Monday, February 5, 2018
REMINDER - "REID"S READER" NOW APPEARS FORTNIGHTLY RATHER THAN WEEKLY.
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“WHAT IS LEFT BEHIND” by Tom Weston (Steele Roberts $NZ24:99); “WHAT KNOW YOU, STARS?” by Ian Rockel ( Steele Roberts, $NZ19:99); “THREADING BETWEEN” by Dorothy Howie (Steele Roberts, $NZ19:99); “WAYFINDER” by Jan Fitzgerald (Steele Roberts, $NZ24:99); “SUMMER GRASS” by Ginny Sullivan (Steele Roberts, $NZ19:99)
Over the long summer break, I read my leisurely way through five new collections of poetry by New Zealanders, all coming from the publisher Steele Roberts. Apart from coming from the same publishers in the same year, they are individual works by individual writers and therefore I try not to draw too many comparisons between them.
Here are my comments.
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Language is uncertain, human life passes, time is an unstable state and, not knowing the future, we cling to fallible memories for reassurance. This melancholy reflectiveness is the main thing I take from What is Left Behind. It is foolish to go reductionist like this on a volume of well-crafted modernist poetry, reasoned and thoughtful. Besides, the book itself yields one satiric poem, “An art historian explains how time began” which demolishes the idea that any explanation of art is more important than the art itself. But I do not explain. I simply suggest the volume’s mood – melancholy reflectiveness.
What is Left Behind is Tom Weston’s fifth collection of poetry and maintains his reputation as a poet who philosophises in extended metaphor. A critic quoted in the blurb pairs him with David Howard. Fair enough, but Howard’s canvas is larger. Weston goes for pared-back and discrete images, even when he is being discursive. The five sections of What is Left Behind do mark thematic shifts.
The first section, “The Thief of Everything”, comprises three poems drawing on Pacific imagery of Rarotonga and the Cooks. The title poem has overtones of the myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from heaven in order to create. Are, then, creative human beings the thief of everything? Or is time itself the thief? But, asserts the poem, in another sense “I am / the essential flame / the thief of / everything, / the architect and the jailed man, the carbon / consumed by fire.” Human being as conscious actor dissolves into a universal unity. This theme recurs in the following poem “Frigate bird and the vortex”, where the frightening spectacle of a waterspout, joining sea and sky, is appeased by the sight of the venturesome bird that negotiates it – the frigate bird, taming nature by submitting to it. (Unconnected thematically, the third poem in this section, “Nine times forbidden”, is a satirical poke at the morality laws once imposed on Pacific people by missionaries.)
There is a pun in the title of the second section, “Aftershock”, for the aftershock of an earthquake-stricken city (Christchurch?) is not the tectonic shudder itself but the shock to the psyche of the human survivors, the huge chasm between the Before and the After and the impossibility of bridging it. (“I was one of the broken city. / I was in the Afterwards”). It is followed by the volume’s title poem “What is Left Behind”, which is again the aftermath of some vaguely-delineated catastrophe, again mournfully asking - do memories and photographs really leave us with a delusional chimera?
A glimmer of hope is given in the third section “Crossing Over”, a poem about grief in 27 stanzas. Grief is anthropomorphised. Grief is turned into metaphor (and simile) after metaphor (and simile). Grief persists in many guises. Grief is tenacious. Grief has the power to kill. Indeed grief retires only when it is worn out – offering the faint hope of healing by time.
I am interested that while the first section draws on Pasifika imagery, the fourth section, “The Ancient City”, most definitely situates itself in Europe – mainly Italy and Paris, it would appear. Is this the place where our inherited cultural junk lies, as opposed to the primal nature seen in the opening Pacific-set poems? “History in the boiling air, the streets full / of ghosts” as it says in the poem “The Ancient City” itself. The ruins of Europe offer the opening for eight poems on time and mutability, to which is added (in the poem “Call and Reply”) the uncertainty and slipperiness of language itself.
Finally the fifth section, “Landscape Without Boat”, is like a rejection of the idea that there is a sequence in events that can be rationalised – or categorised – especially in the poem “The Enlightenment Room”. By crafting his poems so carefully, Weston avoids the incoherence that is so often associated with the Absurd in popular versions of existentialism. Even so, it is no accident that this volume ends with its final metaphor for life “The Transit Lounge”, whence we fly “into the night / in the space of one night, / east a collection of darkness where we travel blind / through this world’s / bubble without rights of state.” Life, as this poet sees it, is very like the Absurd, and only a laborious struggle of the imagination can make some sense of it.
