of Cycling”) where each of 26 lines begins with a new letter of the alphabet. There’s the mock nursery-rhyme (“Peculiar Julia”, “Shrinking Violet”). There’s that standard of the writing school class, the Wallace Stevens-style “thirteen-ways-of-looking-at” poem (“Eight Angles on the Manawatu River”). There are prose anecdotes lineated (“The Real Humpties”, “How I Met My Wife”). There are modified haiku (“Snogging in Wordsworth’s Bedroom” “Sad Dads” “Tautology Explained”). There are list poems (like the lists of cliché-ic things people say about beds in “Beds R Us”; or like “Agile Workshop”, a collection of clichés spoken in workshops and presentations). There’s the “I-can-write-groovy-sex” poem (“Erotic Snowdome”). And there’s the “found” poem (“Come on Lance”, which Brown would have transcribed only because the cyclist Lance Armstrong proved to be a drug cheat; and “Fine with Afterlife”, reproduced implicitly to mock a poorly-devised theatre poster). Towards the end of the book, there are a clutch of poems built around the repetition of the same grammatical structures.

Far from making me admire the virtuosity of the poet, I find here only a box of tried-and-true tricks, like forms recommended to students in a poetry-writing seminar. There is something airless about most of the collection, as if the poet is not so much connecting with what he is ostensibly writing about as seeing what genre strategies he can devise.

Some poems work as satire, such as the hit at real estate agents in “Attitude”; or what could equally be either social satire on dead-end jobs or an elegy for lost and wasted youth (“The AM Sound” – this being the poem that gives this volume its title with the line “your despair floods another chamber”). Very occasionally, too, there is a poem where the poet seems emotionally invested in his material, like “Piano Tune”, a sad little thing about a bird caught in a piano. In many ways it’s a pity that the very best poem in the volume appears so early. This is “Social Experiment”, a genuinely witty poem about New Zealand’s (dying?) obsession with rugby – yet with the poet self-deprecating enough not to be elevated by his own superiority in not being a fan.

Yet, along with the stylistic games, there’s a deadening sardonic tone to so much of what the poet writes. James Brown is over-eager to tell us that he is too sophisticated to be impressed by things that might impress us lesser mortal. We move into the land of condescension. “Emu” and “Beyond Red Rocks” are presumably memories of tramping and/or cycling trips in the wilderness… but remember, it’s not fashionable to say you admire or are in awe of the scenery on such expeditions, so both poems are hip memoranda about me, me, me. “Janet and John go to the Book Launch” is written with deadpan irony (mimicking the style of old primary school readers), but with an unpleasant undercurrent of contempt for the people who attend such things as book launches. “The Pitfalls of Poetry” and “Unstressed / Stressed” are attacks on older forms of poetry – or are they Larkinian irony? (As in Larkin’s “books are a load of crap.”)

Unless you are cocooned in sterile literary theory, you will be aware that (always and in every form of publication, despite denials) there is a huge element of subjectivity in all reviewing and criticism. Everything I have said about Floods Another Chamber boils down to the fact that I did not enjoy this collection, did not engage with it and found much of it to be predictable game-playing. Others may have a different reaction and they are most welcome to it. We none of us want to discourage people from writing poetry, after all.

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