As I said in my opening, the dominant mood is melancholy refectiveness. But there is nothing melancholy in finding a poet who can put forward his world view with such resolve and clarity.
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Ian Rockel’s approach is so different from Tom Weston’s that I will make no impudent comparisons, even if Rockel has some of the same philosophical preoccupations as Weston and includes one section with the Beckett-ian Absurdist title “Endgame”.
Given a generous introduction by his friend (and brother-in-law) the distinguished actor and director Ian Mune, Ian Rockel (born 1939) has apparently pondered this volume for many years. What Know You, Stars? is subtitled “50 Poems for 50 Years”. And that is exactly what it delivers to us – fifty pithy poems (only three longer than a single page) built on experience over five decades. Pithiness means brevity plus meaning. That these poems are short does not mean that they are superficial.
In making his brief reflections, Rockel’s organization is very orderly. First a section of nine poems about births and deaths – memories of wartime childhood in the 1940s counterpointed with elegies for the elderly who have died more recently. Then 22 poems of what can only be called a miscellany of experience (and reading) between early childhood and old age – indeed old age and physical loss come to dominate this section. Finally, 19 poems (that “Endgame” section) that attempt to summarise the experience of life – the human being pitted against the universe, time and inevitable dissolution in death. The title and the cover image of the Milky Way are appropriate as there is much imagery of stars (always ineffable), and sunrises or sunsets (always suggesting time and particularly death).
At his worst, Ian Rockel can slide towards platitude, in lines such as: “Strange world, / we that come with a dream / and go without any” (from the poem “A straightfoward glance at the parcel of time”). But this is offset by robust domestic observation, as in these lines about old people going to bed: “The customary cup collection / is taken into tiny kitchens, / and old bones crawl into chilled nightgowns” (from the poem “Counterpane time”). Rockel expects his readers to be literate and provides no notes on the many literary and cultural references he makes. Of course you will understand what play is being alluded to when you meet a poem called “Lear”; and you will certainly understand that the poem “Fixing the books and marble” is slapping at Ezra Pound and his end-of-civilisation views; and that “Shipboard” reflects on the suicide of Hart Crane. But will you easily see that the Jack the Ripper poem “Whitechapel” lunges at Patricia Cornwell’s ridiculous theories about Walter Sickert?
As the theme of old age grows more prominent, even a poem on love-making (“Birds that do not answer in the dark”) becomes an exercise in existential angst. “The sun will separate them” chronicles the desperate erotic dreams of an old man, while “Griefsound” appears to be the sorrow of a widower. The best poem in this vein is “Stalks” with its stark opening lines “We have grown so old / our bodies rustle against each other, / like dried stalks: / our heads rattle / as blown seed boxes.” Ghosts are referenced in many of these poems of old age – more often signalling delusion than memory.
The last section raises images of stars, the sun and gas – to which, as the final poem in the book suggests everything is ultimately reduced. “I am a fly, a shadow on the wall, / I am not anything at all,” says the poem “Ages of sunless space”. As for the poems “Harvest time” and “Cropland”, they are a sort of anti-pastoralism and share images of human beings being knocked down like crops. (Perhaps a conscious or unconscious echo of Auden’s “The crowds upon the pavement were fields of harvest wheat.”)
I did not say that Rockel’s poems are cheerful things to be consumed with a convivial cuppa. But they are thoughtful and they do have a consistent view of life.
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One thing that makes Dorothy Howie’s collection different from Ian Rockel’s is that she provides many explanatory notes for the cultural allusions her poems make. Six pages of notes, to be precise. Apart from this observation, I now activate my “comparisons-are-odious” rule and deal with her on her own terms. Threading Between is the second collection by Dr Howie, researcher in the University of Auckland’s School of Psychology, and it comes with great endorsements. It is dedicated to the writers Riemke Ensing and Renee and its blurb includes complimentary words by the poet Alistair Paterson.
Section One, “In the Between” is like a manifesto. The opening poem hails Martin Buber, Toni Fomison and Seamus Heaney as people who open up the psyche to love and an appreciation of “the other”. But there is philosophical ambiguity in a poem such as “In the gaps”. Is it celebrating solipsism or is it slyly implying that obsession with oneself is limiting? While Howie, as a student of psychology, is deeply concerned with human relationships, there is throughout this collection a sense of human beings as disparate and disconnected cells of life.
Section Two, “Birds in Between”, uses repeated imagery of birds (peregrine, frigate bird, gull, heron, black swan) to suggest the transitory nature of human beings, their urge to wander and their consequent unsatisfied nostalgia for the place whence they began their journey. Seeing frigate birds on Nauru (poem “Frigate birds”) the poet is reminded that she herself is in transit to somewhere else. Inevitably the poem “Migratory birds”, with its reference to godwits, puts her in mind of Janet Frame and (especially) Robin Hyde, both of whom are “Always to feel the stranger / flying close to the wind / little hope of protection / flutterings within / suffering aeons of silence / before landing on fertile ground.” The poem “Aviators” may celebrate the pioneer women who flew, Jean Batten and Amy Johnson, but questions whether they learnt “ambition’s price”. Most other poems in this section suggest birds as emblems of solitariness, apart from those (in the poem “Secure”) “native birds [who] / know their place, / rear their young. / Tui, kereru, piwaiwaka, / yellow-eyed penguin, / shag and albatross, / sharing Otago Harbour, / our lovely lonely nest.” One cannot reduce this to a cliché such as “there’s no place like home”, but Howie is always on the verge of saying that we are never so integrated as human beings as we were in the place where our lives began.
Having in the first two sections set up a framework for her worldview, in the third section “Being Between”, Dorothy Howie gives a more confessional style, drawing on her extensive travel and in some cases (as in the poems “Blackberrying in high places”, “The moment” and “Walking sticks”) pondering on an Irish ancestry. Howie draws out of views of Rangitoto and Arrowtown a specific isolate sadness. These inanimate things still speak, but only in their own language.
I do feel a little crushed by all the references to literary culture – poems which allude to the Brontes and Sylvia Plath and Joseph Brodsky and the Venerable Bede and Henry James. At times, in reading this collection, I wondered how much such allusions overwhelmed the poet’s own vision. To the very the end, this collection expresses the sense of an isolated and unsocialised soul, as in the volume’s final poem “An epiphany”, where “Exile is an unending song of silence…/ …It is a separateness which / sounds a note of the outsider, / a place apart.”
Dorothy Howie’s Threading Between tells me of a delicate sensibility, not as yet able to use some sort of faith to bridge the gap which separates it from other human beings.
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Jan Fitzgerald’s Wayfarer is subtitled “New and Selected Poems”. I was not hitherto acquainted with this poet’s work, but I assume this means that some of the poems presented here appeared in Fitzgerald’s two earlier collections. Fitzgerald, according to the blurb, has been writing poetry for the last five decades. She has also trained as an artist, so this collection’s 18 illustrations – beautiful black-and-white images and decorations of the things of nature – are also her work.
Fitzgerald’s prime interest is in animals and in nature. But her approach is a very interesting one. She admires the otherness of animals, but she also sees them interacting with human beings. Her poems are far from preachy – they are mainly sheer lyricism – but in this approach there is an implicit ecological theme. We share this planet with other, very different, creatures and should respect them. There is also a violent side to this. We human beings are part of nature “red in tooth and claw” and some of these poems refer to human conflct.
Thus there are poems about kamikaze pilots, about pigeons carrying front-line messages in wartime, about wildebeest crossing a crocodile-infested river and cows crossing in front of traffic and wondering about motorists, those odd creatures passing in their glass boxes. The interaction of beast and humanity comes also in a poem about the retired captain of a fishing trawler, a poem of a girl (possibly African) who collects and cages crickets for their song, a poem about the band leader on the “Titanic” as it was sinking and a rather daunting poem about the strangeness of hordes of crabs mating at night on the shore. In all of these there is the underlying concept of conflict between species.
Away from this implicit conflict and violence are those poems that simply joy in the otherness of beasts, such as a poem about gannets in the perfection of their fish-hunting dive or “Highland cattle-beast” or “Holding a tuatara”. For precision of observation, consider Fitzgerald’s depiction of a “Seahorse” which passes by “with the uprightness of a charm school.” One of her best poems, “Chrysalis”, is about the incredible sequence whereby the chrysalis enfolds the caterpillar that will become a butterfly. Again there is precision of observation when the chrysalis is “like a tiny jade house / with spots of gold for adornment / roof trussed with shining thread.”
The chrysalis poem points to another tendency in Fitzgerald’s poetry. She is interested in movement (the poem “Cycling”) and in the processes of transformation by which one thing turns to another. “The cormorants” presents us with birds which transform from “judges in black gowns” to “serpents with feathers” when they leap off rocks and dive into the sea to catch fish. Transformation of another sort appears in the vivid childhood memory of a kitchen mishap in “A mother’s magic”, although in this case the transformation is the magic the child sees in the way her mother can transform separate ingredients into a meal.
Jan Fitzgerald holds off as much as she can from anthropomorphising other beasts, but when she does anthropomorphise she does it well, as in “Cricket riff”, where a cricket is “jamming on - / his two sleek batons / conducting an orchestra of one.” ( Another poem, “In praise of bees”, also sees small creatures as a performing orchestra).
The poet does write about things other than creatures and their interaction with human beings – there is a love poem dedicated to her husband, a few poems about ancestors and the title poem “Wayfarer”, which lauds thefortitude of an early Polynesian navigator crossing unknown seas.
It is the poems about nature, with their strong sense of engagement with the world, that most hold the stage, however.
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Dedicated to the woman she loves, Summer Grass is Ginny Sullivan’s first collection of poems. Her acknowledgements make it clear that she was first schooled in poetry by attraction to the great Romantics. From the volume’s very first poem “Harvest”, with its Keatsian line “I feel like Ruth in the alien corn”, we know that Romanticism is still her heartland, even if her style is modernist. This impression is reinforced by a later line in the same poem where Sullivan speaks of people “whose absence shreds my heartstrings”. Sullivan’s approach will be emotional, lyrical, sometimes rhapsodic and certainly – very certainly – confessional. The great majority of poems in Summer Grass are written in the first person (“I”) and most are addressed to somebody in the second person (“you”). Occasionally “we” substitutes for “I”. So these are poems of personal emotional experience and intense – but sometimes wistful – relationships.
Sometimes Sullivan’s “I” is not I, as in “Ship burial”, one of the most Romantic poems in the book, where she presents in the first-person the experience of a woman being cast into sea from what appears to be a medieval ship. (In my mind’s eye, as I read this poem, I see something like John William Waterhouse’s Pre-Raphaelite painting of “The Lady of Shalott”, a doom-laden atmosphere at once stern and Romantic.) A similar effect is created by the poem “Afterwards” where a woman’s dead body is “long and white like a tragic princess from the Middle Ages / turned to stone”. Then, with echoes of a later form of Romanticism, there is “Bean Teepee” with its overtones of Yeats’ lake isle of Innisfree and its nine bean-rows.
Many of Sullivan’s poems are of youthful travel and the coming and going of friends. Regrettably, they sometimes come close to diary-ism: a recording of data without greater resonance than the recording itself. But there is a clever turn of irony in some. Sullivan is bemused to find passengers on a plane transformed into pilgrims (“Singapore Airlines in June”). Observation of a dog and a bird make her consider what the quality of being alone is (“Seeing a dog and seeing a bird”). “Whalesong” in particular, about tourists out on a whale-watching expedition, rises above documentation with its neat ironic ending.
A religion of nature is suggested in poems such as “Haze across Judah” and “Cathedral of Trees” and a visit to Israel brings out a seraphic vision (“Angels in Jerusalem”). There is a primitive sort of pantheism in a poem like “Poems that creep out of the woods” where “you said my words / would come back to me / like squirrels, / my eyes would open again / like butterflies in the sun.”
Perhaps the confessionalism gets a little heart-on-sleeve when a poem (“Reflection”) ends “I know you stand there / smiling, living, present, / my sustenance and joy.” Fortunately, Sullivan has the skill to de-elevate such romantic vocabulary in an honest poem (one of the best in the book) “The Last Resort”. This is a genuine poem of love and longing, but rendered in terms of clear material observation. It begins “When I’m in Auckland I am drawn / to the café where we’ll meet. / While I wait I’ll drink black coffee / that is rounded and warm.” Not an abstract noun in sight and yet more feeling than some poems which beg you to see how feeling they are.